By Terry Odell
When you write, you’re likely to be throwing a lot of obstacles in the paths of your characters. You’ll be giving them skills to solve their problems. Whether or not your readers will believe what they’re reading depends, to a great deal, on proper foreshadowing. Without proper foreshadowing, what you’ve got is a deus ex machina. A magical event that appears, implausibly, out of nowhere.
Prepare the reader. Johnny Carson said, “If they buy the premise, they’ll buy the bit.” So, you have to sell the premise early on. You can’t stop to explain a skill set at the height of the action. You have to show the character using those skills (or fears) early on, in a ‘normal’ setting.
Think about Raiders of the Lost Ark. If the movie had opened with Indy in the classroom, would viewers have “bought” that he was really capable of everything he’d have to do in the movie? No, but by showing him in the field in a life-and-death situation first, we’ll accept that he’s a lot more than a mild mannered college professor.
And, you have to be a bit of a magician. Think sleight-of-hand, although in this case, it’s more like “sleight-of-words.” No waving red flags. If readers stop to say, “Oh, that’s going to be important; I’d better remember it,” you’ve pulled them out of the story.
What are some ways to hide your clues while foreshadowing things to come?
Show the skill or event early on, in a different context. These Setup Scenes can occur throughout the book, and will foreshadow things to come.
An example from my When Danger Calls. Ryan, the hero, is in the midst of emotional turmoil. He’d confronted his father about removing all traces of Ryan’s mother after she died, as if his father didn’t care. Now, in this scene, his father hands him a box of mementos from his childhood:
Ryan leafed through the snapshots while he waited for the earth to start revolving again. He knew which one he wanted as soon as he saw it. He remembered the day it had been taken, right after he’d won third prize at the fair with Dynamite, his pony. He’d been so sure he’d get the blue ribbon and hadn’t wanted to pose for the family picture his grandfather insisted on taking. He was eight, Josh was eleven, and Lindy was barely out of toddlerhood, holding a wand of cotton candy. He saw the look in his mother’s eyes, as she looked at him, not the ribbon, not the camera. So proud, she’d made him feel like he’d won first prize after all.
The reader sees this as a scene showing Ryan’s emotional history and relationship with his mother. But later, when Ryan is stuck with a couple of kids, and he braids their dolls’ hair, readers should accept it. Here’s that bit:
“Mr. Ryan knows how to braid hair,” Molly said. She twirled around, revealing her now-braided ponytail, neatly adorned with a blue ribbon. “He did our ponytails, and our Barbies’, too.”
Frankie peered above their heads where Ryan stood behind them, his face marked by a grin more sheepish than Cheshire.
“He gave mine two braids,” Susie said, handing her doll to Frankie.
Frankie made a show of scrutinizing all four coiffures. “Everyone looks beautiful.” To Ryan, she said, “Where did you pick that up?”
Molly chimed in. “On real horses. He used to braid their hair. For shows.”
Frankie smiled at Ryan, then got up and hugged the girls. “Well, that makes sense. Horses have real ponytails, don’t they?” She flipped their braids. “How about I fix you some sandwiches, and then Ryan and I need to talk.”
Stopping for Ryan to go back and explain about how he learned the skill would stop the action, even in a ‘quiet’ scene like this one.
The above example should show how even a “mundane” scene can be helped with subtle foreshadowing. When you’re writing, ask yourself if the details in the scene you’re writing are going to show up again, regardless of their significance. If the answer is “no” then you probably don’t need the details. Readers don’t want to waste time remembering things that won’t show up again.
From childhood, Terry Odell wanted to “fix” stories so the characters would behave properly. Once she began writing, she found this wasn’t always possible, as evidenced when the mystery she intended to write turned into a romance, despite the fact that she’d never read one. Odell prefers to think of her books as “Mysteries With Relationships.” She writes the Blackthorne, Inc. series, the Pine Hills Police series, and the Mapleton Mystery series. You can find her high (that’s altitude, of course—she lives at 9100 feet!) in the Colorado Rockies—or at her website, Facebook and Twitter.
What a comprehensive post, complete with explanations and examples. Thanks for the hard work on this.
Glad you found it useful, Staci
I find perspective on foreshadowing becomes very clear after the draft is finished and I read through it again. I’l often mark necessary foreshadowing on my notes in Scrivener as I go through, so as not to interrupt “writing to the end”. Love the author bio!
The absolute best discovery is that when you go back in edits, or when you start working on a new scene, you find that you’ve already laid the foreshadowing down — the subconscious is an amazing tool!
Yes! Totally agree.
Very good. I think the use of movie examples is helpful. We have become more visual absorbers of info, and a good screen example adds a lot.