postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words October 11, 2011 - 11:22am

When I write, I try hard to reveal information at such a moment as to have maximum impact. Of course, the impact requires some kind of buildup for it to be effective.

How do you plant seeds, or reveal details along the way without spoiling the eventual turn?

There's a device I often encounter where the result is presented early on (in the novel I'm reading, the author describes life at the age of 7, and drops this line: "...because at age sixteen I would make first love with Lorna Sue Zylstra on the hood of my father's Pontica, and because ten years later we would be married, and because twetny-some years after that Lorna Sue would discover romance with another man, and betray me, and move to Tampa."

Even before the relationship has begun, it is over. It presents us with the narrator's attitude upon revisiting his childhood, informed as it is by his wife's betrayal.

Personally, I would be hesitant to write a line like this, but I can see how poignant it is. Any advice on how to make such a judgement call?

Brandon's picture
Brandon from KCMO is reading Made to Break October 11, 2011 - 11:52am

A lot of it is playing with ambiguity and knowing what readers will naturally assume.

Example: I had a threesome with two models last night.

Now most people would assume I mean "model" as in skinny bitch pretty.  What I'm not saying is that I actually picked them up at a Lane Bryant fashion show.  Or they're just hand models.  Or they're art class models.  

See?

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words October 11, 2011 - 11:55am

misdirection, that's a good point - but I don't believe there's any way to know what a reader will naturally assume as they're bringing a whole basket of experience to one's story

Brandon's picture
Brandon from KCMO is reading Made to Break October 11, 2011 - 12:10pm

Write a piece and try it.

Dr. Gonzo's picture
Dr. Gonzo from Manchester, UK is reading Blood Meridian October 11, 2011 - 3:21pm

King did it in Pet Semetary about someone dying a couple of chapters before. Luckily for him I'd already seen the film.

ReneeAPickup's picture
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ReneeAPickup from Southern California is reading A truckload of books October 12, 2011 - 6:36pm

I like to put tiny details in that don't seem to mean much in the moment, but when the big reveal happens everything falls into place. So, rather than giving a character who is supposed to be from Wisconsin, but is really from Chicago a Chicago accent and a collection of Cubs memorabilia, I have him make a passing comment here and there that don't seem right, but don't seem all that important. Or he is using an alias, and rather than having him write the wrong name down or something, I have him stutter and feel awkward when he is introduced to someone with the same last name.

Things like that. 

Of course this is in a larger work, in short stories I suppose it would be harder to approach it like that.

Raelyn's picture
Raelyn from California is reading The Liars' Club October 12, 2011 - 6:42pm

I've had problems with being too subtle.  My attempts at foreshadowing seem genius to me, but then when I show them to someone else they say it doesn't work, even when the big reveal happens they don't think back to that piece of information.

How can you find a balance between blurting out the ending and hinting at it?

missesdash's picture
missesdash from Paris is reading The Informers October 12, 2011 - 8:08pm

I have a manuscript with a fake cop and I had tons of fun foreshadowing that. He's actually a serial killer and kills in two's, so I have little things like him always ordering/eating/picking up things in two's. I have him pick up evidence with his hands and know things about the crime he couldn't know. But it's all mentioned so casually, never any more than a line, that it blends in with the rest.

The best kind of foreshadowing, to me, doesn't kick in until after the foreshadowed event. It doesn't draw attention to itself because it shouldn't be a spoiler. but it should make the reader go back and think "holy shit, I can't believe I missed it."

So subtely is definitely key.

That being said, I have heard people say they would have liked more foreshadowing, so it's also a matter of taste.

simon morris's picture
simon morris from Originally, Philadelphia, PA; presently Miami Beach, FL is reading This Body of Death, by Elizabeth George October 31, 2011 - 8:23am

Foreshadowing is an art. The idea is not to give the reader the answer but to keep her guessing so when you foreshadow, it has to be vague enough so that the reader only knows that something MAY happen but it may be a Maguffin that is meant to act as a sleight of hand to keep the reader focused in the wrong direction.

"We can have such a beautiful life together." She smiled one of her enigmatic Mona Lisa smiles. I thought I saw Jill's pupils expand and contract but maybe it was an illusion created by the candles flickering.

'"It is a dream I've had all my life." Jill brushed a vagrant lock of hair from her face and reached for my hand.

