Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Foreshadowing -- Don't You Love it?

 By Cathy Clamp

JH: We launch this year's "How They Do It" column with an article on foreshadowing from author Cathy Clamp. Cathy is one half of Cat Adams, the pseudonym for writing team C.T. Adams and Cathy Clamp. Their urban fantasy Demon Song releases this week. This pair has a long history of writing urban fantasies that thrill.

C.T. Adams and Cathy Clamp began writing as a team in 1997. They quickly learned that their individual talents in writing created a dynamite combination in historical and paranormal novels!
Cathy resides in the Texas Hill Country with her husband, dogs, cats and 24 Boer/Spanish cross goats!

Take it away Cathy...

Readers who love to have a mystery in a novel instinctively look for a particular plot device, even before they know what it’s called. How many Harry Potter fans were delighted to discover that Harry being able to talk to snakes would open the Chamber of Secrets? Agatha Christie was a master of the technique. And Then There Were None (previously titled Ten Little Indians) used the concept of a prophecy to target one of the characters. In fantasy, a prophecy is one of the primary methods of delivering foreshadowing. The more cryptic the prediction, the more the reader is able to try to fit the facts of the plot into it. Shakespeare’s witches hinted at later events in MacBeth , and the reader got to watch the events unfold until the rhyme became all too clear.

But what is foreshadowing and how can an aspiring author achieve it?
I’ve discovered the most simple way is to either work backwards (in the case of a single book) or give yourself “play room” for future books in a series. To achieve a backward foreshadowing, you need to pick an element of the plot that you want to tease the reader with and then figure out a way for the character to come into contact with the element innocently. One example is our first Cat Adams novel, Magic’s Design. Publishers Weekly noticed the clever foreshadowing we used which I managed by backwards plotting.

In this book, I wanted two plot elements to really stand out to the reader later in the book, and making them curious early in the book is the best way to achieve that. The magic in the reality was based on a combination of nature magic and drawing designs (hence, “Magic’s Design”). The book opens with the heroine meeting a friend to sell hand-crafted decorated eggs. They’re intricate and worth a lot of money because of the time expended. She makes more money than she planned and is happy. That’s an innocent opening, because many readers have hobbies that they do on the side to earn extra cash. But her hobby came SECOND. My plot came first and I tried to figure out a way to have the heroine come into contact with the plot early. A new first chapter (Chapter 2 was the original start) solved both my introduction of the heroine and the subtle foreshadowing. To have it come back in later and become vital to the resolution of the mystery—much like the Harry Potter example—makes the reader happy because mystery readers love to be stumped. Readers are smart, so every time an author can surprise them, they’re ecstatic.

Surprise and suspense are the keys to foreshadowing. One of the worst things an author can do is “telegraph the punch.” If you give away too much in your attempt at foreshadowing, the reader will be disappointed. They want the mystery and the surprise. Give them a hint (hence: shadow) and you’ll become their favorite author.

So, how is it done? Think of it like the old adage “waiting for the other boot to drop.” You first drop a boot . . . a hint of an event, and then make the reader wait, wondering when the other is going to hit the floor. For a romance, it can be an unexpected meeting of the hero by the heroine when he does something as simple as give up his cab to her, during a rainstorm, and smiling before walking away. Poof. You move on and follow the heroine, but the trigger remains in the reader’s mind. Who was he? Why did he give up the cab? What was the half-smile for? Your foreshadow is firmly in place.

For a horror novel, the scenario is much the same. Take H.P. Lovecraft’s The Rats in the Walls. Rats were common in the area, and lived behind walls, just like today. But there were too many and too loud and . . . well, were they really rats after all? The foreshadowing leaves the reader unbalanced, not sure what is real and what are the ramblings of a madman. Even the use of imagery in the word choice can foreshadow later events. A “sinister” or “maddening” adjective related to a place makes the reader wonder what brought that word to mind in the character.

Another type of foreshadowing actually accomplishes the opposite—the “red herring.”
Technically, it’s foreshadowing. You’re giving hints of events to occur later. But the goal is to mislead the reader and push them down another path, to make them think someone other than the villain is the . . . well, the villain. One or two good red herrings will also win you readers because throwing off the reader is the goal.

The most important element of any sort of foreshadowing is that YOU MUST ADDRESS IT LATER. You cannot leave clues at the beginning of a novel and forget about them later. That’s often why I put them in after the book’s written. It’s easier to insert a line or a paragraph here or there after you already know what you want to foreshadow than risk failing to follow up on an important hint.

So who out there likes foreshadowing in your novels and what’s the best one you ever read? I’d love to know because I love a good mystery!

About Demon Song
Bodyguard Celia Graves plies her trade in a world where bloodthirsty vampires roam the night and street corner psychics have real powers. A vamp attack turned Celia into a unique creature who finds sunlight painful and must take all her food in liquid form—but who still possesses her human heart, mind, and soul.

The attack also awakened a hidden part of her heritage: Celia is part Siren, able to enthrall men . . . and enrage women . . . without half-trying. Needless to say, her bodyguard business has taken off: who wouldn’t want to be protected by a sexy, extremely capable woman who is half-vampire, half-Siren princess?

An ancient rift between the demonic dimension and our own—sealed during the destruction of Atlantis—begins to open, threatening to loose all the demons of hell on humanity (including the one personally bent on destroying Celia). Celia’s hellish recent experiences might have have given her the unique combination of abilities needed to close the rift. But to overcome a death curse which nearly guarantees her failure, she’ll need to join forces with people she no longer trusts . . . and put people she has come to care about directly in harm’s way.


  1. Thanks so much Cathy for launching this year's How They Do It column! Great stuff :)

  2. Great post, Cathy! Thanks for this, Janice. I really enjoyed it.

  3. This was a great post for me, especially where I'm working in a novel right now. Thanks!

  4. I'll keep this in mind when I need to drop in a bit of foreshadowing. I suppose I already have some in place for my current story, because I've hinted at some backstory, and the past is gonna bite both of the protagonists where it hurts most.

  5. Cathy, you do a great job of describing the many facets of foreshadowing -- not easy at all. I particularly love the way you differentiate "waiting for the other boot to drop" and "red herrings".

    I recently read Koontz's WHAT THE NIGHT KNOWS and in studying the structure for an article on metaphor discovered all the amazing foreshadowing he drops in. That foreshadowing made me want to turn the pages to find out what it meant, where it would lead - which amped the pace of the book.

    Something I never realized foreshadowing could do.

    Nice article. Thanks.

  6. Excellent post. Love the examples showcasing different techniques. Of course, the trick is to bend the trope and balance sublety with clarity. It always comes down to execution.

    Thanks again,


  7. Thank you for sharing! It's always interesting to see how other writers use foreshadowing in their stories.

  8. working backwards...priceless suggestion!

  9. Me too Anonymous, working backwards now makes heaps of sense. Thank you Cathy.