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Literary Devices: Foreshadowing

It’s every high school English Lit teacher’s first lesson on criticism, it seems. One of those things that’s fairly easy to teach, understand, and look for, foreshadowing is, at its simplest, a literary device where the author gives hints or clues about plot developments that occur later in the story. I think most people who’ve had even rudimentary courses on literary criticism are familiar with foreshadowing. But understanding foreshadowing as a reader is completely different from implementing it as an author, and if you aren’t careful, your attempts at foreshadowing can actually make your stories very unsatisfying for your readers.


It’s pretty easy to find detailed explanations of the different types of foreshadowing online, so I’m just going to give you some tips and hints for layering elements of foreshadowing into your story. These are just suggestions to get you started—they have unlimited potential to make your story fresh and powerful.


Chekov’s Gun: This version of foreshadowing takes its name from Russian playwright Anton Chekov, who famously advised, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” You can use this advice for any object, obviously, and sometimes, you can plant very subtle and easily overlooked clues that readers might only pick up on a second or third reading. J. K. Rowling is a master at this technique, I think. For example, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Rowling places a beetle in several scenes. It seems a strange thing to mention—until we find out the beetle is the journalist Rita Skeeter in her alternate form!Rowling repeatedly uses objects to add depth, cohesiveness, and consistency to her stories.

Often, the best way to employ this technique is after you’ve written your first draft. During your revision process, look for moments where you can add objects or suggestions of objects that will come into play later in the story. The technique will also help you avoid the appearance of deus ex machina, the device where sudden and unexpected magic or power arrives to solve everything. If you use a magical amulet at the end of the story, the amulet should appear earlier in the story.

Prophecy: With apologies to my colleague Eric Christenson, who supplied a very thought-provoking article about fantasy clichés a couple of weeks ago, I think prophecy is a very useful method of foreshadowing in fantasy. I’m a “writing agnostic,” as I’ve said, and I think you should write what you want to write, whether other folks think it’sclichéd or not. I think prophetic narratives still work because they speak to some kind of deeply rooted fear we all have that we aren’t completely in control of our fates. Plus, as a reader, I often enjoy trying to figure out how a very vague prophecy can be fulfilled when a character seems to be going in a completely different direction.

 

Here are just a few ways you can use prophecy to foreshadow:

1)      “Trying to control prophecy”or “self-fulfilling prophecy” narratives: These are as old as Oedipus, but on a basic level, they still work. In fact, Neil Gaiman even uses this technique in The Graveyard Book when he reveals that the order of Jacks tried to murder Bod when he was a baby because of a prophecy that said Bod would bring down their order. Because Bod escaped to the graveyard during the attempt, and because he grew up safe and sheltered, he lived to fight the order, eventually bringing it to an end. The act of trying to control prophecy actually ensured its fruition.

2)      Prophetic twists: Prophecies never have to be fulfilled verbatim—they just have to be consistent with the wording of the prophecy, which can be open to vast interpretation in your story world. Maybe the prophecy says that a king will return on the night of the second blue moon of the year. Your story involves a gangster named King who returns to town the night the second location of the new Blue Moon Ale pub franchise opens in town. Fulfill the letter of the prophecy in unexpected ways.

3)      Terrifying prophecies that can’t end well: One of my characters has a prophecy around him that involves his ultimate destruction, even though he’s the hero. How can the hero come to an ultimate destruction? Does it mean defeat? Does it mean death? These kinds of prophecies will keep readers turning pages if they care about characters because they want to see what happens.

Omens: Closely related to prophecies, but different in that they’re less specific and more . . . well, ominous. A great example occurs near the beginning of A Game of Thrones, when Ned, Jon, Robb, Theon, and Bran find a litter of five direwolf pups with their mother impaled by a stag’s antler. The direwolf is the sigil of House Stark and the stag the sigil of House Baratheon. They become even more ominous when Jon points out that there are five pups—one for each trueborn Stark child—and then finds a pure white pup some distance away. Six pups, six Stark children, one dead direwolf mother. We know things cannot work out well—and they don’t.