Here is both a foreshadowing and a double entendre statement as a reply. What did her statement really say? That it is a fulfillment of a dream or that dreams are not real? If you do not mention this further but 200 pages later, have her tell the male protag that she loves him but that is why she can never see him again, the astute reader will remember this moment which foreshadowed the event.

Here's another one. She looked down at her daughter tied to the bed, helpless, unconscious. She grasped the dagger in both hands, brought it up over her head and with a vicious downward thrust, plunged it directly into her heart. Whom did she kill; the daughter or herself?

Words never lie but writers do!

aliensoul77's picture
aliensoul77 from a cold distant star is reading the writing on the wall. October 31, 2011 - 8:34am

Foreshadowing can be subtle or really obvious.  It's best to find an inbetween.  A bad example would be a character going:  "I'm so scared of the river, I'm always afraid if I fell in I would drown" and then two chapters later they drown in it.  Good foreshadowing to me is in Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find", where there is this serial killer called the Misfit who kills people on the road and the characters hear about him on the TV and radio but don't really pay attention.  They chat about him casually at a restaurant and I assume as a reader that there is a reason that this detail is being mentioned but the writer focuses on the main action at hand and allows you to feel safe in the details of the story before suddenly hitting you over the head with the reality of the situation.  The car breaks down and the family runs into the serial killer they have been hearing about and the stupid main character goes, "Oh my god, you are him!  The guy on the TV!" and that's when he decides to murder them all.  I love that story because Flannery knows how to mix the absurd and the tragic so well.  She describes the family and their little road trip in a funny way and then has the family murdered brutally at the end, the contrast of comedy and extreme horror is so abrupt that it shocks the reader.

Mike Mckay's picture
Mike Mckay is reading God's Ashtray October 31, 2011 - 8:56am

I do what aliensoul77 has described. I'll throw in small refrences here and there from other stories I've written and you have to really pay attention though to even get it. Its funny to me because those stories all seem to conclude under a day. Every character in them is probably having the worst (and last) day of their lives.

Pretty twisted day. 

Jay.SJ's picture
Jay.SJ from London is reading Warmed and Bound October 31, 2011 - 9:07am

I think the difference is between how much you show it and the affect it has momentarily and in the future.

Make sure if you foreshadow it adds to the detail, is subtle or makes sense at the time. An example being in Fight Club with the narrator being Tyler Durden, at the beginning of the novel when it says "I know this because Tyler knows this." It seems like their bestfriends and have shared a lot. When actually at the end it's different.

I was watching The Walking Dead and the rainclouds were foreshadowed like fuck, and that annoyed me, make sure when you're writing it's not screaming: HEY I'M MENTIONING THIS AGAIN CAUSE ITS GONNA BE REALLY IMPORTANT IN THE FUTURE.

aliensoul77's picture
aliensoul77 from a cold distant star is reading the writing on the wall. October 31, 2011 - 9:56am

I think the Walking Dead Tv show is bad with heavy handed metaphors like the deer.  The deer represents HOPE!   It was so obvious that it was funny.

misskokamon's picture
misskokamon from San Francisco is reading The Moonlit Mind October 31, 2011 - 2:13pm

I've been practicing the art of foreshadowing, mainly because I usually make things too obvious and I want to know how the masters do their magic.  I believe a great story needs to have foreshadowing, be it a small mention or a glaring "Little did he know, however" comment.

The best technique I've seen writers do, be they film, video game, or story types, is drop their hints and follow it immediately with action. There is something else going on, something to distract the audience, so they don't focus too long on the hint. One person who does this with varying success is JK Rowling.

There is a video game I've played a few times that does foreshadowing pretty well. Throughout the game you're hunting down a possible murderer--and it leads you to a delivery man near the end. You see the man's delivery truck in key scenes but there is so much going on, you don't actually focus on it. This guy even seems to have a motive, based on snippets of his story you hear every once in awhile from other characters. Even when the real murderer is discovered, it doesn't catch you completely off guard: you're surprised, but it makes enough sense that you don't feel cheated.


And if there is one thing I hate, it's that feeling of a cheap conclusion--as if I've been cheated or fooled. I felt there wasn't enough foreshadowing at the finale of this last season of Doctor Who, for example: it was a cheat move on the writer's part, leaving me disappointed and mumbling, "oh, come on, Moffat... what the hell was that?"

For me, foreshadowing has always been my favorite part of books. I reread novels and replay games so I can catch all the hints that are dropped in the story. It feels like the writer has taken time and really thought out the story's progress--I don't know how to explain it really, but it doesn't feel like it was 'made up' as one goes along.