How to Foreshadow

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Balancing the Need for Foreshadowing

I’ve been revising a mss, taking a break from doing a new project. Recent feedback told me that my novel was great, except the opening didn’t set up the “magic” of the story well enough. It was too great a shock when it suddenly occurred on about page 50.

balanceYes, openings should set up what comes later in many ways. Opening are a balancing act, a sleight of hands between the here-and-now and the coming-story. You need to be firmly in the moment. I definitely fall into the camp who wants an opening scene with physical action, and not just a character introduction. I try to write something set in a particular place and time, with a definite goal for the characters. But you must also foreshadow.

Foreshadowing is anything that lets the reader have a hint of what’s coming.

Tone, Mood and Voice.
I think I had already done a good job at setting up the tone (the main character’s attitude), the mood and the voice of the story. It has a medieval setting, with a hint of mystery and magic. But that wasn’t enough.

Hints. More than just that, I needed specific hints of what was coming. These hints needed to hook the reader, not by explaining everything but by creating compelling questions in the reader’s mind. In the new opening, I firmly stayed in the here-and-now, and if the main character already knew something, I didn’t explain it. Instead, I let the reader wonder what the main character knew that the reader didn’t.

In other words, I didn’t explain everything. I let some things just stand as stated, that thus-and-so had happened. There were some explanations, but the key here was to achieve clarity in the scene, while still teasing the reader into turning the page.

It’s a delicate dance, staying in the present, yet pointing toward what’s coming. But foreshadowing is one of the goals of opening chapters or prologues.

Here are some tips:

  • Make sure you stay in the present scene. Don’t drift into long explanations or flashback.
  • Don’t explain everything. If the main character would already know this, think hard about explaining it to the reader. At some point they may need to know this, but you can control the when of the explanation. If the action/emotions of the scene are clear without the explanation, consider holding off.
  • Mirror what is to come. Do you need to set up an argument between a husband and wife? Maybe a smaller argument with a co-worker can foreshadow the coming blow-up. Think about how you might do a progression: argument, worse argument, worst argument.

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