The art of Foreshadowing

It’s time for another writing column in the Beverley Guardian. This one is about foreshadowing. You can read the whole article, with groovy picture of The Sixth Sense, on the Beverley Guardian website.

Four shadowing… geddit?

Have you noticed how often coincidences happen in real life? Rather often – as the late Sir Terry Pratchett put it, a million to one chances happen nine out of ten times. But when writing fiction, coincidence is not your friend!

Your hero is stuck on an erupting volcano – facing certain death. A helicopter that just happens to be passing spots him and they rescue him. This feels contrived to the reader. Why was the helicopter passing? How come they had the right rescue equipment? It’s all a little too convenient.

You need to get that man off the volcano. You can’t leave him there to die. There aren’t many options available and the helicopter is by far the best way to get him off there before the lava comes out. How do you do it without it looking ‘too convenient’? Easy. You go back in the story and give a reason for it be there. This is foreshadowing.

The modern reader is very astute. We’ve been trained, from reading many cleverly plotted mysteries and thrillers, to pick up the subtlest of clues. So, if you find that the only way you get your character out of trouble is to have a coincidence occur, go back and find a reason for it to happen, then drop a hint. If there is a branch conveniently located within arm’s reach that the character can grab to break their fall, show the reader the branch earlier, in a different context – perhaps the cat who ends up needing to be rescued from the roof could be sitting on it – so that it reader will already be aware that it exists.  If the phone needs to ring at a particular point to interrupt a difficult conversation, have someone mention that they’d call. If you need a helicopter to show up, having someone (preferably, the hero himself) call them beforehand – then they can be late and you can have a nailbiting wait, where the reader can worry about whether they will reach him in time. As soon as the coincidence has a reason for happening, it is no longer a complete surprise to the reader, in fact, it’s no longer a coincidence at all, so they won’t feel cheated.

A long time ago someone told me that you can use coincidence to get a character into trouble, but not to get them out of trouble. This is a good rule of thumb to go by.

On the flip side of this is when the writer describes something in detail, draws attention to it… and then never comes back to it again. This too can leave the reader feeling slightly cheated. What was the point of that long description of a scarf if it wasn’t relevant? If it’s just a pretty accessory, mention it in passing, but no more. If you go into detail, the reader will expect you to strangle someone with it later.

Similarly, with character descriptions. The more detail you give about a character, the more the reader expects them to be important to the story. You main character should have all sorts of information about them, because those details will be important to the story. Secondary characters too should have names and descriptive details. Once you get to tertiary characters, you need less detail. A name and maybe a generic description based on their role in the story. If a character appears only once and doesn’t have much to do with the plot, just describe them by their role – the doorman, the waitress, the passer by.

A good plot twist relies on getting the balance of details right. You can give clues that can be misinterpreted by the main character (and consequently the reader) so that they are driven towards a certain conclusion. The sudden change in direction at the end should be a surprise, but still feel inevitable. All the clues that lead to the new ‘twist’ conclusion have to be in the text all along, but the emphasis can be subtle, so that the reader notes it, but doesn’t realise the relevance. For example, you can describe a character in detail as they stand admiring a set of vintage swords. The reader will concentrate on the character details (which they assume are important), but skim over the swords and not recall them until they turn up later as the murder weapon. Agatha Christie does this sort of misdirection brilliantly. If you want a more visual example, watch The Sixth Sense – the twist at the end makes you re-evaluate every scene in the film in a completely new light. All the clues were there all along, the reader just didn’t give them the right amount of relevance.

The examples I’ve given are mostly from crime fiction because that’s where misdirection is used most often. However, the technique is just as applicable in other genres – is the man the heroine is falling for not as great as she thinks he is? Drop a few subtle clues so that when she finds out what a total dirtbag he is, it’s not too sudden a revelation for the reader.

The best thing about foreshadowing is that you don’t have to get it in when writing your first draft.  You can go back and add it in while you’re editing. That’s the beauty of being a writer. You get to go back and change things until they’re just right.

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