Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Message for M. Reader: Are You Telegraphing Your Plot?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Hints are great, but be wary of making it too obvious what's going to happen in your novel.

Have you ever watched a TV show or movie, and someone says something that you know is going to come back later and be the key to saving the day? "Well now," says random stranger, "we haven't use that road since a big old sinkhole opened up ten years ago." Immediately, we know that sinkhole is totally where the hero is going to lead the horrible monster or bad guy chasing him at the climax--and he does.

Kinda takes all the fun out of it, right?

While foreshadowing is a wonderful tool that can heighten tension and make the reader eager to know what will happen, telegraphing steals all the tension and takes the mystery out of those hints. It shines a light on the things you're actually trying to be subtle about. It's like foreshadowing gone too far.

(Here's more on Foreshadowing -- Don't You Love it?)

How do you know if you've gone too far?  

Telegraphic clues often feel stuck in, because they aren't a natural part of the events or thoughts the protagonist is currently experiencing. There are no reasons for the protagonist to look/think/say/notice what they just did aside from the author wanting to hint that whatever they're seeing/thinking/saying/noticing means something. It's a neon sign saying, "This will be important later."

Ask yourself:

If you had no idea what a clue meant, would it still fit the scene?

While a telegraph can show up anywhere, there are some common ones to watch out for it:

The Not-So-Random Stranger 

This is a character-to-be-important later. These guys walk into a scene and get noticed (often described with more detail than the scene warrants), but are then ignored. Later, at a key moment in the story, the protagonist remembers them and they're exactly what they need to save the day. Or worse, they appear exactly when needed.
Bob glanced up from his whiskey. A tall, beefy dude walked into the bar, coat dusty, face covered in dirt. And was that...? Yep, dynamite in his pockets. What kind of lunatic carried dynamite around like that? He shook his head and reached for the beer nuts.
How long do you think it'll be before Bob realizes he needs dynamite and this guy pops into his head? Or he's facing something he can't get past and needs someone with demolition skills? How surprised do you think the reader will be when Bob starts down the plot path where it'll be obvious that he'll need dynamite?

Now, if Bob had any meaningful interaction with the guy that served the scene, those little sticks of dynamite would slide on by and readers would probably barely notice. If the stranger has a purpose in the scene aside from foreshadowing or laying groundwork, the hints stay hints.

(Here's more on One, Two Three, Notice Me: The Rule of Three (And How it Helps Our Writing))

The Pointed-Out Item 

I blame movies for this one. Those slow zooms on something that's meant to be prophetic. The badge left on the desk, the burning candle, the drip. An item that carries significance is focused on and the protagonist pays a little too much attention to it while acting like they're not paying attention to it.
Jane rummaged through the backpack, lightening the load just like Bob asked her. No need for sterno, they had the kitchen gear for that. Extra magazines for the nine mil were a keeper. She pulled the hunting knife out. A heavy thing, the blade almost nine inches, deadly sharp, but she'd never actually used it. If she ever got that close to a zombie she was dead anyway. Did she really need to carry it? She tossed it on the bed. It could stay here until they got back.
Any doubts Jane is going to be in close quarters with a zombie and really need that knife and not have it? When the zombie jumps out, no one will be surprised.

But if she throws it in with her gear without undue comments, it's there in her backpack and the reader's mind, and it'll be nice surprise when she has a way to defend herself they weren't expecting. Just trim out the telegraphing parts:
Jane rummaged through the backpack, lightening the load just like Bob asked her. No need for sterno, they had the kitchen gear for that. The hunting knife was too heavy. Extra magazines for the nine mil were a keeper. She tossed everything else on the bed.
The clue has been dropped, the hint is there, and readers won't be waiting for it.

(Here's more on Planting the Clues and Hints in Your Story)

The Overheard News 

Sometimes this can be done with great effect, but it can also be a neon sign that something is going to happen. The TV or radio is on as a character walks into the room and the newscaster is talking about something the protagonist will need later. Or the protagonist is buying gas and two locals are arguing about a myth or local legend. The detail feels like it's slipped in naturally (it's just background noise after all) but it's stuck in so it's obvious instead of seamless.
Sally slid three tubes of sunscreen and the beef jerky strips across the counter. Highway robbery is what it was, but they needed the ammo and that didn't come cheap these days. She glanced at two old men over in the corner by the blankets.

