Tuesday, July 04, 2017

A Closer Look at Foreshadowing

By Don Allmon, @dallmon

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Foreshadowing is an important tool for any writer to have in their toolbox. It helps move the plot, create tension, and pique reader interest. Please help me welcome Don Allmon to the lecture hall today to share some tips on creating foreshadowing in your novel.

In his night job, Don Allmon writes science fiction, fantasy, and romance. In his day job, he’s an IT drone. He holds an MA in English literature from the University of Kansas where he wrote his thesis on medieval werewolf stories. He’s a fan of role-playing and board games. He has lived all over from New York to San Francisco, but currently lives on the prairies of Kansas. His debut novel, The Glamour Thieves is the first in a cyberpunk/fantasy/romance trilogy. It is currently available for pre-purchase through the Riptide bookstore, and becomes available at all your favorite e-tailers August 28.

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Take it away Don...

Foreshadowing can be a little confusing. It’s a single word used to describe a narrative technique that can be used for two different purposes. Probably there should be two different words—one for each purpose—but there isn’t. So to make this discussion a bit clearer, I’m going to borrow a word from film studies: planting (as in: planting and payoff).

Planting: This version of foreshadowing is introducing an element of the story so that it can be used later in the plot without the reader saying “Where the hell did that come from?” It’s used to create plot logic. For instance: If Susan shoots Paul with a gun, the author might plant the gun early in the story—tell the reader there’s a rifle on the mantelpiece—so that the reader doesn’t get distracted by wondering where Susan got the gun later on when she murders Paul.

This version of foreshadowing is a clue that implies a later plot complication. It’s used to develop tension. For instance: The Wicked Witch of the West says “Poppies! Poppies! Poppies will put them to sleep!” And in the scene immediately following that one, Dorothy sees the Emerald City in the distance and runs toward it, but the audience sees the field of poppies between Dorothy and the city and knows something bad is going to happen. Without the witch’s scene, the field of poppies signals nothing to the reader. We wouldn’t know that field of flowers is bad; it’s just a pretty field. With the scene, the field signals danger and creates tension.

There’s obviously some overlap between these two definitions. The sight of a gun on a mantle might make the reader wonder who eventually shoots it, and so might add a bit of tension. And Dorothy and team falling asleep in the poppy field would seem awfully random without the Witch’s scene to introduce it, so the Witch’s scene counts as planting. But the primary intentions are different. The first example is primarily to justify a later event; the second example is primarily to create tension.

The overlap is what makes foreshadowing so darn useful, so let’s take the gun-on-the-mantelpiece who-dunnit example and look at a few variations:

Example One: The narrator tells the reader there’s a gun on the mantle along with candlesticks, a couple photos, etc.

Example Two: The narrator tells the reader there’s a gun on the mantle, and Susan (who may or may not be our POV character) seems distracted by it.

Example Three: Susan, our POV character, sees the gun on the mantle for the first time and wonders if Paul is stupid enough to keep it loaded, considering all the people at the party who hate him.

Example Four:
Susan, our POV character, sees the gun on the mantle for the first time and thinks to herself, “When I have him alone, that’s what I’ll use to kill Paul.”

Example one is planting. Sure, a savvy reader of who-dunnits might guess that the gun will be used in a murder later, but that’s not really why the author is telling us about the gun. The author is setting up the shooting so that when it happens the reader will think, “Oh, Susan must have gotten that rifle off the mantle” rather than “Where’d that gun come from?”

If the author did want to add more tension, example two is a better choice. Susan’s distraction with the gun should make the reader ask: “Why is Susan so interested in that gun? Maybe she plans to shoot Paul!” The power of this example is in its indirectness and subtlety. Susan might be planning on shooting Paul, but she might also be afraid of guns, or maybe she’s remembering a past incident with a gun. In a who-dunnit, example two could also serve as a red herring: Perhaps we don’t know who shot Paul, but we’re led to incorrectly suspect Susan because of her earlier distraction.

Example three is a heavier-handed version of two. It narrows down the range of questions the readers can ask. It’s fairly obvious that someone will fire the gun; the only real question is who. That question will cause the reader to pay close attention to the characters and look for any sign of malevolence toward Paul.

And finally, example four is a trick example. It isn’t really foreshadowing at all. It doesn’t count as planting since the gun is immediately and explicitly assigned a plot role. And it doesn’t increase the tension by inviting the reader to ask questions. In fact, if this is the first time the reader learns Susan plans to kill Paul, a reader would probably find this scene jarring. Susan’s desire to kill Paul should be planted well before this scene.

For the sake of completeness, here’s another:

Example Five: There was a gun on the mantle, but it was so old and broken down that Susan couldn’t possibly use it to kill Paul.

This isn’t foreshadowing either. This is called telegraphing.

Telegraphing is when you tell the reader what’s going to happen before it happens. It’s usually a product of foreshadowing gone wrong. We see the gun, but we’re immediately told it’s useless as a weapon so the gun’s existence isn’t important and isn’t allowed to add tension. If the author wanted to make the gun’s condition a factor in the plot a better solution would be to use example one (above), but when Susan tries to fire the gun she then realizes it’s old and broken, and now Paul has the chance to escape.

Foreshadowing not only helps with the logic of your story, it is one of the tools you can use to manage the reader’s expectations and focus the reader’s attention. It can make them ask questions beyond “What happens next?” It can make them wonder about the world, and about characters’ motives. Used properly it makes your stories more engaging, and who doesn’t want that?

About The Glamour Thieves

JT is an orc on the way up. He’s got his own boutique robotics shop, high-end clientele, and deep-pocketed investors. He’s even mentoring an orc teen who reminds him a bit too much of himself back in the day.

Then Austin shows up, and the elf’s got the same hard body and silver tongue as he did two years ago when they used to be friends and might have been more. He’s also got a stolen car to bribe JT to saying yes to one last scheme: stealing the virtual intelligence called Blue Unicorn.

Soon JT’s up to his tusks in trouble, and it ain’t just zombies and Chinese triads threatening to tear his new life apart. Austin wants a second chance with JT—this time as more than just a friend—and even the Blue Unicorn is trying to play matchmaker.

Riptide Publishing


  1. I love the examples, Don. They made clear what is planting, foreshadowing, and telegraphing. I especially loved to learn how to plant, then foreshadow and how they work together.

  2. Great content and helpful explanations about Planting and Foreshadowing.

  3. Clear and concise examples. Thanks for sharing. @sheilamgood at Cow Pasture Chronicles