Monday, March 3, 2014

Foreshadowing: why and how to do it, by Yahong Chi

Literary devices aren't just for English classes. Foreshadowing is a powerful technique that can enhance your plot, add substance and intrigue and bring closure to the story; it's the full circle connection in really good books that makes you go "whoa, cool". But foreshadowing relies on subtlety and unobtrusiveness. Therefore, avoiding being obvious is essential.

Let's follow J. K. Rowling's example, who is, unsurprisingly, is a master of foreshadowing and at linking plot devices in later books to objects mentioned in early books. Although some of her later connections could be the result of an excellent memory, such as how Harry's knowledge of the bezoar from The Philosopher's Stone is used to save Ron in The Half-Blood Prince, she also creates connections within books that are almost indubitably foreshadowing. Take, for example, in The Chamber of Secrets, Ron's comment about why Tom Riddle could possibly have a trophy with his name on it:
'Could've been anything,' said Ron. 'Maybe he got thirty O.W.L.s or saved a teacher from the giant squid. Maybe he murdered Myrtle; that would've done everyone a favor...' (p. 251, Raincoast Books paperback edition)
Ron's joking, of course. But at the same time, he's right: Tom Riddle was the one who opened the Chamber of Secrets, let loose the Basilisk and killed Myrtle in the bathroom she now haunts. This innocuous piece of information, dressed up as a (somewhat mean-spirited!) joke, becomes a clue which later reveals itself to be the key to the mystery that dominates The Chamber of Secrets. And because the truth is framed in a sidenote-style comment, it works.

This sidenote approach is a very good way to think about foreshadowing. You're not coming right out and saying "this is important, remember it!!11!"; instead; your hints are casual observations about setting, character or events that could be innocuously taken... or could mean something more.

Straddling the line between "innocuous" and "obvious" can sometimes be tricky. As a book reviewer, I've grown to gauge the amount of attention paid by the narrator or narration to any one certain object or event. Oftentimes, foreshadowing is clunkily done when the author takes one too many sentences to point out an item that will be important; this sets off alarms in my head that say, "This will be important later on!", like foreshadowing for dummies. Not what you're trying to achieve!

Therefore, it's important to slide your clues among like-sentences. As shown above, Ron listed a series of reasons why Tom Riddle would have won the trophy. If your middle-grade mystery's real culprit is someone who chews a lot of gum, let's say, have your protagonist note the amount of gum wrappers around the scene of the crime in context with something else—maybe they like to be environmentally conscious.

After you've set up your hints, it's important to make good on them in the right way. J. K. Rowling didn't ever have Ron say, "Oh, wait, I was actually right!" at the end of The Chamber of Secrets. Rather, letting the reader realize on their own how the reveal was set up spurs that "cool!" feeling. It also can bring closure; linking your book's end back to its beginning brings your story full-circle and gives it resonance.

How do you use foreshadowing in your writing? What do you think of foreshadowing as a writing technique?



  1. Great example of foreshadowing...any reference to Rowling's handiwork gets my attention. Another way to foreshadow with subtlety: if it sounds like writing (an obvious foreshadow), rewrite. Thanks for a good post.

    M.L. Swift, Writer

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Another great post, Yahong. (Sorry I first typed Hilary [Your articles are great, too, Hilary!]) It was early morning and I was replying to this post alongside three other things!)

    Your insights on foreshadowing reminds me of the Hermux Tantamoq series by Michael Hoeye. (have you finally got around to the first one yet, Hilary? If not, my upcoming review may finally turn the corner for you and I hope MANY others.

    Anyway, that series is very good at foreshadowing, but its foreshadowing is more long view than within a specific book (As outlined in your HP examples)

    I've really worked hard to achieve this with my debut novel, Gabriel, I'll be working with my editor on this in a future.

    Our first past through is about the macro stuff, then we'll delve into the micro details. I had to really make sure the base traits of my antagonist's gang are present and come off natural, I worked hard at the characters in Gabriel meet this standard.

    The issue when dealing with a protagonist like Gabriel who's shy and soft-spoken is not making him sound wimpy or passive! (We all know how readers feel about that...)

    Also, Gabriel had to sound genuinely smart without being snobbish or precocious to a fault, neither of which reflect or suit his personality.

    Rum (my antagonist) by contrast is a true rough and tumble type, but he's still capable of warmth and vulnerability, and despite the trouble he causes, it doesn't stop him from having some ethical/moral standing, and that's what I hope readers will take away from where his role in the story leads.

    But a friendly bit of advice to all authors, while you want to avoid being too obvious, trust me, being TOO SUBTLE can give readers a hard time, though I'm not sure sure if that's just my fellow adults who've read it or if actual kids would have similar reactions with Gabriel in particular.

    All that said, this is something us non-parents who aren't around kids as much as we'd like have to second guess until we actually have kid/teen reader feedback...

    But that's a whole other topic. (LOL)

  4. I'm not sure how much I noticed Rowling's foreshadowing when I first read the books, but over the last couple years I've read the whole series aloud many times and she sure is the master of it. Funny timing, because my revision task for today is actually going back and inserting a number of details early in my manuscript that will help set up a key scene toward the end.

  5. I like the reason Tom Riddle actually won the trophy, which was related to the murder.
    After reading this post, I'm going to look at my foreshadowing with new eyes.
    I read a book that was so obvious with foreshadowing. If something was mentioned on page 72, I knew it would happen on 73. I don't know how an editor and agent let it happen. There were no surprises in that book.

  6. Grat post, Yahong! I loved your insights into foreshadowing. I'm working on this in a current WIP, so it was very helpful.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!