Foreshadowing and Flashbacks in Your Novel
By Don Daniels, The Rhetorical Oracle
Foreshadowing is the device of giving the reader a hint of what is to come. Not too much, just enough to intrigue the reader. It is often part of the hook, but can be used anywhere in the story, and multiple times, to foreshadow lots of different events and revelations.
There are different kinds of foreshadowing
The most basic kind is setting the mood. Movies and audiobooks can do that with music, but print novels are limited to the picture the words paint. The most famous is the often mocked, “It was a dark and stormy night,” family of openings. Violent weather is so often used to foreshadow, it has become cliché. Another way it can be used is to set the scene, then insert an abrupt contradiction: “Harry decided he didn’t want to be caught dead staying indoors on a beautiful spring Saturday like today, so he postponed his suicide until Monday. It’s not like there was any urgency; there was no way his boss would discover what-all he had done before then.” This foreshadows a character in deep trouble; but implies much more going on and that the foreshadowed event might not happen.
Foreshadowing is also used in poetry and short stories, but at an accelerated pace. For example, in Poe’s The Raven: “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary…” You just know something is going to interrupt his nap.
Another Favorite Form of Foreshadowing is with a Flashback
Flashbacks may be used to hint that the repercussions of a prior action are about to occur. A flash-forward, the fear of something coming. These can be used for short scenes. If there is too much for a flashback or a flashforward, you can still use those to whet the reader’s appetite for a sequel or a prequel.
Narrative spotlighting can work: “A bullet travels much faster than sound, so the bullet entered his left ear before the sound reached what was left of it.”
Show Don’t Tell!
As with most writing, showing is better than telling. Showing a character’s fear or apprehension foreshadows their awareness that something is about to happen and heightens the readers’ emotions.
Other foreshadowing vehicles include prophecies and curses. Probably the best- known today are from Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. But they have been used for the entire history of literature, including that Macbeth’s famous, “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.”
Mistakes to Avoid
So foreshadowing is a very useful tool, but there are mistakes to avoid when using it. Foreshadowing should never be so obvious that the reader feels bludgeoned, or worse, insulted by it. If you feel a need to foreshadow to that extent, don’t! But if you must, you can use a somewhat confused or disoriented character as a foil and explain it in dialogue.
Some things are only believable when foreshadowed
Suppose you’re writing a mystery and the main suspect, despite positive identifications by multiple witnesses, professes innocence; if it turns out the character has a hitherto unknown twin, that fact must be foreshadowed somehow. Anyone raised in a normal family would know about a missing twin. In Harry Potter, Peter Pettigrew still being alive was foreshadowed by his body never being found except for one finger, and the existence of animagus wizards who can take animal forms.
Also, if you foreshadow a danger, that foreshadow should never be contradicted by the story. If the foreshadowed event is that a dying man must convey a cryptic message or crucial knowledge dies with him, the story must not end with the revelation that actually a hundred or so others already knew that secret all along, and that dying man was fully aware of this and left a map how to find them. I loved Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code right up until in the ending revealed he did this, in an attempt to put one final twist in the story. As far as ai was concerned, that one final twist broke the story’s neck and I have never bought or read another Dan Brown novel since. Now, certainly, a mystery might foreshadow something that turns out to be a red herring or a false lead. Agatha Christie and the Law and Order stories do that all time. But if you, as the author, don’t expose it as such in the course of the story, you may lose the reader’s trust. I consider it a cardinal rule: If you want to write more than one book, never try to cheat the reader! It isn’t clever; it’s just dumb.”
Some events need to be foreshadowed, otherwise the story loses credibility. My favorite foreshadowing is the subtle kind that the reader is likely to dismiss as part of the backdrop, and only at the Great Revelation does it hit the reader. If you’re good, the reader may wonder how they could possibly have missed that, and even dig back through the story again, hunting for the foreshadowing they overlooked.
And it had better all be there!
Sometimes, the better foreshadowing technique is to just “pencil in” where you think the foreshadowing might fit, but not make the final decision about it until the final drafts (yes, there may be several final drafts!).
That’s when you will likely be in a much better position to insert exactly the kind and intensity of foreshadowing you need, and you will know the absolute best places to insert those foreshadowing scenes.