On foreshadowing

How to build to satisfying crises and conclusions

I hope everyone is going okay in these continuously challenging and uncertain times, and I hope, at least, your writing and reading are bringing you moments of solace, joy, escape, or even a sense of control – our needs can vary at different times.

This newsletter has alternated between aspects of craft, publishing, and the writing ‘life’. This month I go back to craft, and I hope you find it useful. I aim to always keep this newsletter free and simple (no ads) but if there’s something you’ve found useful within and you wish to show your support, perhaps you might buy me a digital cuppa 😊

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To foreshadow in a narrative is to introduce an idea, character, object or piece of information that will become significant to your story later on. A whole series of breadcrumbs may be left, and the reader will comprehend their gravity at later points of crisis, when central conflicts come to the fore, or in the lead-up to and during your story’s resolution.

We probably all recognise the kind of foreshadowing that is done in a crime story, where early on in the narrative the sleuth speaks to someone wearing a particular kind of necklace or scarf, and it’s commented upon, and we almost forget about this until evidence arises that a particular metal or fibre was found at the scene or on the body.

But foreshadowing occurs in all kinds of fiction. Richard Yates’s short story ‘The Best of Everything’ takes place on the day Grace is leaving her job to start her life with Ralph, her husband-to-be. There are many subtle aspects of foreshadowing in the opening pages: the corners of Grace’s mouth aching from smiling as the women at work shower her with excitement, the way the word ‘darling’ is an alien sound in her mouth and, most of all, the influence of her roommate Martha, who had pointed out the way Ralph said ‘terlet’ for toilet after their very first date. These subtle breadcrumbs plant doubt and lead to a sense of unease, for the reader, about Grace’s commitment to Ralph, and foreshadow the later events of the story, as Grace prepares herself for Ralph’s arrival and he ultimately lets her down. The word ‘terlet’ comes back, a devastating echo. Like all of Yates’s stories, it’s incredibly affecting, and the whole story essentially ends up foreshadowing the marriage of these two people.

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In my essay in Reading Like an Australian Writer I wrote about how, in MJ Hyland’s This is How, the protagonist Patrick’s attachment to his tool kit foreshadows both how angry he gets when a tool is not returned and his later use of one of the tools at the crux of the novel. The hint of violence in his thoughts about his ex in the opening pages of the novel also foreshadows his capacity for it.

To foreshadow the conflicts, plot turns or character revelations in your story, you might either plan it out well to begin with, or (as not all of us work that way) you can retrofit the manuscript with these crumbs once it’s drafted. Writing your first draft might be a way of discovering exactly who you’re writing about, what they’re going to do and what’s going to happen. Once you know that, you can work out how to build the anticipation of events through foreshadowing. The trick with foreshadowing is to not overexplain, to instead drop open-ended clues and hints – a scattering. Also, to repeat or build upon foreshadowed elements to create a ‘hook’ in the reader’s mind. We will realise that there is something significant about this element, consciously or unconsciously, but we may not know why, or how it will play out, and that helps to create tension.

It’s also good to foreshadow character actions in a way that makes it entirely believable that they would do what they end up doing, even as it still may be completely shocking! You have to know your characters well to understand how they would plausibly act, speak, think, feel, etc. And then you have to choose what to show us and what not to show us. Think about how you can show their motivation, throughout, so the reader believes, absolutely, that they would do what you’ve made them do. Give your character, earlier on, an action or a small piece of backstory that makes this other action plausible.

Working on manuscripts at the structural level can feel daunting, and it takes a lot of thought and effort. But it can make for such satisfying, absorbing fiction. It’s always worth reworking, analysing and rewriting your work, to make it the best it can be.

Opportunity of the month

The Speculate Prize is a new biennial prize aimed at writers who explore the expansive possibilities of literature. The winner will receive: $5000 prize money, a mentorship from Giramondo Publishing, and a week-long residency at RMIT’s McCraith House on the Mornington Peninsula, Victoria. A highly commended place will also be awarded. Entries close 1 September 2021.


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