A Question Too Far

Problems arise with foreshadowing when we make it too conspicuous. As we discussed with symbolism and red-herrings they’re elements of foreshadowing that are narrative tools but we don’t necessarily want the reader to notice to tools until we’re ready. The primary problem with emphasising foreshadowing is that when we emphasis it we can actually cancel it out because we’ll reveal the event we’re foreshadowing before the event happens. Often when we’re foreshadowing what we’re trying to do is hint to the reader, almost like playing charades, to give them a chance to guess at events without actually telling them what’s going to happen.

The general problem with writing foreshadowing is that as the writer it’s obvious to us firstly that we’re using foreshadowing and secondly what it foreshadows. We have to try and remember that what is obvious to us isn’t always obvious to the reader; whether we plan or story, write it by the seat of our pants or somewhere in between we’re still going to know more about our story then the readers. In all likelihood we’ll at least have a vague idea who will clash, who will be friends, if anyone will fall in love and if anyone will die. I hasten to add we might not know all these things for certain, we might not even know all the answers but it is our story. The reader’s interpretation of a story might even make it a different story at that moment to the direction we’re going they might be rooting for people to get together who won’t, they might want people to get their comeuppance that don’t, and they may want characters to arc in a way they won’t. Whatever the reader is thinking it probably won’t be exactly what we’re thinking.

If we want to keep our foreshadowing relatively low-key then sometimes the best way to do it is to hide it in the midst of other information. This doesn’t have to be a huge chunk of information, this could make our foreshadowing invisible if there’s too much information to process. We might, for instance, be describing a place and we could have three different bits of description say of the door, the foreshadowing, and the fireplace. By placing the foreshadowing in the middle we take the emphasis off it and it becomes just another bit of description until we reveal what it’s foreshadowing and the reader can go ‘oh yes’. Alternatively the reader might not click onto the foreshadowing until they’re rereading with the knowledge of what is happening at which point it will still be a satisfying detail.

A different way to do it would be to have those three bits of description and go; the door, the fireplace, the foreshadowing. By putting it at the end of the description we can draw more attention to it. This isn’t necessarily the same as emphasising it, though putting important points at the end of sentences/ paragraphs is often a good way to create emphasis but this also relates to sentence structure and the flow of our prose. The end of paragraphs in particular draw the eye, which is why dramatic moments often end a paragraph rather than happening in the middle. However, the emphasis created in a dramatic moment compared to ‘casual’ description isn’t the same because of the differing pace of the prose. Simply because we put a bit of foreshadowing at the end of a paragraph doesn’t mean it will be glaringly obvious. It simply means that if we end the paragraph/sentence on the foreshadowing the reader might have a moment longer to consider its significance.

On the whole what we would want to avoid is turning the foreshadowing into a long chuck of description which will emphasis it. This technique isn’t an invalid one but it generally works best if the foreshadowing is both foreshadowing and essential information, something the reader needs to know at the time but the true significance won’t become apparent until later. If it is perhaps a piece of symbolism or a reoccurring detail that slowly grows in significance large amounts of description are often too conspicuous.

If in doubt it sometimes helps to consider the amount of prose used when compared to the significance of the information at that point in the story. If there’s a lot of description for something that’s significance is a long way off it’s possible we’ve shown our hand too early.


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Published by Jesse

I'm a writer and academic specialising in fantasy fiction and creative writing theory. I'm allergic to pretentiously talking about fiction and aim to be unashamedly ‘commercial’. Surely all fiction is commercial anyway, or what’s the point in publishing it?

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