Friday, April 17, 2015

Make the Most of Accidental Foreshadowing

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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.
Then I made one of those fears real.

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.
(Here’s more on the rule of three)

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 planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series (and Amazon bestseller), Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, 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, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, the Amazon bestseller, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. Fun post. Something to think about on this rainy writing day.

  2. Those are really great ideas - and I plan to put them to work in my current WIP. Thanks!!

  3. I'm of the firm belief that a writer's subconscious is busy planting things the writer is blind to at the moment.

    When I rework a novel, I'll find lots of foreshadowing of events, I didn't think I'd planned until the moment I wrote it, and I'll discover that certain types of metaphors or images have kept appearing that fit a theme or event, I didn't know was coming.

    Part of the trick for a writer is going back over the work and building on the bread crumb hints left by her subconscious.

    My subconscious just showed its unhappiness of my comments by making me unable to spell "subconscious" which is a word I normally spell with ease.

  4. This is a very effective technique. I remember a blog post I read awhile back on a very similar topic, but I can't think of where it was. But it sounded like a great idea then, and it's no less enticing now. It's always good to fire off a round from Chekhov's gun.

  5. That's a great idea. It's one to keep in mind, especially in writing a series. You could even plant some of the potential problems in earlier books in the series.

  6. Hmm. You've sparked a fire under my muse. Thanks!

  7. Mining for ideas in stuff you've already written. Fun! I've done that in one of my WIP. It's a great feeling to go, "Ooo, here I've said this, and there I've done this. So, now over here I could have this other thing happen and have her say this!" Don't know about you, but it makes me giddy. :D Now I just have to finish the story.

  8. I'm such a believer of the subconscious. Too many times things have clicked in my head and I realized there's all this groundwork already done for something cool I "came up with" later in the novel.

    I think I might toss cool ideas out there to see what happens and where they go, and some work and some don't. The working ones turn into plot, the others either stay background stuff or get edited out. (or get used in the sequel!)

  9. I dreamt last night about my character in a scene that could foreshadow somethings later on. Nice post. ANother one to save!

  10. I think about half of my soon-to-be-queried novel is the result of accidents. A throwaway false accusation in the first paragraphs turned into a driver for the protagonist's entire internal struggle. A random character that was tossed in for a single scene turned into one of the most important characters in the book, as a secondary antagonist and the biggest struggle in the relationship arc. And then one tense scene thrown in on a whim also blossomed into a major development that gave focus to my nebulous "excitement happens here" plans for a climax. And this was for a novel that I thought I'd outlined!

    1. That's actually why I like outlining--I think it works like a subconscious jump start, so it's figuring things out in the background while we write. Sounds like yours is quite skilled at it :)

  11. Because I'm a pantser, the accidental foreshadowing is always at hand. I can only assume that with plotters, this doesn't come as easily because of the detailed organization that's done before the actual writing.

    1. I think it depends on how much outlining is done, but yes, I'd tend to agree you about pantsing. You guys live in your subconscious :)

  12. Yes! I do this all the time too. It's great when it all comes together. Another thing to watch for is characters that you might use again later in the story. The barber. The person who waits at the same bus stop. A teacher, friend, or bully who you only used for one scene. Can they become more important to the story later on? It's better to make use of a minor character than to write in another one-use character at the climax or mystery solution.

    1. Absolutely. I had one of those in The Shifter. A walk on character for the opening scene turned out to be a major character and the protagonist's love interest later.

  13. Ah this I get! Now I think I can go fix things ^-^ thank you for laying foreshadowing out like this. *hugs you*

  14. Arg! I went to your blog, but your books don't link to anyplace were I can buy them.Link please? I want to put them on my Amazon wish list, so next time I load some cash on a gift card I'll remember to buy one.

  15. Never mind I'm being stupid, you link is big and teal, (oops!)