Foreshadowing. The promises you make to your reader. The secret to leading your readers by the nose. The secret to tricking them. You know, any kind of hint you scatter throughout the novel so that people don’t get to the ending and yell, “Where the heck did that come from?” and throw the book across the room.
As a reader or moviegoer, you’re probably well-versed in foreshadowing. Hmmm… there was a closeup of a gun. I wonder if that’s gonna be important later. Or an oracle tells a character to look out for a man in red. Then, a male character is introduced with a red coat and a deceptively friendly manner. Gee, I wonder what could go wrong.
So, clearly, not all foreshadowing is good foreshadowing. I mean, have you ever read a book or watched a movie where it felt like they kind of beat you over the head with the foreshadowing. “Only the seventh son of the seventh son can defeat the ____ !” Yeah, sometimes, foreshadowing can be really blatant. In fact, sometimes the foreshadowing is straightout told to you, especially if there’s a narrator involved.
It started out as an ordinary day. Mrs. Lizt woke up her children and sent them to school. Little did she know that they wouldn’t be coming home that night (Dun Dun DUN).
Sound cheesy? Uh-huh. Sound like the sort of movie/book you might make fun of? Oh, yeah. It’s one of those techniques that was once so common that it became cliched. As a result, now, it’s mostly used for comedic pieces that are parodying the old style and the excessively obvious foreshadowing.
So if really, amazingly obvious foreshadowing is cliched and either groan or giggle-worthy, it stands to reason that really amazing foreshadowing is much more subtle. In fact, some of the best foreshadowing is mentioned so casually, that you might not pick up on it until you look back to check – or until the main character points it out as part of the climax (the detective’s explain-everything-to-the-rest-of-the-cast moment).
Here’s what I’ve noticed the experts doing: focus on big foreshadowing that turns out to be a red herring (a literary device named for using a stinky fish to throw scent dogs off a trail) and at the same time, slip the real foreshadowing in in the background.
Stage magicians call it misdirection. Their technique is to use what they’re saying, what they’re assistant is doing, or what they’re doing with one hand to disguise what the other hand is doing. In a play, lighting and staging can direct the focus and make sure that you pay more attention to this action rather than that. In a film, where the camera focuses, the score, and/or where a character is looking can go a long way to directing your attention.
With books, we’re usually focused on whatever the main character is focused on (or whoever perspective it’s told from). That means that the ideal way to hide foreshadowing is to have the main character dismiss it or not really pay attention to it in the first place. Put it in the background. Better yet, put it in the background and have the main character focus on a bit of false foreshadowing (a red herring, as it were).
Is that easy? Excuse me while I scoff.
One of the natural humps to get over for writing a good novel is the sheer amount of complexity involved. The number of characters, plots and subplots, worldbuilding, word choice, etc. – there are a lot of threads to keep track of if you want to do it right. And that’s with obvious foreshadowing. The more you get into misdirections and subtle v. obvious foreshadowing, the more complexity you’re adding.
Subtle foreshadowing isn’t about easy. It’s about better. That makes it worth it, right?