Welcome to Day Seventeen of Fiction University’s Month-Long Revision Workshop. As we enter this stage, we should feel pretty good about our plot and characters, and understand what and why they’re doing all those exciting and interesting things in our novels. We’ve been focusing on the what and the why for a while, so it’s time to give a little attention to the where.
Now that we have a rich world filled with the right emotions, it’s time to make the most of them and slip in all those hints, clues, and whispers of things to come.
Today, let’s strengthen our foreshadow and reveals.
1. Create a Mystery Arc
If this wasn’t part of your editorial map, it can be helpful to do a quick mystery arc to see where critical secrets are revealed, and clarify who knows what when, and where the clues are. That way you can make sure someone isn’t acting on information not yet learned.
A great story puzzle leaves lots of clues that readers can look back on and see that the answers were there the whole time. Look at how the mystery side of your plot unfolds and where readers encounter clues and reveals. If you’re unsure how these elements should unfold, ask:
When do you want readers to start suspecting things? Establishing patterns is a great foreshadowing technique. Tension builds when readers are expecting something and waiting eagerly for it to happen. Don’t forget the value of the Rule of Three here:
- The first time someone sees something they merely see it.
- The second time, they notice it, because it stands out now.
- The third time, they’re looking for it because you’ve established a pattern to anticipate.
When do you want the protagonist start figuring it out? Readers often spot things long before characters do, but if the clues are too obvious, then the characters can look dumb if they haven’t figured them out as well. Check to make sure you have a good balance between reader hints and character hints. If your protagonist needs to know something by page 45, make sure you’ve left enough clues so the realization feels plausible.
2. Check the Foreshadowing Details
The right foreshadowing details can raise tensions and make future surprises feel inevitable. A lack of foreshadowing can make those same surprises feel out of the blue and even a little contrived. Make sure your foreshadowing the right events and laying the groundwork for those plot twists and turns. Consider:
Are there any slow/weak scenes that could benefit from adding some foreshadowing? Weak spots in need of help could be opportunities to create a scene that links back or foreshadows another.
What emotional scenes might benefit from a little foreshadowing a few scenes earlier? If a character has a major breakdown or dark moment, try getting readers to start worrying about it earlier—even if they don’t know what’s wrong, they’ll have an unsettling sense that something is coming. You can put them in the right headspace for a scene to have maximum emotional impact.
What “out of the blue shocker information” would feel more inevitable with a little foreshadowing to lay the groundwork? Major surprises can sometimes feel like they come from nowhere if there’s not a single clue that it could have happened. Sometimes we want that, but these surprises often feel more believable if subtle clues were there all along.
Are there any set up scenes that could do double duty as a foreshadowing scene? Sometime we need to have certain things happen for later plot events to work. These scenes can be good candidates to layer in deeper meaning or foretell the future, and be more that just one step in a larger plot.
(Here are more articles on foreshadowing)
3. Eliminate Telegraphed Details
While foreshadowing can heighten tension and make readers 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, because there’s no reason for the protagonist to look/think/say/notice what she just did, aside from the author wanting to hint that it means something. Ask yourself: If you had no idea what a clue meant, would it still fit the scene? If yes, odds are it’s fine. If no, it’s probably telegraphing.
Common telegraphing areas:
The not-so-random stranger: These guys walk into a scene and get noticed (often described with more detail than the scene warrants), but are then ignored. At a key moment later in the story, the protagonist remembers them and they're exactly what’s needed to save the day. Or worse—they appear when needed.
The obvious pointed-out item: 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. Readers know this item is going to be important later.
The overheard news: Sometimes this can be done to great effect, but it can also be a neon sign that something is going to happen. The TV 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 out somewhere and two locals are arguing about a myth or local legend that will be encountered in a few chapters. The detail feels like it's slipped in naturally (it's just background noise after all) but it's obvious instead of seamless because it stands out.
General rule of thumb: If you're drawing attention to a detail because you want readers 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 hints, don't point out the clues.
Foreshadow tip: 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, but they do focus on the beginning and end of that same paragraph.
After today’s session, we should have a novel that’s as emotionally satisfying as it is intellectually stimulating. Next, we’ll make sure we’re showing all this wonderful emotion and description and not telling it.
Tomorrow: Eliminate Unnecessary Told Prose
New to the At-Home Workshop? Find the current list of revision steps and earlier prep work on the introductory page.
Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook.
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, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).
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