Reading Notes: Foreshadowing

As I mentioned in an earlier post (“That’s Telling!”), the technique of foreshadowing is an old one, stylistically, and these days it usually comes across as a substitute for good writing. The reason being that if the story is good enough, the reader has no need to be urged on with phrases like “Little did Jamie know that he would be seeing the monster again, and all too soon!”

How could I have foreseen that the current book I’m reading—Caleb Carr’s The Alienist—would provide examples of the very thing I was telling my writers to avoid?

Well, I couldn’t, really. But it does provide an opportunity to explain a little more about how and when the technique does work today. Although I still believe it’s an antiquated stylistic device that’s best avoided, in the case of The Alienist, it works, for a few reasons.

First, the novel is written as a framed narrative—while the story itself takes place in 1896, the narrator is relating the events some two decades later, in 1919. In a story setup such as The Alienist, phrases such as “We would find out all too soon that we had been wrong about…” are contextually fine in that the narrator already knows the entire story.

Second, the time period in which the novel is set, is the time period in which the foreshadowing technique was still being used. Carr is not using this technique in order to keep the reader going, he’s using it for the flavor of the technique. This is an important point to remember. For a good writer, writing specific words, using specific sentence styles, or in this case using a particular technique, is a conscious choice.

The truth about writing is that every rule out there regarding the craft can be broken when doing the art. The only time I tell writers not to use a style, word, phrase, sentence type, or technique, is when I know they’re not doing it for a specific reason. When you reach Caleb Carr’s level of ability, I will let you foreshadow as much as you want. Until then, focus on the basics of good storytelling.

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