Great storytelling is more just a great story idea. If it’s not written well, the reader is unlikely to be entertained enough to want to read through till the end of your novel. This where a literary device like foreshadowing can lend massive depth to your plot, to the characters and to the dramatic effect, something you cannot afford to leave out if you want your readers to be hooked to your book.
Foreshadowing is a literary device in which a writer gives an advance warning to the reader about what is to come. It develops expectations about the upcoming events. Foreshadowing can be used to build anticipation, add dramatic tension and create an atmosphere of suspense. It is a useful device one which can be used both by writers of crime fiction as well as other genres who want to lend a bit of mystery to their plot. The purpose of foreshadowing is to alter the context; it isn’t used to merely present information, it is used to build up an important plot line. The reader looks at such a description or dialogue and begins to ask questions – what does this mean? What is going to happen next? Will this lead to something good or something bad?
Details are often left out of the narration when using foreshadowing, but a suspense is created to keep the reader’s interest. For example, your character wakes up in the morning and the narration talks about how this is going to be the longest day of his life. Your reader will know that in the next few pages (or maybe even chapters) nothing good is going to be happening to your character. Or you could use symbolism like making your protagonist look out the window to see storm clouds approaching indicating impending doom. Perhaps he is about to receive some bad news. Perhaps he is going to leave home to get stranded in the middle of an alien invasion. The reader’s attention is focussed on figuring out the potential consequences of such a narration. By revealing partial facts about upcoming events, you can charge scenes with suspense. The result? The reader wants to keep reading on and on to figure out how it all ties together.
Great foreshadowing makes the readers ask pressing questions about the story that is unfolding. This, in fact, becomes the key to writing a page-turner. A great example of foreshadowing comes from one of my favourite books, The Fellowship of the Ring
FRODO: It’s a pity Bilbo didn’t kill [Gollum] when he had the chance.
GANDALF: Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that die deserve life, and some that live deserve death. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play, for good or ill, before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.
Anyone who has read the book (or watched the movie) knows how critical Gollum is to the entire story. Frodo may be the ring-bearer, but it is ultimately Gollum, a really weak and helpless creature, who ends up deciding the fate of all in the very last book, The Return of the King, just like Gandalf had predicted. You wouldn’t have thought so when Gandalf says it. You probably thought it was him being wise and compassionate. But what Tolkien was really doing here was dropping a hint (and a major one at that!) about what or rather who was going to decide the end of the story.
Understand the purpose and function of foreshadowing
Before you decide to use foreshadowing in your novel and start throwing around all kinds of hints and clues for your readers, you must ask yourself this – how is this element of foreshadowing relevant to your story? What major plot will it uncover? The strange sounds Hogwarts’ students’ hear in the walls in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, is an indication of the monster that dwells within those walls and one which is not discovered until the last few chapters. The point of using foreshadowing is to tell the reader, “This is important. Pay attention.”
What is the payoff?
Anton Chekov, the brilliant playwright and short story writer said that if you introduce a gun in a story, it better go off at some point. Or else, don’t show it. This idea is known as “Chekov’s gun” and it quite succinctly explains what foreshadowing is all about. It is important for certain elements to have a payoff later on in the story otherwise you risk leaving your reader confused, or worse, feeling cheated about what is significant and needs to be remembered, and what is merely incidental.
How far off should you foreshadow?
Foreshadowing needs to occur far in advance to tip of the reader but not so far off that they forget about it. All your plot lines need to tie together in the end. Usually, the first quarter of your book is going to build up the context, introduce the characters, invite the reader into understanding what the world he is reading about is really like. Here is where your foreshadowing should start happening. Don’t make your character go all berserk and start shooting everyone left, right and centre in chapter 20, if you have only been using the previous 19 chapters to show that he is a calm, collected, and sorted guy. Not only will the reader not see it coming, they won’t even understand how such a massive change in personality is possible. You want to keep the reader guessing. Not spring falsehoods on them.
Dialogues are a great way to foreshadow the buildup
In The Shining by Stephen King, the novel starts with an interview,
“I asked if your wife fully understood what you would be taking on here. And there’s your son, of course.” He glanced down at the application in front of him. “Daniel. Your wife isn’t a bit intimidated by the idea?”“Wendy is an extraordinary woman.”“And your son is also extraordinary?”Jack smiled, a big wide PR smile. “We like to think so, I suppose. He’s quite self-reliant for a five-year-old.”
The dialogue foreshadows the violent events that are about to occur. The fact that Daniel is extraordinary and self-reliant shows that he has an important role to play in the story and is going to survive the horror. Dialogue can foreshadow character strengths (and even weaknesses). Use them to your advantage to add depth to your characters and build their personalities.
Physical signs can be useful in foreshadowing
Think of how physical objects or events can be used to hint at what is coming up. Physical signs can be as subtle or as blatant as you like. Depending on the amount of suspense you want to create, it can be something very obvious like showing someone hiding a gun in a drawer or something more obscure like showing the character hiding something but not revealing the identity of the object until later. Such physical elements give your readers a visual to imagine the situation. What they “see” and how they use it to predict what’s coming next, is what ultimately becomes the stuff of interesting novels.
With foreshadowing, a reader gets his “oh, but of course!” moment as he looks back at all the breadcrumbs the writer has been leaving all along the story. It serves as an extra kick of intellectual stimulation, enhancing the imagination of the reader as he flips through the pages. Foreshadowing is the best way of steadily laying the foundation for the unseen truth. The thrill of being able to piece together the entire story based on the subtle (and sometimes obvious) elements in the story, is something every reader looks forward to. Perhaps this is why the genres of mystery and thriller have such ardent fans. By piecing the clues together and solving the mystery, they become an aid to the investigation. Most importantly, this is why fans of literature enjoy reading – they want to feel like a real part of the narration. And with foreshadowing, you can give them exactly what they want. No matter the genre, with foreshadowing you can keep your readers burning the midnight lamp – by revealing some, and hiding some.