Two writers discuss foreshadowing
Posted March 15, 2015 in
Every month Sydney Smith, Jennifer Scoullar and Kathryn Ledson discuss some aspect of the writing craft. Except this month when Kathryn Ledson is unavailable. We welcome your questions and comments. Threekookaburras has a new, easier system for comments. Send in your comment. We would really like to hear from you!
Foreshadowing is the minor precursor to some greater event in a story. This is how believability is created. If you want the reader to believe in an event in your story that might not seem altogether credible, foreshadow it and the reader will believe it. Even if the major event is believable as it is, foreshadow it and it will become even more convincing.
For example, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is set in old China, where every aspect of life is arranged according to strict rules and customs. The narrator, Lily, has a special friendship with Snow Flower, one that was arranged especially to improve Lily’s marriage prospects. In fact, this friendship is dearer to Lily than the wealthy marriage she enters into as a girl of seventeen. But at the climax of the story, Lily humiliates Snow Flower out of jealous vengeance, and she loses the one relationship in her life that matters more to her than any other. Without foreshadowing, this climax might have been unbelievable, since Lily loves Snow Flower. Why would she do such a thing to the woman who matters most to her? Lisa See foreshadows it in a confrontation between Lily and her mother, one that reveals her vengeful spirit. She acts spitefully in this confrontation, and thus, her greater spitefulness in humiliating Snow Flower in the climax is foreshadowed. Because we have seen her behave vengefully once before, then at the climax, when the story needs us to believe it without question, we do thanks to foreshadowing.
I see foreshadowing as a two-part affair ― first the hint (or hints), then the payoff. If a jewellery store is to be robbed, the hint might be a suspicious customer in the day before. If a man is to leave his wife, the hint might be his reluctance to make holiday plans. Keeping these things firmly linked in my mind makes the setup more straightforward. Sometimes I write myself notes about it. And the more significant the payoff event, the earlier I like to plant hints.
As a reader, I always love it when crucial events are cleverly foreshadowed. That Ahh, I get it! moment is immensely satisfying. But as a writer, I find it a fine line to tread. Too blatant a hint might give the game away. Too subtle, and readers might not make the connection. These days I err on the side of subtle. Readers are clever and sophisticated creatures! Sometimes writers forget this.
Of course the wonderful thing about foreshadowing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time. I’ve often gone back through a completed manuscript and added hints. That’s when a good chapter summary document comes into its own. Sometimes, too, my editor has suggested I either tone down or ramp up the foreshadowing. It’s something that takes some practice.
The funny thing about foreshadowing is that it happens all the way through a novel. EVERYTHING is foreshadowed. You realise this if you study closely the novels you read again and again. I’ve been studying Snow Flower with one of my students and we keep stumbling across instances of foreshadowing. It becomes the cement that glues a narrative together. It makes the story stronger and more solid. It putties in the gaps.
Foreshadowing is not to be confused with predictability, though. Predictability arises out of clichéd characters who act in clichéd ways. Foreshadowing is the trail of breadcrumbs you follow, not realising they’re breadcrumbs. You think the forest is thick with trees, that the way stumbles right and left. But in fact there is a path, and that path is foreshadowing.
Sydney Smith is the author of The Architecture of Narrative, very recently published by Threekookaburras. Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and the acclaimed memoir The Lost Woman.
Jennifer Scoullar is the author of Wasp Season (Sid Harta), and the romances, Brumby’s Run and Currawong Creek (Penguin), with Billabong Bend due for release by Penguin in May this year. Jennifer’s novels are built around themes of nature and the environment. Check out her website at: www.jenniferscoullar.com.
Kathryn Ledson is the author of Rough Diamond and Monkey Business (Penguin), part of the Erica Jewell series of romantic adventures. You can visit her website at:www.kathrynledson.com.