By Terry Odell
This is the second of a two part article about foreshadowing. If you missed Part One, you can find it here. Without proper foreshadowing, what you’ve got is a deus ex machina. A magical event that appears, implausibly, out of nowhere.
In Lee Child’s Gone Tomorrow, I’m impressed by how he uses every detail. When a fellow passenger rambles on about the different kinds of subway cars in New York, it’s not idle conversation. That tidbit shows up front and center later on. And even the little things, that might not be plot points, such as the origin of the use of “Hello” to answer the phone will appear, letting the reader know that the character was paying attention, too.
Is your character going to have to survive in the wilderness? We need to know he was always going camping as a child. Do you need to show a scene of him camping? Absolutely not. A mention of it in a discussion with another character, preferably mixed in with a lot of other stuff sets the stage but doesn’t shout.
Maybe you’re trying to reveal a clue that will be important later on. This is especially true in mysteries, where it’s unfair to spring things on the readers at the conclusion when you’re wrapping things up. But maybe your character is packing or unpacking a suitcase, purse, whatever. Your clue can be one of many objects you show the readers. And even better if the unpacking is done while you’re showing something else about the character. Perhaps your main plot point is that he is angry or upset, and he’s being haphazard about the way he takes things out or throws them in. Or maybe another character is watching, noticing his emotional state more than the actual objects.
As for fears – we know Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes at the very beginning of the movie. So we can fear along with him when he looks into that snake pit later. (And because of that opening scene, we know to expect something with snakes, which adds to the tension.)
So, let’s say the hero and heroine are hiding and the villains are closing in. The hero is injured. He hands the heroine his gun and asks her if she can shoot. She says, “Of course. I’m a crack shot,” and proceeds to blow the villains away (or worse, has never handled a gun before, but still takes out the bad guys, never missing a shot). Not only that, but she is an expert in first aid and manages to do what’s necessary to save the hero’s life. Plus, she’s an expert trapper and can snare whatever creatures are out there. Or, maybe she has no trouble catching fish. And she can create a gourmet meal out of what she catches. All without disturbing her manicure or coiffure.
She’s the heroine who can fill in for a missing musician, be it a rock band or a symphony orchestra. And she can sing like the proverbial angel.
(I’d like to say I’m exaggerating, but not by much.)
Believable? Not if this is the first time you’ve seen these traits. But what if, earlier in the book, the heroine is dusting off her shooting trophies, thinking about how she misses those days. Or she’s cleaning up after a fishing trip. Or she’s doing a solo in her church choir. Maybe she has to move her rock climbing gear out of her closet to make room for her cookbooks. You don’t want to dump an entire scene whose only purpose is to show a skill she’ll need later. Keep it subtle, but get it in there.
When you’re writing, it’s important to know what skills your characters need to possess. You might not know when you start the book, but if you’re writing a scene where one of these skills will move the story forward, and there’s no other logical way to deal with the plot, then you owe it to your readers to back up and layer in the requisite foreshadowing. Before James Bond pulls off his miracles, we’ve seen Q show him the gadgets that will save his life. We know MacGyver has a strong background in science, so he’s got the theory and knowledge to pull off his escapes.
So when you give your character a job, or a hobby, don’t forget to look at all the skills they need to do it. Can they visualize what an empty space could look like? I can’t—that’s not in my skill set. Are they able to look at a blueprint and know exactly how many bricks to order, or gallons of paint it’ll take to cover the walls? Know those ‘sub-skills’ and work them into scenes. Those basic real-life skills your characters have can be used to foreshadow the kinds of things they’ll be called upon to do later in the book.
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.