Some months ago I read a manuscript that actually used this line: Little did I know I would come to regret those words.
No kidding. Me too.
I know, I know: you’re just trying to create a little mystery, a little portent. But when I see a line like this—
I had no idea how inextricably linked my destiny would become to his.
I could not imagine how my life was about to change.
Little did I know that the tall man would become my husband twelve years later.
—I leave a note in the margin: Don’t telegraph* the outcome. You’re giving away the plot. Instead of adding suspense or mystery, sentences like this quash it.
“I’m foreshadowing!” the author said. I’ve heard that before. But if you think that’s foreshadowing, we need to review the definition and uses thereof. Foreshadowing in fiction is a very useful tool, but little did I know ain’t it.
Foreshadowing is, simply, a hint of something that has yet to happen. An indication of what is to come, hidden in the narrative.
Don’t let that simple definition fool you, though.
- Foreshadowing can create suspense or otherwise set the tone.
The creation of suspense—that feeling of foreboding—is one of the most common uses of foreshadowing. That mysterious man with whom the protagonist makes eye contact in the café shows up later in a cab stopped at the same traffic light, or at her daughter’s piano recital. A little creepy. A little foreboding. A little melodrama, perhaps. (The reader reacts emotionally.)
- Foreshadowing can set up relationships or characteristics the protagonist will need later.
But what if this creepy older man turns out to be the protagonist’s long-lost father, the father she never knew but always dreamed of finding? (It’s not an awkward surprise if you’ve foreshadowed it.)
- Foreshadowing can show a character’s motivation.
What if our protagonist has been repeatedly unlucky in love because she’s too needy. That she grew up without a father might explain her behavior, don’t you think? That is, if the author has layered in mentions of the protagonist’s history that together draw a picture of the lonely little girl who has become a lonely, needy grownup. (Foreshadowing doesn’t always mean foreboding.)
- Foreshadowing can allow the writer to avoid convenient coincidence.
What if the plot needs the protagonist to have a special skill? It’s nothing but a coincidence if you say, “Oh, you didn’t know I could speak Russian?” What were once coincidences become perfectly logical plot points if you’ve laid the groundwork for them with foreshadowing. If you need a character who can speak Russian, perhaps you’ll layer in his Russian grandfather, a sad old man who lived in the back bedroom, drinking strong tea and grieving the loss of the family dacha. (He’ll need to be woven into the subplot, of course.)
- Foreshadowing can prepare readers for a plot development that might seem to come out of the blue.
Sometimes it’s just a little cough, a bit of a dry throat and hoarseness … from a character who will later be diagnosed with tuberculosis. Chekhov’s gun—while it illustrates another fiction truism entirely**—is a classic example of foreshadowing: that gun lying innocently on the table in the first act foreshadows the murder (or attempted murder) that will happen in the third act.
Again—it’s a hint of what’s to come. Notice that word hint. Notice the foreshadowing is “hidden” in the narrative (in plain sight). We want to finesse the foreshadowing—we don’t want it to be too obvious—so readers only appreciate what we’ve done in retrospect. So they think A-ha! That was clever! rather than Ugh! What a cheat!
In each instance above, then, foreshadowing subtly prepares readers for what will happen later. But foreshadowing doesn’t mean just tell readers what’s going to happen later. (Because why would they keep reading?) None of this little did I know business. We want a little mystery. We want a little story. We want to be intrigued by the way things unfold. Which is to say—the plot. Without foreshadowing it’s just a collection of events. Without the right foreshadowing the reader doesn’t know where to focus.
Remember, the novel is all about the reader’s experience. You want to delight her, lead her on, prepare her … but don’t tell her anything too soon.
* For some years I have been using telegraph to describe foreshadowing gone bad, but I recently read “Don’t confuse foreshadowing with forecasting” and I really like the alliteration. So—don’t forecast the outcome.
** Simply: every scene, every element of the story, must be absolutely necessary to the plot. If it’s not, cut it. Use it or lose it.
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