Thursday, January 21, 2010

Foreshadow: Too Light, Too Heavy

Though I personally do not care for the product advertised in the video above, it does serve as an excellent illustration to my blog post for today. There are many components to a good story. Most of these are obvious if you've read much at all. A sound plot, well-rounded characters, sprinkle some description and snappy dialogue, and it's highly likely you will at least be on your way to an interesting story.

One aspect, however, that I have found lacking in many stories that I've read on various writing sites, and even in some published books, is the proper use of foreshadow.

For one thing, it can be very easy to allow this aspect to fall to the wayside. Problems with continuity or characters are much more glaring and obvious, and thus easier to pick out--whether by your eyes or someone else.

Foreshadow is defined as: to show or indicate beforehand; prefigure:

In storytelling, this is where you slip in hints about future events, character reactions, pieces of the plot that are hidden from the reader as yet, and anything else that belongs mostly in the later parts of your story. In mystery, these are the clues that guide the reader toward the inevitable "the butler did it!" Or perhaps, the hints of a great "ring" or "heir" in fantasy that your hero (or heroine) simply must find. And so on throughout the genre.

The important thing to remember is our little video up top. Too light or too heavy. Foreshadow must never overpower the main plot. It should be a subtle, gentle niggling thought or ideal that pushes the reader and plot forward along the path you desire, but without beating them over the head with the obviousness of the path.

If you can think of a crossroads. Foreshadow should be a smudged sign, with an arrow pointing to a town without a name, and only a vague direction. When foreshadow becomes a brightly painted, light-bejeweled billboard...your readers will become bored, or even annoyed.

Too light, however, is just as bad. If your foreshadow sign is crooked, with arrows pointing in no particular direction at all, so covered with mud that not one letter can be deciphered, your readers will head nowhere fast. And likely reach a destination so unexpected, they'll be just as unhappy as the first.

Clues that are heavily hidden, prophecies couched in unfamiliar and severely vague terms, and stern fact listing of some technology that is then used in the plot several chapters later are all much too light foreshadowing. Readers will often feel cheated, lost, or simply confused. A confused reader is a lost reader. And that is never, ever good.

There are books that I have read, and reached the end furious at the surprise the author threw into the climax that seemed to have no connection or hint at all throughout the book/series. There is a problem when I must re-read the series, sometimes more than once, before I can catch the light hints and foreshadow.

Now, yes, some people may prefer it to be very light. Perhaps it is easy for them to solve plotlines, see the implied connections, and all the other sundered parts that belong to this, but I personally (and many of the readers that I've spoken to) do not.

If I reach the end, and I'm lost, it's highly likely I will not pick up any more books by that author, no matter the reviews. A tricked reader can hold a "grudge" for a long, long time. (I personally will not read anything written by particular authors simply because of the same matter)

The most important thing to remember about foreshadow is balance. Give the reader enough information that they know this particular fact, or this light hint, or suggestive facial expression/dialogue are important, but not the why. It strokes a reader's curiousity and encourages them to continue reading, if just to find out what happens next. Foreshadow can also create tension.

For an example, in one of my stories, a young lady is working as a servant, filling lords' baths in a palace. In the antagonist's POV, he is stalking this girl, and at the very end of his POV, he thinks: "Perhaps Lord Jabin should request a bath."

Did I directly state his course of action, what he'd do exactly to this girl? No. But the hint of it, the foreshadow of what should happen the next time Jabin and the girl have a scene together, spikes the tension. You may not know exactly how or what, but there's enough information to let you know that something bad is on its way, involving those two, and drives you to turn the page.

Balance, young padawan.


  1. Good post! This is something that I definitely struggle with. While writing, I often make my foreshadowing too light because I know in my mind what should be there, but I often forget to put it on paper.

    But now you've gotten me all curious about this Jabin fellow! Thanks, Liz. ;)

  2. Excellent post, Liz!

    I love to foreshadow, myself, and really like it when it's well done. However, I shudder to think about the flogging you'd give my rough drafts on foreshadowing. Since I'm a write-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of gal, foreshadow is often an afterthought.

    However, I just love it when I unintentionally foreshadow. That's just awesome. :)

  3. Thanks Em :)

    hehe. Yes, Jabin and Sargas are both "fun" characters to write.

  4. Thanks Brandi :)

    lol. I'm a pantser myself. hehe. I plan to, in the future, discuss some ways to have foreshadow. But it's something I struggle with myself.

    And yes, when you unintentionally foreshadow, and then have everything connect up at the end--tis awesome!

  5. At the moment, my sort of foreshadow occurs because I've written some stuff, start wondering where to go in a current scene, and go, "Oh wait! I did such and such in an earlier scene/mentioned some fact. I can play on that and do this now!" Then I'll work in something to do with those tidbits, stuff I'd never written in for that purpose. They just happened.

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  7. Thank you very much! I am a young writer and I often overload on the foreshadowing. I have learned about it in my language arts class but it ended up being a load of gibberish. Yours was clear and to the core! I could use more advice like yours