Easy Way Out
Foreshadowing is a device that warns readers of an impending event, such as an upcoming murder. Just from its definition you can see how useful it is. Readers are frequently enticed to keep reading, such as when a clue is given. The promise of future excitement is just one more rabbit in an author’s hat.
Unfortunately, its very utility can lead to lazy writing. That’s because foreshadowing often appears at the end of a scene. It makes the reader turn the page to see what will happen next. As the author, you know that murder is coming up, so hey, why not use it?
Its overuse is perpetrated mainly by authors who don’t plot well. Such a writer is more given to characterization, and her plotting ends up being the assemblage of where the character goes on her personal journey. That way of constructing a novel is fine with me—as long as you’re not using explicit plot tricks like foreshadowing. That’s having your cake and eating it too.
The best places to use the device is early on. In this stage the complications driving a plot are still being put into motion. You are making other promises to the reader at the same time, such as throwing out hints about, say, why a character won’t let his father in the front door. The reader is expecting you to stake out directions the story will take.
My overall rule of thumb is: no more than a few instances of foreshadowing in a book. That forces you to construct a string of plot events that drive each chapter forward to its own cliff. If boiled down to capsule form, that’s what an action-packed prologue does. Because of what happened in the chapter, the way you built up the sequence during the scene, we have to keep reading.
One clever way to use foreshadowing is: don’t be serious. If the character is playful about delivering an omen, the reader smiles. The author has acknowledged that foreshadowing can be a cheap trick—but not this time, because we’re having fun. If the character holds her nose, pointing at the fireplace where a crispy critter—a.k.a., a dead body—will soon be found, we enjoy the cynicism and get the message too. As a reader I still want to find out why the body was burned.
Exercise: The best method is to insert foreshadowing more subtly, at any point during the chapter. If the narrator happens to mention that a spat between a husband and wife will later lead to spaghetti dripping all over the kitchen window, you can swiftly move on past that mention. The mere observation makes us curious about how their marital discord will end up there.
“ . . . a singular sense of impending calamity, that should indeed have served me as a warning, drove me onward.”
—H. G. Wells, The Time Machine
Copyright @ 2016, John Paine