Again, if you know your omens ahead of time, by all means, write them in on your early drafts. However, this is sometimes easier for me on the revision. The first draft is for getting story down—the second is for layering in setting and all the little clues I want to give my readers.

Foreshadowing should never be heavy-handed or painful—UNLESS you’re writing satire, which is a completely different animal. Also, be careful of “red herrings,” those pieces of foreshadowing that actually go nowhere. You can use them if you wish, but be aware of what you’re doing and make sure that your readers aren’t going to feel cheated when they find out your object, prophecy, omen, or whatever is just a fake out by you, the author. I think an admirable goal is to let your reader in on just enough to keep him or her turning pages and then desperate to go back to the beginning and start over to find all the clues you’ve left.

Next week: Allusion

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7 Comments

  1. AE Marling says:

    Proper foreshadowing is the key to introducing strange and unexpected elements into the story. Yet, it has an evil cousin. A tawdry relative found in frame stories that forces me to dry-wretch and sets my skin a’crawling. I’m not sure if it has a name, if such a creature can be anything but Nameless, but this is an equivalent of author begging to the reader to continue reading, even though nothing of interest is happening. It all takes this form:

    “Though the button on his waistcoat appeared like any other, it has ever etched itself on my memory. I had no way of knowing the gravity of its deadly import at the time, but the black button would come to chill my blood.”

    Please, gentle writers, stay on the correct side of the foreshadow and make sure your story has legitimate interest and tension, rather than vagaries that never amount to an ant’s fart.

    • Yes, I think that’s one example that would fall under “heavy-handed” unless it’s satire. When I read that sentence, I think of Snoopy and “It was a dark and stormy night.” 😉

  2. Lovely article, Amy! I didn’t even realize that some of the means of foreshadowing you mention are actually foreshadowing. Brilliant.

    AE Marling, your point is also well made and one of my personal pet peeves. It’s the effort of a lazy or unskilled writer to create tension by foreshadowing via explicit or implicit commentary. Build tension with deft story-telling, not charlatan tricks.

  3. Great piece, Amy.

    I’ve used foreshadowing throughout my Wereworld books, laying (hopefully subtle) teasers that won’t pay dividend until later volumes. With my books being a fantasy series, I often get queries from overseas and copy-editors about the need for mentioning small facts that may not carry the narrative. I then have the rigmarole of explaining my reasoning (which my UK editor understands implicitly and instinctively, thank god).

    Coming from a background in TV and film, I think the greatest trick is hiding the foreshadowing and avoiding the obvious MacGuffin. (See Mel Brooks’ “High Anxiety” for the finest MacGuffin pastiche ever) 🙂

    CJ
    @CurtisJobling

  4. Biblibio says:

    Interesting post! I’m actually not a big fan of the prophecy form of foreshadowing. It almost always falls on the heavy-handed side for me. Even when there are multiple possible interpretations, it’s too obvious for my taste. I’m a fan of subtle foreshadowing, the type that becomes apparent only after the act. I like foreshadowing that makes me appreciate a writer’s ability to plan a story and to build it in an elegant fashion. Basically… subtlety is key.

  5. Okay, it’s been bothering me like crazy that I didn’t really make the Gaiman example clearer… What Gaiman did in The Graveyard Book was drop subtle hints about the prophecy here and there for the first 2/3 – 3/4 of the book. THEN he told us about the prophecy through one of the Jacks. He foreshadowed the revelation of the prophecy and showed the results of the prophecy before we found out what the exact prophecy was.

    Anyway, I still maintain that *any* form of prophecy is a legitimate foreshadowing/literary device. Just because it’s been used poorly or often in the past does NOT mean it can’t be done well in your hands. 🙂

    Thanks for the great comments!

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