Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Physiology of Foreshadowing

By Alina Klein

Today we have Alina Klein chatting about foreshadowing and offering tips (and examples, you know how much I love those) on way you can foreshadow important elements in your own work. Alina's debut YA novel (still untitled) will be out in 2012.

Take it away, Alina...

Make readers anticipate what's next
I’m sort of a science geek so it’s not surprising that I sometimes compare writing concepts to scientific ones.

To me, foreshadowing is like physiology—the study of the functioning of organisms. Bodies have different systems: digestive, cardiovascular, lymphatic, respiratory and so on. When studying these systems,facts about each illuminate and clarify understanding of the others. They’re interdependent,and yet it isn’t always obvious how each element impacts the others until you’ve learned them all. Then the connections light up. The subtle links and quirky shapes of things are revealed as integral parts of the whole.

That’s what foreshadowing is: subtle connections that offer trickles of enlightenment as a reader navigates a story. If done well these connections should stretch back like links in a chain to the beginning of the book—producing a satisfying and tightly knit whole.

I’m a pantser. I have a character and sometimes an inkling of a problem when I start writing and that’s about it. So, as I write I’m looking for ways to connect dots and gain forward momentum. If an element pops up that I didn’t anticipate—and I rarely do—then I consider what it might foreshadow. I’ll try to look at it from a reader’s perspective—what might this element hint at if it were in someone else’s novel? Then I’ll attempt to twist the possibilities into a new shape and give myself a “destination” to write toward. Or I’ll jump straight to the destination to write that scene,which might inspire other scenes, and so on. It’s like a nerve impulse traveling across a synaptic gap—from one little nugget of story to the next, off to where the impulse is needed.

Foreshadowing is classically (cliché-ically?) of the “Little did she know…” variety, but I find other techniques more effective and fun. Here—from the lab—are examples of my favorites:


Karina pinched the metal strip of her mask more firmly against her nose to block the smell, and scanned the lab. It wasn’t the rats. Their cages were clean and their scent was familiar to her. No, it was something else, something she couldn’t quite name—but it niggled at her.
Atmosphere consists of setting, weather, sounds, scents—anything intangible that evokes the appropriate mood. In this scene there is an unfamiliar, and apparently unpleasant,scent bothering Karina, something that is vaguely familiar to her—what could it be? We feel her discomfort. We empathize with almost being able to grasp a slippery memory.And we have a sense that something bad is coming. Mysterious elements like this draw a reader in and set the tone.

Washing pipettes had certainly become more interesting with Karina in the lab. Felix watched as she turned back to her microscope and hunched her shoulders. He tossed another clean pipette into the bin beside him. The dripping tools formed a heart-shaped mound. Puddles oozed across the red plastic.
Symbolism is a little more palpable than atmosphere. A symbol is usually something physical that relates to or implies something that it isn’t. In this case we have dripping tools that evoke an image of a heart lying in a pool…of blood perhaps?Will someone end up with a broken heart, or something worse?

Emotional responses
One more slide and I can break for coffee. Karina set the last one aside and stood to stretch. She removed her mask before leaving the desk, reminding herself that she’d soon be enjoying the smell of slightly-burnt coffee-a’ la lab. As she hurried toward the door, her glance was caught by a tech standing at the sink washing equipment. He gave her a friendly smile. Karina felt her skin prickle. Her feet moved faster.
“Karina’s skin prickled. Her feet moved faster.” With only those two lines we know that Felix makes Karina nervous and that something is likely to happen between them. They won’t be strangers for long. If her response had been to slow down, to become aware of her posture and feel blood warming her cheeks, we’d have had another reason to worry because, thanks to the symbolism discussed above, we’re pretty sure Felix is bad news. We’d worry differently if she didn’t seem aware of that.

Misinterpretation in dialogue
“Horrible stuff, isn’t it?”
The voice startled Karina and she slopped coffee onto the table as she jerked toward it. The tech from the sink stood in the doorway behind her.

“Mind if I sit with you for a cup?”

Yes, she thought. She crossed her legs and tucked them under her chair. “Um, okay,”she said in as friendly a tone as she could manage. She cradled her cup against her chest and leaned back as she watched him sit.

