7

This question is a followup to my earlier question.

Continuing the dialog with my one critic, I wrote back that I believed that certain "foreshadowing" was necessary. Then I added something like, "But I take what I believe to be your main point, which was that Chapter 2 was too early for this material, when other matters were more pressing." I now believe that this foreshadowing scene should be in Chapter 10 or 11, because the main scene takes place in Chapter 12.

Is this a good way to look at things? Could it have been that the real problem was that the scene was in the wrong place, even though necessary?

9

That will depend on how unexpected your twist is.

The purpose of foreshadowing is to make unexpected events believable. If you set your story in the real world and have the protagonist solve his problems by magic on page 253, then the reader will scream with frustration, so what you do is you have your character discover that magic is real on page 15, learn to do magic in act 2, and then the reader will be with you when the protagonist casts the big spell during the climax.

If you only have a very minor twist, it is sufficient to introduce the reader to the idea that the twist might be possible a few pages beforehand; but if you have a big, story-changing twist, you need to set this up right from the beginning.


If you want a more exact guide, use the following graph to determine when you need to begin foreshadowing ;-)

An unbelievability of 6 is "impossible", while an unbelievability of 0 is "what you would expect". The red line means that the more unbelievable something is, the earlier you have to begin to foreshadow it.1 When something is believable (like someone taking the bus), you do not foreshadow it at all.

enter image description here


Unbelievability is, of course, not absolute but relative to the story, world, and characters you have set up. And what is unbelievable can change over the course of a narrative. A behavior that appears unbelievable for a character at the beginning of the story might become believable as the character arc progresses. In that sense you can also think of foreshadowing as development, and the event as the culmination.

But sometimes you may not want to foreshadow, because you intend to shock the reader (or your character). A car crash, for example, would not usually be foreshadowed, and sometimes you want your character to act "out of character", and explain the abnormality afterwards.


1 For the mathematicians among you: The predictor is on the y-, the criterion on the x-axis. The convention in narrative theory is that narrative time is represented on the horizontal axis of a plot diagram, while the amplitude of the narrative intensity is on the vertical axis.

5

+1 Cloudchaser, I'd go further and say foreshadowing should NEVER be close to the event. But it doesn't have to be on page 1, or page 50.

As I said in my answer to your previous foreshadowing question if you have THIS MUCH foreshadowing you probably have too much of it.

Foreshadowing should be a scene or incident that the reader is likely to remember, but it must fit into the narrative where it appears so the reader does not notice it is foreshadowing.

Perhaps we have a miscommunication in terminology:

Foreshadowing is NOT just information the reader needs.

Foreshadowing is a taste of something that is to come; it is a mini-version of a scene that will happen later, often only similar to what happens later. Much as a shadow can reveal a person is present but does not reveal the full image of the person and their nature; it reveals a distorted but later recognizable shape of the person. Foreshadowing shows the reader the shape of what is to come, not precisely what is to come.

An actual quote IRL, using it correctly:

"By comparison, he said, and as the students would later read in class, a major Moscow media outlet was raided right after Vladimir Putin became president, foreshadowing the government’s control of Russian media."
Washington Post, Mar 18, 2018

I.E. a mini-version: The raid on one media outlet heralds Putin's subjugation of all media outlets; the illegal raid heralds the future illegalities of assassination, murder, blackmail and corruption and election fixing; the single dictatorial act heralds many dictatorial acts throughout Russian society.

You are not "foreshadowing" to inform the reader:

  • that magic is possible in a world, or

  • that a machine that accomplishes XYZ exists, or

  • that homosexuality is widely accepted in your fantasy world, or

  • that "Chicago" and "Los Angeles" are now the names of planets in different star systems founded after the destruction of Earth in 11238, or

  • that your peasants practice good hygiene for disease prevention (as IRL some early cultures did, whether they understood germ theory or not).

That stuff is just information, and as always you should avoid info-dumping. If your real problem is info-dumping, there are many tricks to avoid info-dumping and you can search our site for suggestions. Briefly,

Some information is not necessary because it has no consequences in the story or does not have any great influence on the plot or character emotions. When that crap is included it is world-builder's disease; basically showing off an invention that has no purpose but you think it's cool.

Some explanations are not necessary because the reader isn't going to question them; if your scifi Bond character has a nuclear powered belt buckle with a hidden laser that can cut through three feet of solid steel, maybe with all the other tech in your universe the reader doesn't care exactly how you fit a safe nuclear reactor in a cubic centimeter.

Some info can be conveyed in dialogue; some can be shown-not-told. I don't have to tell you Amy is homosexual if she wakes up next to her wife in the morning.

It is not "foreshadowing" to inform the reader machine X exists, even if you are doing that to avoid a Deus Ex when your hero is saved by machine X. That is still just information. The more implausible it is the more important it is to disclose it early. if it is not implausible at all, it can be used with impunity: I worked three years in a hospital and there are many machines there for which I do not know the purpose, but presume others do. They need no explanation. It will help your story if when it is time for that machine you use the authentic terminology, but it wouldn't have to be revealed early to the reader unless you are inventing it to levitate yourself out of some impossible corner you have painted yourself into.

Foreshadows cannot be frequent or they stop working. They are spice, they cannot overwhelm the reader. They must be remembered and the reader's capacity for remembering things is limited; they are not going to read your book twenty times and memorize every nuance; most readers do not read the same book twice. It works in one pass or it doesn't work at all, and that is how editors and publishers and reviewers will see it too.

