25 June 2012 - 4:20 pm

Foreshadowing in discovery writing

Or, I always meant to do that

I recently wrote a guest post about plotting web serials, and I quickly realised that there was a lot that I didn’t have space to squeeze in. One of those things was foreshadowing.

I’ve had many comments about things that I’ve foreshadowed in my stories, from readers who guess what’s going to happen in advance and those who only saw it coming in hindsight. They all love it.

What is it?

Let’s get this out of the way first. Foreshadowing is dropping hints about an upcoming plot element. The element could be an event, a character, a secret, a fact, an object. It could be anything that the reader isn’t told explicitly is coming, as well as something they are told about.

The hints can be anything from subtle to overt. It could be a throwaway phrase, a twist of a descriptive wording, a reference a character makes that could be read several different ways. It could be a poster lying on the ground, a news report in the background of a scene. It could be something that characters actively avoid talking about (gaps can be as useful as fillers!).

What’s it for?

Foreshadowing can be used to warn the readers that something big is coming. This can have a couple of effects. The most obvious is building tension (foreshadowing can often be about hinting at the unseen; think about thrillers and horror stories).

Another is preparing the reader for a major switch in plot, focus, or expectation. Surprising the reader can have wonderful effects: plot twists, sudden revelations, ‘I am your father’. These moments can make up the most memorable points of the story for the reader.

But moments that come out of the blue can also bewilder the reader and push them out of the story. You don’t want them to say ‘hold on, that doesn’t fit’.

Foreshadowing is a way of smoothing the edges of a big-bang surprise like that into the rest of the story, and making it less jarring for the reader; more ‘oh, wow’ and less ‘wait, what?’.

Does that mean you can’t have big secrets? Of course not. You don’t have to tell them everything in advance! Sometimes, hints and clues only make sense in retrospect. This is where using double meanings, subtleties of phrasing, and other easily-misinterpreted lines can work wonders.

Foreshadowing can also add another layer to your narrative (this is one of the ways that I enjoy using it). Crime and mystery writing might be a genre on its own, but in many ways, we’re all mystery writers. Or rather, a lot of readers are mystery readers. They love untangling mysteries, unpicking the hints and clues and trying to work out the puzzle of the story before them.

I like to accommodate those kinds of readers. I like dropping hints, planting subtle clues, so that those readers who are looking for them have something to play with. For those readers who don’t analyse the story too deeply, the narrative is pitched so that they get what they’re looking for too; picking up on the hints is purely optional and missing them doesn’t detract from the story.

But how do you do it in discovery writing?

In order to effectively foreshadow something, you have to have an idea of what it is in advance. When you are discovery writing (writing by the seat of your pants or ‘pantsing’, as some call it), you may not have this! And if you’re a web serial writer like me, writing and posting in a continuous, organic manner, you don’t have the luxury of going back and working them into the narrative retrospectively. There’s no editing and no retcons in web serials like mine!

So how is it possible? For starters, I usually have a good idea of where my plot is going at a high level. The details and the exact path to that destination are determined by my characters, and in many ways it develops as I go, but with that idea in mind, I can start dropping hints fairly early on. They’ll be general at first and become more refined as I build a clearer idea in my mind of exactly what I’m heading towards. And that’s fine: they are, after all, just hints.

That’s not the only way to do it, though. I’m going to let you in on a secret: you can use foreshadowing to make you look smarter and far more prepared than you are. This is because you can do it retrospectively without editing. (Yes, I’ve done this. Shh, don’t tell anyone.)

Think about all those elements that you can use as a foreshadowing element. A phrase, a word. A character quirk. An object out of place. A news story in the background. Something out of the focus of the scene, but put in for another reason – flavour, perhaps, or to illustrate setting or character. They could be completely unrelated to each other. They’re all over the place, and you can put them to use.

Sometimes it takes a little massaging of the idea you’re building up to. Alter a detail of it here, tweak the perspective slightly there, and suddenly, you’ve got something with hints already built into your narrative. Add in a few more clues (on purpose!) to smooth the edges if you need to, but sometimes even this isn’t necessary.

I do love when a plan comes together, whether you made it in advance or after the fact. Often, it surprises me how easy it is to do this retrospectively. Perhaps it’s my subconscious helping me shape the story before my conscious mind knows what’s coming! But it works, and sometimes, if you’re very lucky, you can tie together a number of elements into a neat, plot-tingling package and make it look as if you’d planned to do that all along.

Foreshadowing is fun. So go forth and enjoy it!

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