There is something of the egotist in all of us. Whether you boldly declare your superiority or silently revel in your advantage, all of us flatter ourselves -just a bit- that we are more intelligent than the average person. More than a fun fact, this is an overlooked aspect of your readership that you could be using to your advantage by using a simple literary device.
Foreshadowing is the technique of hinting at events to come. This can build suspense, create consistency throughout the story, and prepare readers for a drastic change. Without foreshadowing mystery novels would be reduced to those disappointing Scooby Doo episodes when the bad guy was a character we had never even seen. The motive, as well, was something which had never even been alluded to throughout the episode- leaving the viewer to feel cheated out of the opportunity to solve the mystery for themselves.
Fortunately, this era of Scooby Doo did not last long, just as the mystery novel would fall out of existence if it weren’t for the use of foreshadowing. But don’t limit this technique to the mystery. Every writer should use this, no matter the genre.
Grown up versions of Scooby Doo like Psych, Sherlock, Criminal Minds and dozens more offer a higher level of excitement as viewers play along to solve the puzzles before the hour is up. Viewers revel in the ability to keep up with the impossibly intelligent characters on the show, feeling a rush of adrenaline as if they are the ones cracking each case. Viewers get a sense of high off second hand code cracking, happy just to keep up with the fast paced deductions.
But every so often we beat them to the chase. With a rush of excitement and a spike in our ego we tell everyone in the room how we figured it out and shamelessly shout “I knew it! I told you!” when our guess is confirmed at the end of the show.
Some may think that watching these shows may actually be making you smarter- Like Grey’s Anatomy’s fans who think they can diagnose their friends- and it’s true. Viewers are getting smarter, but not quite in the way they think.
Rather than learning more about the legal system or diagnosing mental cases, viewers are learning to catch the tells, or foreshadowing, used in that particular show.
What makes these shows so popular is that the writers have become so good at embedding foreshadowing in the plot that viewers actually think they are solving these riddles on the same level of the super genius characters, when actually they are following a carefully planned trail of breadcrumbs. Feeling like you are solving the mystery before the rest of the audience, and cast, figure it out gives the viewer an ego boost. It keeps them coming back for more.
Screenwriters may have figured out the power of foreshadowing to keep viewers coming back for their next ego rush, but authors have been using this technique for much longer.
Anton Chekhov famously stated that if a gun is seen on a wall in chapter one, it must without a doubt, be fired by chapter 3. Otherwise, it should be cut out as a superfluous detail. This may seem to place an intimidating level of importance on the details you include. Master storytellers like Chekhov knew how to make every detail in their story count. The trick is, you may not see the relevance of the detail until you finish the story. This skill is difficult to master but it is a must if you are to use foreshadowing for all it’s worth. The more subtle the clues, the more satisfaction your reader will get from piecing them together.
To me, there are two types of foreshadowing:
Breadcrumbing: This type of foreshadowing drops tiny details throughout the story. They may seem insignificant at first, or even on a rereading of the book, but these types of details create a consistency throughout your writing that keeps the reader believing everything was planned ahead. This type of foreshadowing prepares readers for plot twists without feeling cheated. It is especially useful in series. Dropping clues throughout each book of a series shows readers that you didn’t just slap an ending on a story. It shows thoughtfulness in your writing. Harry Potter is a great example of this. The locket that was found in The Order of the Phoenix is just a small detail, but we realize the full significance of that locket later in The Deathly Hallows.
Open: This foreshadowing is more similar to Chekhov’s gun. This type of foreshadowing places an unbalanced importance on a detail, practically proclaiming “Remember this! It is significant!” It makes no secret that this detail is important. Although much more direct, it can still be used with a light hand. Still using Harry Potter as an example- the significance of details like Harry’s scar hurting or Snape’s ambiguous loyalties are open foreshadowing. These details were always known to be important but the significance behind these details were not felt until later.
Although there are several other types of foreshadowing, these are the ones that keep your readers coming back. These create just the right balance of mystery and information to keep readers eager to solve that puzzle.
Be careful to place these tidbits in just the right places. As you become more familiar with this skill, you can anticipate at what point your reader will have pieced together the clues and solved the mystery. You want to place this realization just before the actual event happens. This will prepare readers for sudden events and it will give them the ego boost as well. It’s a game of balancing anticipation and satisfaction. You never want to reveal so much that your reader is bored.
Some writers wish their audience to solve the mystery a page before it is revealed in the story, other writers want it to be only a paragraph ahead. Depending on the style of writing you choose, you can tweak this to find the best balance for yourself. If you are writing suspense, you may want to delay this revelation until mere sentences or paragraphs before the big reveal. If you are writing a slower working novel, a page or two may be sufficient.
What examples of foreshadowing can you think of which fall into the Open or Breadcrumbing style? Or have you used this in your own writing to hook your audience? Tell me about your experiences in the comments!