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Foreshadowing Prepares Readers for Surprises

Being surprised by the action of a character or an event in a story is fun to read when that trait or incident falls within the logical world of the story. When these things are sprung upon us with no preparation they seem like they are occurring in a different tale entirely.

Many authors bleed in information that give clues to readers about what might happen so that the possibilities are in the backs of their minds. This is referred to as foreshadowing. When that thing occurs we believe it. Suspense is created by carefully revealing information as the story progresses.

Some writers withhold information that they only reveal at the very end of a story thinking this creates suspense. It doesn’t. It can frustrate readers who are following a story step by step and are suddenly thrown a curve ball out of the blue that ties everything up. This is referred to as Deus ex machina, the machine of god, where the plot is wrapped by an outside force at the last minute.

Authors can string events and characterizations anyway they want, left, right, center, counterclockwise, to reveal Ah Ha moments of surprise. When readers are prepared they feel satisfied and say to themselves, “I didn’t expect that and it’s the only way the story could have ended.” When the material shows up with no connection to what’s been happening or characters do things that contradicts their nature without explanation, it can come off as unbelievable and even ridiculous.

To get that satisfying result, it is necessary to prepare readers for possibilities with foreshadowing. It’s a subtle device. Too much information given away in a blatant manner can destroy any surprise. This is referred to as telegraphing. If clues are given in too elusive a manner, readers may not notice or remember them. These clues leave small doubts and suggestions in the back of the mind. Not every clue needs to lead to a conclusion. Incidents and objects can be inserted into a story that are intended to throw readers offtrack and distract them from the real clues. Director Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho, The Birds, The Man Who Knew Too Much) referred to these types of clues as MacGuffins.

To use foreshadowing effectively, information must be revealed as if it means nothing at the time or is a minor part of a larger plot device. When the final incident is revealed, readers will recall it and accept the ending because they have been prepared with the suggestion that something like that could occur or that the character might act in a certain manner.

In a novel, incidents of foreshadowing can be inserted throughout the story. They build up in the background of the world and are often unnoticed until the big event is sprung. Foreshadowing can be used to prepare readers for several incidents, not only the end of the book, and produce satisfying of course moments throughout.

Let’s assume that we are writing a novel about a successful career woman named Jane. At the end of the book she turns down a big promotion to leave and open her own antique shop. This is a major decision. For the ending to be satisfying we must demonstrate Jane’s thinking process and detail incidents in her life that lead her to this action.

At the beginning of a book, we can have Jane toying with the idea of opening such a shop but considering it impossible because she has few savings and has always just scraped by in life. She finds her current job deeply satisfying. The idea of an antique shop remains in the back of her mind as unattainable. A promotion would pay enough to save the money required but that would take years and seems far off. She feels she can’t leave to start a full time business and she would be too tired to do something part time if she got a promotion.

If we only see her at work and the rejection of the promotion is just dropped on readers at the end, they will find it unbelievable because it would seem completely out of character. Fictional character in a novel can swing wildly from one state to another, however, they must act within a range of internal logic.

If Jane constantly makes rash decisions, flies of the handle all the time or shows other traits of instability, readers might accept her turning down the promotion but it will just be another of her antics and have no real significance. To make her leaving important, it needs to be an act that seems out of character but has been eluded so when it happens we see growth in Jane. An outside force can be introduced at the end that forces her to take this action but that is Deus ex machine and is generally unsatisfying.

Showing growth in Jane requires the creation of moments where she confronts impediments and questions her life. These can be small incidents. Perhaps she makes toast one morning and her old toaster burns the bread. She can show exasperation and even admonish herself for not replacing the toaster when there was a sale the week before. This has nothing to do with her turning down the promotion yet signals that not everything in Jane’s life is satisfying.

There is an old saying, “The boulders I can walk over but the pebbles get in my shoes.” Putting enough pebbles in a character’s shoes over time builds tension as small irritants add up. That, however, is not enough. There has to be an inner motive and desire hidden within the character that, at the beginning, feels unimportant, seems unattainable or is one that the character is not consciously aware of.

We could give her an opportunity, say a local antique dealer wants to retire and will allow Jane to buy the business in low, installment payments with nothing down. Such a device might seem to be foreshadowing but it could ruin the story by both giving too much information of a future event and invoking the machine of god by presenting an opportunity that she has not worked for or expected. As a general rule in drama, it is best for unexpected incidents to hinder characters who must draw on their inner strength to overcome the obstacle, thus allowing them to grow.

