Distance dancingForeshadowing is a writer’s way of giving the reader hints of events to come, an incentive to keep turning the page and for me one of my favorite part of the story to write. For mystery writers foreshadowing is essential as it is how we give our audience clues which they will need to solve the puzzle presented in the story.

Foreshadowing can be obvious, for example – “When Harry woke up on Monday he had no way of knowing that by Friday he’d be dead and buried.” The reader may not know how it is going to happen, but there is no doubt that Harry is going to meet his demise.

Foreshadowing can also be subtle, the reader may not even be aware that a clue has just been revealed, for example – A detective is investigating a missing person by interviewing a neighbor. The writer describes that the room has a frayed oriental rug, a coffee table with elephant tusk legs and a dusty upright piano. During the interview the readers learns the missing person had a fight on the street with another man that was so loud it woke the neighbor. Through his widow the witness saw the man throw the missing person into a car and drive off. When the missing man’s body is found, forensic testing shows he was killed with the kind of gun used for big game hunting. Now the reader sees that the clue to the killer was not in the interview, but in the furnishings.

Psychic visions of doom or joy, curses on ancient artifacts and threatening notes received in the mail, or worse on the bathroom mirror, are just a few things a writer may use to foreshadow a future event.

A subplot can also be used to foreshadow in a novel.  Let’s say you have a police officer who has been looking for a suspect throughout the novel. Meanwhile, back on the home front he has a teenage son who, regardless of his part time job or his ‘just in case’ credit card, always returns the family car with an empty gas tank. You can see where this is going, right?  So Sunday afternoon he is running errands when he sees the suspect get into a car. The suspect spots him and hits the gas. A high speed chase starts. Other unmarked and radio cars join in. Helicopters circle above and then it happens, the event that he will never live down and if his fellow officers had their way would be written on his tombstone, he runs out of gas on I-20.

Two forms of foreshadowing are the flash-forward and the flashback. With the flash-forward the author jumps ahead in the story and tells of a future event, then returns to the original point in time. The author makes a promise to his or her audience that if they continue to read the story will move to the future point. With the flashback, which I believe is an odd term for foreshadowing, the writer tells of a prior event which occurred in the character’s life, or in history, before the beginning of the book. It is important that the author connect the flashback with both the present and the future storyline.

Another type of foreshadowing, which is extremely useful to mystery writers, is the false clue (a red herring) that leads the reader to believe information which is misleading and revealed later in the story. A writer must be very careful using this form of foreshadowing. The false clues must make sense to the story and the assumptions the audience is led to must be valid. If they are not, the reader will feel that the author has cheated.

Foreshadowing is not easy, it’s a balancing act. The writer must carefully spread the clues throughout the book. If too many clues are presented at one time readers may believe they have solved the puzzle, lose interest and put the book down, never bothering to see if they were right or wrong. On the other hand, if the writer leaves too many pages between clues the reader may feel that the book is moving along too slowly, lose interest and put the book down, not caring if the puzzle ever gets solved.

The most important thing to remember when using foreshadowing is that it is a promise you make to your reader of events to come, it is a promise the author must keep.

Do foreshadowed events add to your enjoyment when reading a novel?

If you are a writer, do you use foreshadowing and how do you do it?


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