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.

Eight places to find inspiration

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The best ideas arise through chatting. (And I really wanted to use my picture of stormtroopers at lunchtime)

It’s that time again. Another column in the Beverley Guardian is now available online:

This one’s on where to find inspiration. In other words, where do you get your ideas from?

I’m off to the Romantic Novelists Association conference this weekend. I’m so excited I could burst.



Tips on writing dialogue

It’s time for another creative writing column in the Beverley Guardian. With the excitement of the Tour De Yorkshire, the column didn’t make it into the website, so here’s the whole text. This month, it’s all about dialogue.



Well written dialogue is a joy to read. It gives your characters voice and livens up writing like nothing else.

Basics first. I’m sure you know that quotation marks frame the dialogue at the start and the end. Have a look at some of the books you own and you’ll notice that there are house styles about whether the dialogue has double quotes or single quotes and whether or not it’s indented. These conventions differ from publisher to publisher, so don’t fret over them. Just pick whatever feels most comfortable to you and stick to it.

“Dialogue that is followed by an attribution ends with a comma,” said Adam.

The line of dialogue and the attribution are all part of the same sentence, so the dialogue ends with a comma (not a full stop). If Adam has more to say, open quotation marks again and go for it.

“This bit of dialogue ends with a comma,” said Adam. “If I have more to say, I can just keep talking.”


While we’re talking about punctuation, conventionally, a short dash suggests someone was interrupted.

“And then I started rambling on a bit and-”

“Get to the point.”


An ellipsis (three dots, and only three dots, in a row) suggests that someone tailed off…


There is nothing more annoying than reading a conversation and not knowing which character is speaking. How do you show the reader who is speaking? Here are a few more conventions.

Start a new line of text each time the speaker changes. This is a fairly obvious one.

The easiest way to let the reader know who is speaking is to attribute dialogue. ‘Said’ is a very useful dialogue tag. It is so commonplace that the reader’s mind skims quickly over it. ‘Saidisms’ are when you use descriptive dialogue tags. They have their place, but too many descriptive tags in a row gets annoying. Used sparingly, they can have great impact. For example, if you have a lot of ‘ she said’s and suddenly there’s a ‘she whispered’ the change in tone in immediately obvious.

You can use the dialogue tag to moderate the pace of what is being said. A judiciously placed ‘he said’ will give you a pause that’s slightly longer than usual and provides a natural sounding break in the character’s speech.

Combining action with the dialogue is another handy way to show who’s speaking. The reader will automatically assume that the person who did the last action is the one who is speaking.

Jess sighed. “This is another good way to add a pause.”

(Notice that the action and the dialogue are separate sentences, so dialogue ends with a full stop.)


Interspersing dialogue with action is also a very useful technique for moving people around and keeping your writing ‘active’. People rarely sit still when they talk. They’re usually doing something else at the same time, or at the very least, fidgeting. Using little bits of action stops the dialogue from sounding forced. Better still, you can use the small gestures that the characters make to show how the character is feeling.

“I went to the shops today.” She picked at the sleeve of her jumper, avoiding eye contact.

Listen to how people talk – they speed up, they slow down, the interrupt each other, they pepper the conversation with their favourite phrases. No two voices speak with exactly the same rhythm and cadence. Ideally, each character should have a voice unique to them, so that when your characters speak, you should be able to tell who’s speaking even without the dialogue tags.

What if there’s a long exchange – like an argument? You can leave off the speech attributions for a short exchange and rely on the reader to keep track of the to and fro of conversation, but most people tend to lose track after four to six of these exchanges. Just add an attribution or and action to help place who is speaking.

Dialogue is a great way to impart useful bits of plot information, but take care to make it realistic and relevant. A big chunk of exposition dropped into a character’s speech is immediately noticeable, especially if they say something like “You know my brother in law, who’s name is Jerry. He’s a bit of a greedy pig and I don’t like him”. Better to split it up so that all that information comes up in the conversation.

“Then Jerry came in,” said Fran.

Liz frowned. “Jerry?”