Information about how the world works must necessarily be done throughout, and avoiding boring info-dumping is a difficult skill to learn. I suspect that is your real problem, a confusion of these two terms. The rules for them are similar, but they serve different purposes. Information conveyance is necessarily frequent, foreshadowing is necessarily sparse.

  • I think I found out what I've been doing, thanks to your help and others. When I read a textbook, I start with the glossary to learn all the terms. Then the reading of the textbook becomes much easier and more fun. The first third of my works contain this "glossary." The material is necessary, so it's not pure "info-dumping," but most readers don't want this "up front. Apparently they prefer, "pay as you go." – Tom Au Apr 28 '18 at 14:36
  • @TomAu For the record, "info-dumping" is not talking about unnecessary information, it is talking about delivering necessary information in a way that is not entertaining and bores the reader. If the material is necessary then what you are doing is in fact pure info-dumping. As my answer says, information about how the world works is necessary, and "pay as you go" is the way to do it, and avoiding boring information conveyance (aka "info-dumping") is a difficult skill to learn. – Amadeus Apr 28 '18 at 14:58
  • I noticed an instance of this in a recent piece. Regarding a four paragraphs passage in Chapter 1, I kept only one paragraph there, moved one paragraph to chapter 3, and the remaining two to later chapters. Is that the right idea? – Tom Au Apr 28 '18 at 16:05
  • @TomAu If the parags fit in the flow of the narrative where you transplanted them, and if each parag makes sense on its own without the others. You need to be conscious of your "stitching," or more formally, non sequitur (latin for "is not in sequence" to mean "does not logically follow"). Your parag 1 should be a natural thing to happen after the paragraph it follows, and whatever now follows parag 1 should now feel / sound natural also. Jumpiness alienates readers. Probably instead of just transplanting, I would rewrite into an hierarchical form: Parag 1=overview, parags 2-4=1 detail each. – Amadeus Apr 28 '18 at 18:59
  • I consider your last comment "warm." What I did was to keep only parag 1, the general parag, move the detail paragraphs elsewhere, and recast them as general parags. I think it was the extra detail parags that were throwing people off. Thanks for your help. – Tom Au Apr 29 '18 at 8:03
4

"The Wheel of Time" is an excellent use of foreshadowing. Most of his foreshadowing was done in just a sentence here and a sentence there. It was a huge series and therefore had a lot of things to foreshadow.

I think that some of the foreshadowing was a game by the author. He would deliberately give small amounts of information to the reader and see if they could guess the outcome. For example, one character "died" but many readers believed she'd come back because it was foreshadowed that she would marry another character. And eventually (it was a 13-book series with large books) she was rescued.

I agree with @Amadeus that foreshadowing should be done as early as possible.

I believe that foreshadowing aids in specific events or intentions. Again, in the Wheel of Time, one of Rand's lovers (not at the time) had a true dream of the future (this was her power) where she, along with two other young women, were standing very sad at his funeral. This foreshadowed the even of his death, and that he would have the three women who loved him. However, it did not foreshadow that Rand would love any of them back.

Please don't think I'm recommending the Wheel of Time for reading purposes. It was too long and over bloated, and Robert Jordon died three volumes before completing the series. Brandon Sanderson did well on his first two volumes but IMNSHO the last book felt like a parody of the series.

3

I don't think it is universally true that foreshadowing should be close to the event. For example, Frodo's inability to cast the Ring into the Cracks of Doom is foreshadowed by his inability to cast it into the fireplace in Bag End, right in the beginning of the Lord of the Rings. Or, another example: the end of Jim Butcher's "Changes" is foreshadowed from chapter 4 onwards, and by the beginning of chapter 11, I no longer had any doubts. The book has 49 chapters.

However, key to the discussion is your statement that

other matters were more pressing.

You cannot foreshadow everything all at once, and the foreshadowing should be organic, sitting within what you're telling at the moment. It shouldn't stick out, it shouldn't have a large "this is foreshadowing" spotlight pointed at it. If that means you should move a scene to a different place, go ahead and do so.

Remember also your story doesn't need to be linear. You can even tell of an event in a way that suits a development of a particular idea, and then some chapters later return to the same event (by means of a character remembering it, for example), and add some more information about it, following a different idea this time, foreshadowing additional things. For example, Naomi Novik's Uprooted, chapter 6:

Unfortunately, the willingness to learn magic wasn't the same thing as being good at it. [..] After another three days of letting the Dragon set me at healing spells, all of which felt as awkward and wrong as ever, I marched down to the library the next morning with the little worn journal in my hand and put it down on the table before him as he scowled. "Why won't you teach me from this?" I demanded.

And in chapter 7 there's a return to the same incident, from a different perspective:

I hadn't seen anyone from Dvernik since the beacon night. Danka had sent the fire-heart back to Olshanka, with an escort gathered grimly from every village of the valley [..] They looked at me and saw someone out of a story, who might ride by and be stared at, but didn't belong in their lives at all. [..] That was the day I had taken Jaga's book down to the library, and demanded that the Dragon stop pretending I had any more gift for healing than I did for any other sort of spell, and let me learn the kind of magic that I could do.

The first instance follows the logical line of the MC learning magic. The second follows the logical line of the MC's relationship with the place she came from. The different focus allows to add information, and foreshadow different things, instead of cluttering all at once. In a way, it's examining two threads of the story separately, though they might be twined together, instead of allowing them to become a tangled mess where you can't follow either one.

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