"No one's seen him," the fat one said. "Told his wife he was headed up to Beggar's Canyon, but we didn't find him."

"Think he took off with that waitress?"

"Doubt it. She has better taste."

The clerk-extortionist handed her the ammo. "Thanks."
Two things we can expect from this. One, is that Sally will somehow end up at Beggar's Canyon because that'll be the answer to something they need. Two, she'll come across this missing man at some point. Will anyone be surprised? Not a bit.

Of course, that could very well be the point, which is why this is just as effective as it is ineffective. If you want readers to wonder about the missing man, and wonder how Beggar's Canyon fits in with the plot and what Sally's doing, then it could actually add the right amount of anticipation. But it's a tricky balance to get right. When it works, it's because readers are already curious about that direction anyway, and this gives them one more piece of a puzzle they already have. It's not just a random detail pointing in a direction.

You'd think expecting the things these details telegraph would actually raise the anticipation factor. It makes sense from a story standpoint that the reader can see these things coming and has time to wonder when they might occur. That's foreshadowing, right?

Not exactly.

Unpredictability is what keeps a reader reading. The uncertainty of how something will play out, what a character will do, how they'll solve a problem. Knowing what will happen makes the story feel predictable, and instead of wondering, they're waiting. If they can see the plot coming a mile away, they can figure out what's going to happen and then nothing feels new and exciting.

If you're drawing attention to it because you want the reader to remember it for later, there's a good chance you're telegraphing. If you're slipping it in and wondering how many readers will notice it, you're probably foreshadowing. Drop the hints. Don't point out the clues.

(Here's more on The Physiology of Foreshadowing)

Staying on the Foreshadow Side of Life 

One mystery-writer's trick is to hide important clues in the middle of other things. Readers don't pay much attention to what's in the middle of a paragraph. How different is Jane's knife clue if it looks like this:
Jane rummaged through the backpack, lightening the load just like Bob asked her. No need for sterno, they had the kitchen gear for that. She didn't need to lug around the hunting knife. Extra magazines for the nine mil were a keeper. She slung pack over her shoulders and tested the weight. Better.
Now, when the zombies start closing in we'll be worried. We'll remember she left she knife at home, and if we don't, we'll be more surprised when it's gone and then remember the reason why.

(Here's more on A Closer Look at Foreshadowing)

For overheard news, I like to mix in the important details with several other pieces of information. The protagonist doesn't just overhead the details she needs, but several things that fit the situation she finds herself in.
Sally walked into the trading post. Busy, which bode well for today's shopping trip. She elbowed her way through the gossiping crowd.

"Bunch of sixth graders took down a dragger if you can believe that."

"Told his wife he was headed up to Beggar's Canyon, but we didn't find him."

"Heard there was power down in Sante Fe if you had the cans for it."

She reached the counter. "Got any nine mils to trade?"
When Sally needs to know something's not right at Beggar's Canyon, she can remember this conversation. Or better, she walks into that canyon blind. If the reader remembers, they'll be extra worried because they'll know something's not right. But they won't expect it until she actually gets there or it becomes relevant to the story.

Are you telegraphing things that "will be important later?" Are there any foreshadowing moments you might take another look at now? 

*Originally published June 2012. Last updated April 2018.

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you  can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue 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.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. I love when an author plants clues and I don't pick them up. I love the aha moment. I try my hardest and hiding clues in lists is a great idea and one I employ! :)

    I just watched a movie last night and I definitely saw one twist but after writing/editing I think our brains pick up them more easily.

  2. Great post. Thanks for the examples. They really clarified how much better a story reads without the author screaming, "clue here!"

  3. A "true" Harry Potter reader knows that regardless of how subtle your foreshadowing is, someone is going to spot it, and someone is going to guess the whole plot.

    So it's better to lean toward the subtle side and trust your readers.

  4. Great post. Goes in my keeper folder.

  5. VERY helpful. I always wonder if I'm doing this.

  6. Ah great post, very helpful and great examples!

  7. Laura, me too. It's that "Ooo I should have seen that!" moment. I agree about movie twists. I spot them right away all the time now too. It's hard to turn off the brain.