“My brother in law.”

“The one who ate about half your birthday cake last year?”

Jenny pulled a face. “Yes. That’s the one.”


Use subtext. People rarely say exactly what they mean. They give evade questions, or give half responses or just lie. Use your dialogue to introduce tension – either between characters or within the character themselves. When what they say and the way they behave don’t match, the reader will immediately pick up that something is wrong.

In real life, people pause a lot and make place-holder noises like ‘um’ and ‘er’. When writing fiction, you tend to leave these pauses and noises out (they’re pretty dull) unless you have a good reason for keeping them in. If you character suddenly starts pausing and saying ‘um’, the reader will interpret it as ‘they’re hiding something’.

How do you know if your dialogue sounds realistic? The best way to check is to read it out loud. Better still, get someone else to read it out loud for you – they won’t know exactly how it was meant to sound, so they will be guided by the way you’ve written and punctuated it. If it sounds wrong to you, or worse, if they have to go back and read it again before it makes sense, then it’s time to do some editing.


Have you got any interesting tips on dialogue? Where do you go to eavesdrop on conversations?


Do you listen to music when you write? No way!

Today I’m taking part in a themed blog splash run by Elaina James as part of the project she’s doing with Mslexia. Elaina’s blog series follows a lyricist with stage fright who has the chance to perform one of their songs on stage. She invited a group of us to write about our own relationships with music.

I’m not a huge fan of music. I realise this makes me a complete philistine, but there you have it. I find it hard to distinguish good music from mediocre. I appreciate that classical music is good, but really, I doubt I’d be able to sit and listen to it for too long without needing to go do something else. I envy those who can put some music on and just sink into it. I’d fidget.

I know what I like, but that’s not the same as appreciation. My CD collection is full of silly music – Spike Jonez, Max Raabe and the Palast Orchestra, 44 Leningrad, The Shirehorses and an awful lot of Tom Lehrer. The things these have in common is that they’re funny – some a parodies (The Shirehorses songs are ludicrous parodies, whilst Max Raabe is sublime) others are elaborate jokes set to music. Tom Lehrer is just genius.

I write in silence. If I’m forced to have something on in the background while I work, I’d choose something without lyrics because words from outside my head would distract me.

On the other hand, I’m happy to listen to pop music when I’m driving. This is largely because some pop music has fantastic lyrics. Taylor Swift, for example, is a poet who sings. So is Jarvis Cocker. I hear words and they immediately paint pictures in my mind. Words can evoke emotions in me in a way that music cannot.

The first short story I ever had published was inspired by a song lyric. I was lying on the floor, with my notebook and pen, in the middle of something when the song Burning Bridges by Status Quo (yes, I realise this reveals how old I am) came on the radio and I had a sudden, very vivid image of an old man crossing a rainbow bridge. Since I’d spent most of my childhood in Sri Lanka by that point, I don’t think I’d ever seen a real rainbow bridge before, but there it was, in my imagination.

I started writing. Eventually, I ended up with a short story about an old man remembering the days when he and his late wife sat by the bridge and how, one day, he’d carved their names into the brickwork at the base of it. Over the years their names had disappeared, covered over or worn away with time, but he knew they were there. Just like she was still there with him, even though she’d died many years ago.

I wrote it, did a swift line edit and sent it off to The Sun newspaper in Sri Lanka (a more respectable publication than its UK counterpart!) and it was published. They paid me a 100 rupees for it too (in those days, a paperback cost about 300 rupees, so they paid me a third of a book). I was about fourteen at the time. I didn’t have another short story published in print until I was in my thirties.

So there you go. Songs as inspiration. Maybe I should listen to music a bit more.

Please do pop over to Elaina’s blog on Mslexia and have a look through her series. It’s fascinating.

Getting to know your characters

Each month, I write a column on creative writing for my local paper. It appears on the web the week after that. Here’s this month’s instalment. 10 ways of getting to know your character.

Is there anything you’d like me to write about? Leave a note in the comments section and I’ll add it to my list of topics.