If going to antique shops is an enjoyable pastime, even though she can’t afford to buy anything, readers will be subconsciously prepared for Jane to try and open one herself. Other clues need to be inserted. For instance, a friend can be with Jane while visiting a shop and tell her that she has a real eye for antiques and would be a great dealer. Jane can then say, “I’ve thought about it but I like my job. Besides, where can I get the money?” We can then have her look longingly at the items in the shop before moving quickly to something else, say a traffic accident occurs and the two women run outside. This action scene will pull readers away from Jane’s yearning look in the shop but the suggestion will stay.

Simply giving Jane the desire to run an antique shop does not mean she is capable of doing so. Another incident might be introduced. She could become friends with the owner of a shop who has to leave one weekend to visit a sick relative and asks her to step in and watch the store. Jane can make the biggest sale the shop has ever had and the owner can tell her that she should open her own shop. Jane rejects this idea. Besides the money required, she thinks about how much she loves her job and career. In addition, she feels frightened of taking such a risk and decides stability is better than reaching for a dream. Even though she rejects the idea, it is still present. Having Jane return to work and showing her immersed in her career while dong an excellent job hides the idea of owning a shop but the big sale she made and her competency in business demonstrates that she has the savvy to do so.

To reinforce the possibility that she might open a shop even though she feels satisfied in her career, tension must be introduced at the workplace. She can spend all night preparing a presentation and learn the next morning that the project was canceled the day before and her boss didn’t tell her. A supervisor can take credit for her work and Jane has no way to prove otherwise. She can’t tell herself, “One of these days I’m just going to walk out and open an antique shop if I don’t start getting some respect.” That is too blatant and is a device called telegraphing. All surprise is removed from her final actions.

Instead, she can feel disappointed, even angry, and remember how much fun it was making the big antique sale and how satisfied she felt because she knew the worth and history of the piece. Then, she reminds herself that she is good at her job and likes it, even with the irritations. Both possibilities now hold equal weigh.

This needs to be followed by victories at work to keep the idea alive that she might stay in her career. Things go very good for her and readers will question if she will open a shop.

We’re at the end of the novel. The pieces now have to come together. Jane must examine herself and make a choice. In doing so, she considers her dreams and her fears and the choice she makes reveals her true nature.

The job she has is all she’s ever worked at. It’s familiar. She knows what to expect, both good and bad. She might become a manger. The money could be great.

Yet, the passion of her dream floods her mind and won’t leave her. As authors, we need to reach deep into Jane’s character and have her confront her wants and fears. Is she really looking for money? Is she trapped in a cycle that will lead nowhere? What are the risks of leaving? What are the risks of staying? What scars will inflict her soul if she takes the easy path?

We have shown Jane to be a smart and competent person. To have her turn down the promotion and open the shop she has to be shown to truly want that and device a plan to make it a reality. She has to make sacrifices. This is where we really have to work and earn out keep as authors. Does she have an old family heirloom that she promised here dying mother she would never sell? Will she give up a luxury apartment that her friends are so impressed with to live in a hovel or the back of the store? Will she have to walk away from friends who are immersed in the business and will no longer want to associate with her? Is she willing to fail and lose everything to live in poverty? Whatever it is, it has to be foreshadowed earlier to prepare the reader. The decision can’t be easy and Jane must both embrace her passion and devise a way to make it work if she is going to open a shop.

If we have prepared readers for that possibility by demonstrating her passion for antiques, her competency in the field and her ability to manage a business, they will accept the conclusion of the book and be satisfied.

This, by the way, is the end of the story, the fact that she has chosen to take a leap of faith. Adding scenes where she buys a shop and struggles to make a go at it would be anti-climactic. This is the story of a woman overcoming her self-doubts and standing up for what she wants. She may succeed or she may fail. That’s not the point. It is the fact that we see her inner strength come out and her willingness to do what she loves that makes the story complete. Of course, we could have her accept the promotion and give up her dreams to live a predictable life. That would be a completely different story and would still reveal Jane’s true inner self.

I may never write this story. I made it up on the fly as an example of how foreshadowing can work. I do, however, use these and other similar techniques in my writing.

David A. Wimsett is the author of several books that examine characters who reveal their inner selves through their choices in life. These include Beyond the Shallow Bank in which a woman searches fr who she is and what she truly wants as well as The Carandir Saga, an epic fantasy series set in a multicultural world of gender equality.

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