“I’d like to buy you a real cup of coffee,” he said, staring directly into her eyes.

Karina attempted a laugh. “Well, that would be nice of you.” She looked down at her cup.

“You’d like that?” He rested his elbows on the table and leaned toward her.
Karina felt her back press hard against the chair. “Sure, I mean…this isn’t very good.” Please go away. She took another sip.
This is one of my favorite methods. Each character is drawing conclusions from the conversation that the other is not. This could—and, of course, will because we’re writers—explode into juicy conflict. You don’t need to use multiple points-of-view for this technique to work, either. The reader can be surprised along with the protagonist when the misunderstanding is discovered. However the seeds of it must be there to see in retrospect,via body-language, phrases that could mean more than one thing, etc.

Concrete items
Felix returned to the lab smiling at how easy it had been, a coffee date in mere seconds. He walked to the sink, flipped on the water, and dragged over a bin of scalpels.
Concrete items, unlike symbols, are meant to be exactly what they appear to be. This is an object that receives at least a passing mention early on because it’s an item that is going to play an important role later in the story. Should I need a scalpel or two they have just been made a physical part of the story, and therefore are available for duty.

You can say it: the story samples I’ve given above are heavy-handed. If Felix ends up killing Karina with a scalpel just before “the end” you are going to feel SO cheated. Readers like to feel clever just like writers do. If my clues are blatant I’d better have a serious twist in store—one entirely consistent with the elements I’ve introduced—or my readers are going to hate me, or worse, hate my story. Readers want to think and reason. Let them put on their lab coats and dig in.

And don’t worry about getting it all into the first draft. One of the best things about foreshadowing—especially to a pantser like me—is that it can be done in either direction, and at anytime in the writing process. If you use foreshadowing in initial drafts it can provide forward momentum, as described above, or you can work backward, incorporating hints to anchor later surprises. Since foreshadowing is generally subtle it’s fairly simple to add or remove clues until you get it all just right.

Since I’m a science-geek it might be assumed that I also have a “scientific-mind” (i.e. organized and logical) but, alas, it isn’t so. My methods are haphazard at best. But they seem to work for me. And perhaps they will spark ideas of what will work for you.

I’ll leave you with 5 more ways in which books are like bodies:

1. Every component must serve a purpose (or two).

2. Padding, no matter how luscious, is best kept to a minimum.

3. Bits that aren’t working should be removed like the gall bladders they are.

4. Characters=kidneys, it’s okay to remove one if the other can do its work.

5. Neither a novel nor a body needs an appendix.

Alina B. Klein’s (untitled) YA debut novel will be released by Namelos in 2012. To learn more, please visit her website.


  1. Thank you for your contribution; everything was well said.

    I loved the part about readers like to feel smart too...as long as they don't feel bored. That is one of the toughest lines to walk IMO.

    Good post.

  2. Awesome post! I wish I hadn't been eating my Cheerios during it (rats + blood + scalpels), but this really was great. I especially liked how you described the way foreshadowing can give a novel cohesion and forward motion.

  3. Great post. All your examples were really helpful. Thanks.

  4. Thanks to Alina for stopping by today. I really love her examples and how she explains what she did to foreshadow. I find the whole "which word to choose" process fascinating.

  5. Loved the snippets you used, they may be heavy handed but they made the topic very clear too. I think I can take it from here.

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  7. WOW! :D Just when I thought I could escape CHEM homework I read this...so true, and very thought provoking! Also, your writing is the shazam. Just sayn'.

  8. :D Thank you all for the lovely comments! I'm so glad you found my post helpful. I would type more and gush about Janice, but I'm typing on my phone at the airport and it's like I'm typing through molasses. :P

  9. Wonderful examples! Thanks for the refresher in foreshadowing, much appreciated. Best of luck with your upcoming book release as well :)

  10. Wow, really helpful post, thanks for sharing! Found it through YA Highway, btw.

  11. Great post! Thanks for sharing! (I hopped over from Stina's blog)

  12. 5. Neither a novel nor a body needs an appendix.

    This made me spit out my water! Great way to say it!