The beauty of writing is that the unexpected happens. A random comment because the key clue to the main plot, a walk on character turns out to the star, or a relationship develops between people or events we never anticipated.
This can be good or bad, but it can also be quite useful. These accidental foreshadows are often exactly what we need to shake up a plot or add depth to an existing storyline.
For example, years ago I was working on a scene and I knew I needed to make some trouble for the protagonist. Problem was, I didn’t have anything planned to cause trouble, and all my ideas felt stuck in and didn’t flow with the story. I could have forged ahead anyway and made something up, but I like drawing on what’s already in the story so there's a nice sense of continuity.
Any planned foreshadowing I’d already done was scheduled to create trouble later, so using them wouldn’t work. Instead, I looked at what I'd accidentally foreshadowed.
- All those little throwaway comments I'd made in the narrative.
- All those details I'd added solely for tone or mood.
- All those hints of things that could have gone wrong, even though I had had no intention of actually having them happen.
Not only was it the perfect fix to my sluggish scene, it connected the novel in ways I hadn’t expected and opened up an entirely new layer to play with. That accidental foreshadowed moment ended up linking to other moments, because it had been swirling around in my subconscious the whole time. It was as if the novel wanted me to make those connections.
During the drafting stage, we add a variety of details to our stories to raise the tension or tweak the emotions of our reader. Why not convert some of those details into plot?
You'll have extra oompf because the seed has already been planted in readers’ minds, and on some level, they're probably wondering if it'll happen anyway. They'll probably start worrying long before your protagonist does. You'll also build on what you've previously written, so the story will feel tighter and more connected. It'll even create new tension, because now any throwaway detail could be an important clue or plot element.
Use Abandoned Clues
Skim through your scenes for any throwaway clues or comments that relate to the story or world in some way. What clues could be potential foreshadowing events? What would happen if a fear or comment lead somewhere? Could one of them:
- Have greater meaning for the protagonist?
- Affect the protagonist at the worst possible time?
- Affect a secondary or supporting character in a way that also affects the protagonist?
- Turn into a scene or event later in the novel?
- Become a stepping stone problem to a main plot or subplot?
Use Close Calls
What almost happens is another potential area to explore for later use. Look at any close calls your protagonist has in the novel. Could they foreshadow another close call? You've already teased readers with it once, so if it happens again, they'll be all the more concerned that this time it'll be real. Or maybe the close call:
- Triggered another event that will come back and cause trouble.
- Was intended to be a learning experience for the protagonist, and she either A) learned and does better the next time or B) totally missed the point and the consequences are even worse. This works well to create the first two points of a mini arc, so now, readers are looking for that third event.
- Suggest stakes or a consequence you were reluctant to embrace for some reason, but the story might benefit from it. Sometimes we discard an idea because we feel it’ll be too mean, or too hard to write, or cause issues we just don’t want to deal with. But on further thought, it’s exactly what we need.
Use Thematic Elements
An accidental foreshadow doesn’t have to hint at an event to work. Anything to support or convey the theme could reappear and form a thematic arc. For example, if you notice you have two examples of characters suffering due to greed, you might add that third example to show a character either overcoming or succumbing to greed. They might even work as the first two steps that lead into the Dark Night of the Soul or All is Lost moments of the narrative arc.
As the adage goes, no writing is ever wasted, and some of it can be recycled to the novel’s benefit. Why create new conflicts when we’ve laid the groundwork for problems without thinking?
After all. Those who ignore history, are doomed to think up new stuff.
Have you ever used a detail you thought was inconsequential? Have you ever mined your own story for ideas on what to do next in your plot? How do you like to foreshadow?
Looking for tips on revising or planning your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl, and Writers in the Storm.
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