I touched on the topic of today’s Reading Rage a bit when I reviewed The Absolutist by John Boyne. And when I reviewed 11/22/63 by Stephen King. And (in a flattering way) when I reviewed Boleto by Alison Hagy. I realized after last week’s review of The Absolutist that clumsy foreshadowing seems to be a major pet peeve of mine.
Foreshadowing is a literary device; to foreshadow means to drop hints or indistinctly suggest future plot developments. (Wikipedia tells me that this can also be referred to as “adumbrating,” which is a cool word that means foreshadowing in a vague way, or to give a sketchy outline of something.) When done correctly, foreshadowing can create a fine sense of dread, foreboding, curiosity, excitement, lust, anticipation–all things that make you want to keep flipping pages until you get the big payoff, and then maybe have a cigarette.
This not-at-all creepy video with floating heads will explain more about how foreshadowing works.
Good foreshadowing will sometimes slip right by, unnoticed. Other times, it’s front and center, like the witches in Macbeth. (“Fair is foul, and foul is fair …”) What I find that good foreshadowing never is? Predictable and obvious, and I’ve been seeing a rash of both in books I’ve read recently.
There are times when predictable is good–in science, for example. In science, if you (and those who care to fact-check you) can test a hypothesis to the point where you can actually predict behavior based on your model, it becomes a theory–in other words, it’s considered true. Predictability in science is a win! Not so much in fiction, though, which is why people take spoilers so seriously. Would reading the sixth Harry Potter book have been such an emotional roller coaster if we already knew–SPOILERS–that Dumbledore dies, that Snape was a double agent? If Dumbledore had, before setting off with Harry to find the horcrux, visited Professor McGonagall (or whoever), and if Rowling had ended the chapter with “And it would be the last time she ever saw Dumbledore alive”–would we have felt that same punch in the gut when Snape 86′d him?
No. We wouldn’t have. We need that element of surprise to create the same emotional response to a story as we get in real life, where there are no spoilers to warn us about that car accident that’s about to happen, or that run of bad luck we’re about to have. There’s a fine line between foreshadowing and spoiling, and I’ve seen quite a few authors stepping over the lines in ways that didn’t sit well with me.
But Susie, you’re saying. Foreshadowing is hard. It must be hard if I’m doing it wrong. Can you help me? Can you help me foreshadow better?
Well, I can damn sure try.
A few ways to foreshadow without incurring my wrath:
Lay off predictions and forecasting. Imagine, if you will, a scenario where your BFF is a psychic. An actual psychic, not a “Psychic Friend.” Every time you hang out with your friend the psychic, she tells you everything that’s going to happen in advance. Sometimes, this would be really handy–”Make sure you don’t go immediately when the light turns green, someone’s going to run the light”–but I think, after awhile, it would get really annoying. “Your boss is going to bring in doughnuts tomorrow. Surprise!” “Your boyfriend is sending you flowers–roses, although I can’t see if they’re pink or read. Oh, bee tee dubs, he’s proposing.” “That waiter is going to drop all the plates he’s carrying in two minutes.” I would hate having a psychic friend if they couldn’t keep their predicting to themselves–nothing would ever be a surprise anymore, and that would suck.
Pretty sure I’d rather call the Psychic Friends network. At least they aren’t actual psychics.
Of course, if you have a character who is psychic, they would be making some sort of predictions. I think the trick here is to keep the predictions vague enough that they don’t highlight your intentions in bright neon. I just watched an episode of Northern Exposure that used this kind of prediction well; in the beginning, Maggie has a dream that she’s playing Clue with Joel. He’s anxious to leave because he has a plane to catch; Maggie doesn’t want him to go. At the end, he puts on a black fedora; Maggie warns him not to, but he puts it on anyway. This dream uses hints and symbols to create a sense of doom for Joel: they’re playing Clue, which centers around a dead body; the black fedora is supposed to symbolize the death of the person who wears it in a dream. They allude to the plane trip, but because of the context of the Maggie/Joel sexual tension, her begging him to stay comes off as more seductive than warning, especially since she’s wearing a tight red dress and bright red lipstick. Maggie wakes up, disturbed but not sure what the dream means; we feel the same until she has another dream later in the episode that gives us more clues.
Speaking of symbols, these also make good foreshadowing.
Using symbols in a novel can be tricky, of course–used clumsily, they seem hokey and forced. Symbols can, however, make for excellent foreshadowing–especially since they don’t allude directly to the events to come. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald creates an unsettled mood when Gatsby meets Daisy again for the first time:
“We’ve met before,” muttered Gatsby. His eyes glanced momentarily at me, and his lips parted with an abortive attempt at a laugh. Luckily the clock took this moment to tilt dangerously at the pressure of his head, whereupon he turned and caught it with trembling fingers, and set it back in place. Then he sat down, rigidly, his elbow on the arm of the sofa and his chin in his hand.
“I’m sorry about the clock,” he said.
… “It’s an old clock,” I told them idiotically.
I think we all believed for a moment that it had smashed in pieces on the floor.
The clock, in this case, is symbolic, nestled just before talk of how much time has passed since Daisy and Gatsby have seen each other. Gatsby’s righting the clock is also symbolic–not only does he want to “right” the time that has passed in which Daisy got away from him, his careful action also contrasts with the carelessness that Nick attributes to Tom and Daisy later. The word “smashed” is used again at the end, describing the events that resulted in Gatsby’s and Myrtle’s deaths: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” Symbolic foreshadowing can be oh-so-subtle but still create the proper mood or mindset for the reader. The meeting doesn’t go smoothly, and Gatsby’s story ends in tragedy.
Use a smaller event to foreshadow a larger event.
This time, I think we’ll turn to Steinbeck. In Of Mice and Men, Lennie, the mentally-handicapped man that George travels with and cares for, is given a puppy, which he proceeds to pet to death. Later, when Curley’s wife offers to let Lennie stroke her hair, our stomachs tie up in knots–we know what happens when Lennie gets to stroke soft things. Things don’t end well for Curley’s wife–who also foreshadowed Lennie’s death in her own way. She is a poisonous character, flirting with the men one moment and threatening the lynch mob in the next; when Lennie is fully taken in by her sweeter side, we know that the lynch mob can’t be far behind.
Set the mood with atmosphere and tone.
While you may not want to open a book with “It was a dark and stormy night,” using the weather, the setting, and the general tone can help foreshadow without actually giving away plot details. In Japan, seasons are often used to represent the cycle of life; a professor told my Japanese culture class (ten years ago.. eep) that autumn was symbolically used as dying. Spring would obviously be (re)birth. If I wanted to write a story about death, I might put it at the end of summer, especially if it occurred after a long illness (a.k.a, a long, hot, miserable summer without air conditioning. ZOMG see what I did there? I TRANSFERRED FEELINGS TO SET A TONE.) If you don’t want to go quite so philosophical, use a little mood-lighting, or time of day, or an appropriate setting to get your point across.
There’s no point in introducing foreshadowing late in the game. We’re practically on top of the event by this point, so we don’t need any hints–we just need to keep going to get there.
So, readers–have you read any books with obvious foreshadowing lately? Or books with awesome foreshadowing? Does bad foreshadowing take you out of a story? Would you add anything to my foreshadowing tips? Drop those comments like they’re hot!