Tackling the timeline: Foreshadowing
Foreshadowing is an excellent literary device—sometimes subtle, few times obvious. In mystery novels, it’s essential for tension. In others, it’s a wonderful way to create depth (tension, too) and pathways for your readers to go while the story develops in their mind. It creates opportunity, and most importantly, it creates that spark that keeps them reading.
This isn’t a “timeline,” just like last week’s wasn’t, but it’s relevant to time. It’s a change from the moment and it’s sometimes a glimpse into a possible future. Even something as simple as a breeze with the smell of cool rain can be considered foreshadowing. It is, and even though it’s subtle, an oncoming rainstorm is part of the package.
What is foreshadowing?
Any glimpse into the future—whether that future comes to fruition or not—is foreshadowing. Don’t mistake it for a flashback. That’s a look into the past. Foreshadowing is the future. Those parts I bolded? Back is self-explanatory. For as in forward. You know . . . simple tip for those who confuse the two.
When do I use it?
It depends why you need it. Like I said earlier, something as simple as a coming rainstorm can use foreshadowing, and it’s easy to implement. Don’t be afraid of implying things to come. But, don’t try to make things so obvious, the future is slapped in your readers’ faces.
The point of foreshadowing it to prepare readers. They don’t need the answer; they just need the hint. It wouldn’t make a lot of sense for your main character to suddenly appear in a room where she’s questioned about her father’s death. If this is the start of a story, there’s a lot of backtracking required. However, if your main character still struggles with her father’s murder and she sees a familiar face, though she doesn’t know who it is, that can be foreshadowing. Maybe the familiar face is the man who killed her father when she was a child, and he’s trying to kill her. Maybe, he is the only one who can fill in the blanks about her father’s death.
I’ll even use an example from my WIP. My main character has a disorder, and it’s the key to the entire story. She doesn’t even know about it, but strange things happen to her and when she wakes, she has no recollection of the preceding events. I won’t reveal it because . . . well, I don’t do spoilers, but she has to find a man’s daughter by piecing together a past she doesn’t know is hers. And, the strange things that happen to her foreshadow the reason she knows nothing about his daughter, but they also foreshadow how she’ll discover where to find her.
So, when do you use foreshadowing? Use it when you need it. If it’s something simple as a storm or a kid going home with a bad report card, use it to your advantage. Give it meaning in your story. Foreshadowing needs to contribute a layer in your novel, so don’t insert it just because you can. It doesn’t always need a deep meaning, but it does need one.
How to use it
There are many ways, as I’ve mentioned, and some are less obvious than others. Consider how much you want your readers to know and how soon. Foreshadowing is best left to the reader, meaning you shouldn’t give them the answer while you’re trying to give them a hint. If you’re foreshadowing the end of the story—let’s say a little foster girl sees a man who is nice to her and does things for her and at the end of the story, he adopts her—it’s too much to have the little girl suddenly think how much she’d love him as her dad. That is a spoiler, and readers catch on quick. Something simple as letting him fit her checklist or something simple that comes steadily like that . . . that’s proper foreshadowing. Well, that’s what it’s meant to do for the most part. Some things are obvious: “Mom’s going to give you the Chore List after she sees your grades.” Others aren’t: “He smiled at me with that goofy grin of his. I never had the heart to tell him what I thought of his smile. So I just smiled back.”
It’s all about the needs of your story. It sounds a bit back and forth, but think about what your story needs, then think about what will hurt it. If you jump to the conclusion, will it be unearned? Will it seem too sudden? You see, foreshadowing slows things down with its tension. It allows an idea to ease into a reader’s mind because if your book is good, technically, everything happens in twenty-four hours or less.
Most books don’t need the obvious foreshadowed moment where all is known. That’s why I used that word, “proper.” But, some do. I won’t say there’s a set of ways to use it, so the “how” in this discussion is more a matter of “why.” Use it because it helps ease the story into a conclusion. Use it because it will provide tension (mysteries use this most). Use it to build up to your climax. Use it to demand attention on a topic.
Sometimes, it’ll be convenient. Like that report card quote. Other times, it’s a strong literary device. In mystery, for example, you can use it for excessive tension. The sister-in-law can have multiple stories about where she was during the day, and her husband can deny knowing where she was. That’s foreshadowing until you have the cousin, who was seen at the crime but claims to have been at home. Then, you have excessive tension because of false foreshadowing. That’s a topic for mystery authors to explain. But, there are so many ways to use it, it’s impossible to say how without giving you a limited number of options.
Try it. Get someone else to read it and tell you what they think it means. Try again. Play with words and scenes and dialogue until you spill as much information as you think you want to provide. How complex is the topic you’re hinting at? How big of a deal is it? Where is it discovered in the story? From there, you can identify how apparent the foreshadowing should be or how long the foreshadowing should be dragged out. Answering the third question will help you place the foreshadowing in the story and understand how long it will take readers to understand or get to the point where they put those two together.
It’s a complex thing, and it’s one of those topics I find myself struggling to explain. It’s easier to point out and discuss (for me) than it is to teach from what I know or what I’ve experienced. Hopefully, some of this helped but if not, I’m always happy to answer questions. 🙂