That’s Telling!

One storytelling convention common a while back (as in many decades ago) was to tell the reader an event or situation was coming up. Here are some examples:

We headed out to the entrance as we had discussed. But as it turned out, we would have trouble at the gate after all.

Clarissa had big plans for the weekend. She couldn’t imagine the other plans fate had made for her.

Perhaps the most overused type of foreshadowing starts something like:

Little did they know that…. 

Foreshadowing includes a wide range of ways in which the writer suggests something coming up in the story. The type of foreshadowing in the examples above, however, are best avoided. There are a couple of reasons for this. First of all, foreshadowing falls into the category of “telling” (of the oft-mentioned “Show, don’t tell” fame). The reader doesn’t want to know there’s a surprise ahead. The reader wants to be surprised while reading. Don’t spoil the surprise!

This form of foreshadowing also has some negative connotations. You’re telling the reader, “Something crazy’s going to happen up ahead!” This suggests to the reader that she or he may not already have a reason to keep reading. If you have to tell your reader it’s going to get more interesting later on, you’re not doing enough at the present time to keep the reader reading.

This is not to suggest there’s no way to provide foreshadowing in a story. At one point in the Lord of the Rings series, Frodo complains that Bilbo had a chance to kill Gollum but didn’t do so. Gandalf responds:

“My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many – yours not least.”

The reader is left to ponder Gollum’s existence. Why would Gandalf say that? What possible use could he be? This sets the reader up to learn a very important lesson, “at the end of all things.”

Other ways to foreshadow events include having an event occur that parallels a later event, or introducing an item that will play an important role. Near the start of the second Alien movie, for example, Ripley helps the marines load up to travel to the planet by operating an exoskeleton loading robot. Her ability to use that robot exoskeleton plays an important role just before the end of the movie.

The best examples of foreshadowing happen not by explaining that something will happen, but rather by suggesting there’s more to the story. If you’re going to reference something upcoming, use a very light touch. Suggest possibilities rather than shout “Hint! Hint!” at the reader.

All that being said, on rare occasions this technique can be used successfully. Find out the specifics, in  “Reading Notes: Foreshadowing.”

Looking for more tips? Here’s what’s up so far. More to come!

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  1. I’m glad you pointed that particular annoyance out John. There’s nothing worse than reading a book and at the end of a chapter, often it’s at the end of each chapter, the author tells you that things will change. Ugh! Surprise me, hint at it, but subtle please. Telling the reader, me, that there will be a surprise in the future, ruins the experience. Unfortunately the misconception seems to still be alive that this practice is proper foreshadowing.
    I’ll share this article and hope a lot on indie authors will take the time to read it.

    • I’d love to know where folks pick up this habit. Older novels (19th century) used it in part due to serialization of story, where novels were printed monthly, chapter by chapter, but I get the sense part of this is coming from the “Next time on XYZ” in TV shows. Thanks for sharing this, Lucy!