    Tahmina, most welcome. The examples are one of my favorite parts about writing the blog :)

    C0, hehe so true, so true. You can fool everyone, but subtly works in most cases.

    LD, thanks! Glad it was helpful.

    Suzanne, thanks! I check myself all the time as well. We know our work so well we're not always the best judge.

    VikLit, thanks!

  8. Thanks for this - a really nice differentiation between foreshadowing and telegraphing. I love foreshadowing, but now I will be sure that that is what I am doing, and not saying "Here, look at this! It'll be important later!") ... Another question for the beta readers, perhaps?

  9. Oooh, I like this. I love it when a clue tiny detail is hidden and not obvious. Makes reading so much fun. Good to remember for my writing!

  10. Oh, great post Janice! This bit really hammered it home for me:

    Drop the hints. Don't point out the clues.

    Thanks for going over this.

  11. Deberelene, a good question for them. I've asked mine what they think is going to happen based on my clues. Sometimes they're dead on, sometimes the red herrings work and they're off.

    Julie, me too. It also makes the book worth a second read.

    Mandy, most welcome! Glad it clicked for you.

  12. I love this! Thanks for distinguishing between foreshadowing and telegraphing. I certainly am guilty of forgetting the difference between the two sometimes:)

  13. Nutschell, most welcome. I think as writers, we worry about the reader not getting it that we sometimes make it too obvious.

  14. great post. made me think about squeezing things into the middle without drawing too much attention to them. Thanks!

  15. One thing I do when writing is get foreshadowing in as a placeholder. It may be clunky and obvious but I know it has to be there. Then I go back and cover it up. I think the best foreshadowing is so delicate it is only in retrospect that you think, oh, I remember that from earlier!

  16. I hate when a story line is too predictable.

  17. Carol, hiding in plain sight can work very well. One of my favorite tricks.

    Charlotte, good plan. I'll make notes to myself. (add foreshadow). I agree about the "oh!" moments.

    Writing, me too. Surprise me!

  18. Great post. The examples of how to do it right helped a lot.

  19. Thanks Joe, glad it was useful :)

  20. Love, love, love this post! I've already had to adjust a couple things because of it. I definitely do NOT want my little clues to be too obvious. Hard when I usually write like I'm wielding a frying pan. Absolutely must work on subtlety, lol.

  21. D.B., thanks! I think one of the harder parts isn't being subtle, it's figuring out if I AM being subtle or not. It feels clear and subtle when I read it, but is it clear to the reader or just confusing them? Time away from the manuscript helps here.

  22. I started calling this "first coughs" after an SNL sketch with Alec Baldwin from a couple years ago; it was a fake commercial type thing where he teaches people who to subtly cough to foreshadow sickness or death.

  23. Stephsco, lol great name. Sounds like a funny skit, too. But accurate. How many times have you seen a TV or movie character cough and you KNOW they'll be sick by the end of the movie.

  24. This is a great post!
    I am a big fan of forshadowing too, but I'm also terrible at finding them when I read. I never see anything coming unless it's obvious like in your examples. I guess that makes me an easy-to-surprise reader =)

    1. I'd rather be an easy-to-surprise reader than one who sees it all coming a mile away. You get to enjoy the twists much more :)

  25. This post is really helpful. As a writer who loves foreshadowing, I always wonder whether I am doing it right or if I'm just ruining the surprise before it even takes shape u_u your post provided actual examples/illustrations to help me do better next time. Thanks so much!! ^_^

  26. I'm not sure if I'm doing it right. A couple of my trys are to have it in the dialogue, but I made it out to be a made up profane word of a mythical creature. Is that telegraphing if the creature shows up (as a secondary character) later on? I'm still having a bit of a problem wrapping my head around this stuff.

  27. thanks for sharing this again. It's terrific!

  28. I always worry that my foreshadowing is too obvious and now I have a few tricks to keep in mind - thank you!! Great advice as usual.

    1. Happy to help! Find a good beta reader who knows nothing about the book :) They're good at spotting anything too obvious.