Sunday, April 19, 2015


Hibernation noun (uncountable): When an animal passes the winter in a torpid or resting state. The German word for - literally translated - is winter sleep and that's exactly how it felt with my blogging over the past two month. But now it's spring and here I'm back again with a new topic that repeatedly pops up in my current work. 

I am still rewriting a story I wrote in German some years ago. It's exciting and there are many new ideas coming up, but I find myself quite often taking a note on the side - needs foreshadowing. Same happens with some of the existing parts of the story and I get the bad feeling that I'm giving the whole story away too early.

Foreshadowing is tricky, but well done it's half the rent. 

You want some examples? Here you go:

  • In Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption Stephen King writes "Getting a pass out of Shawshank when you have murder stamped on your admittance-slip is slow work. As slow as a river eroding a rock." Ingenious as Andy actually uses his understanding of long-term geological processes to escape.
  • Later in the same book the Warden takes Andy's bible during the cell inspection he tells him, "salvation lies within". After Andy's escape it was revealed, that he was hiding the rock hammer in the bible proving the Wardens comment.
  • In Lord of the Rings Tolkien lets Gandalf say about Gollum, that he has the feeling Gollum still has an important part to play. At the end Gollum is the reason the ring gets actually destroyed.
  • There are also great examples in film. In Jurassic Park Dr. Grant tells a boy at the digging site of a raptor skeleton, "you stare at him and he just stares right back, and that’s when the attack comes; not from the front, but from the side.” Later in the film, that is exactly how Muldoon is hunt down by the raptors.
  • Foreshadowing has not always to be spoken, it can also be a picture or impression. In The Day After Tomorrow Sam Hall looks up to the sky observing thousands of birds flying south indicating the danger coming from north.
  • Obi Wan Kenobi tells Anakin in Episode 2 of Star Wars, "Why do I get the feeling you will be the death of me?" Ultimately Darth Vader kills Obi Wan in Episode 4, but as Episode 4 was aired decades before Episode 2 was even written I think this was more a joke from the screen writer than an true foreshadowing.

Why and where we Foreshadow
Foreshadowing is an important catalyzer for a story; it increases or maintains tension.
Basically there are two types of foreshadowing, subtile and a less subtile ones. I know that is not really helping right now, but bear with me for a moment.

Let's first look at the less subtile ones, because they are easier. Whenever you want the reader to know, that there is something coming you place it directly in his face. The birds in The Day after Tomorrow are a good example for that. I usually include this kind of foreshadowing in the first act to show the reader, that this nice world the protagonist is living in wouldn't last any longer. Change is coming that will throw him for a loop. They are the clouds on the horizon that indicate the storm. Jurassic Park is another very good example for that. Take Dr. Grant's comment on the raptor combined with the scene where they were told that they have raptors on the island. Earlier, Dr. Grand was happy to hear that they have a T-Rex, but when they hear about the raptors you see Dr. Grand swallowing. You immediately know that the raptors will be their biggest threat.

Sometimes, I also use the less subtile foreshadowing as a cliffhanger in order to keep the reader engaged at the end of a chapter, but you should not overdo it as readers tend to have a learning curve and it will become less effective every time you use it. 

Subtile foreshadowing is more difficult - not to write it, but to hide it. But let's look first at its purpose. One of the worst things that I've come across yet in books is the deus-ex-machina sin. Deus ex machina refers to a situation in a book, when a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by a newly introduced character or device. This is as if Superman would appear at the battle of Hogwarts to save Harry Potter. I call it a sin because I think it is a betrayal to the reader. However, I also think in most of the cases it is a foreshadowing issue.

Let's stay with Harry Potter for a moment (the books, not the film), the fact that he could survive the second time Voldemort killed him was foreshadowed and seemed reasonable to believe reading the book. The protection he received when his mother sacrificed herself was mentioned several times and Voldemort used his blood to gain back his physical presence. The answer comes at the very end, when it was revealed that these two items together protected Harry again. Who would have foreseen that? Outside of Dumbledore I mean - there was a moment when Dumbledore noticed the fact that Voldemort used Harry's blood at the end of the Goblet of Fire, he seemed to be satisfied. Without this foreshadowing, Harry's survival would appear unreasonable.

Techniques of Foreshadowing
Foreshadowing of the final resolution, the climax of the story, is difficult because it is a tightrope walk between revealing and hiding. Let's look at some techniques.

The normal human brain is laid out for linear thinking: A-B-C-D. This is your opportunity as a writer to trick the reader into plot twists and ultimately an unforeseen climax that is not perceived as deus ex machina

Combination of two individual facts
Harry Potter is a great example for this (see above). You take two or three strength, facts or circumstances that have a purpose in its own. This is important - imagine a reader will assume any open string to be important for the final count down. If you use this foreshadowing technique, the fact or strength must have a purpose that is immediately visible to the reader and ticked-off as understood and completed. Simple example - if you have a character who is capable of reading minds it is obvious that one of readings will be part of climax or lead to it. You could solve this by limiting his abilities so he doesn't know who's mind it is or he can only read people's minds that are in less than 10 feet distance. Going back to Harry - the protection he received from his has ended before the last book starts as clearly stated several times throughout the books. Its purpose seemed completed and therefore it was perfectly arranged for the plot twist. 

Small hints
Using a series of small hints can work as foreshadowing. Shawshank Redemption is a good example. Next to the big hint where Andy tells Red where he should come looking for him, indicating his escape, a series of small hints point to the solution. Red's comment at the beginning about the river eroding a rock or the Warden's "salvation lies within" are both very subtile and there are further hints about geology spread out through the book. They all point towards geology, but you see the whole picture only at the very end, like a jigsaw.

Visual Foreshadowing
Yes you understood correctly - also in books, foreshadowing can also be done in visual form. The book cover is the easiest example for visual foreshadowing or you can have small pictures at the beginning of each chapter, like the Harry Potter books.

Distraction (red herrings)
Red Herrings are clues placed to distract the reader. In basic it's pretty simple; you place clues that are misleading or could be taken as something else. The prophecy in Star Wars is an example for that. It says that Anakin Skywalker would bring balance to the powers and the dialogue around it leads to the conclusion that they were wrong when he falls for the dark side. There is one rule though, ultimately you have to give the reader a reason for the red herring. The reader still needs closure. Otherwise he will not be satisfied with the story.

One more thing - as much as red herrings are a great tool, use it scarcely and wisely. You want to distract the reader not loose him. Too many distractions might throw him out of the story. 

Foreshadowing vs Easter eggs
In an earlier blog post about humor I had briefly explained easter eggs as insider jokes in books. Harry Potter is full of them if you want to believe the internet. I wanted to bring them up again for his blog, as there is an important difference between foreshadowing and easter eggs - with a blurred line in between. A reader should remember the foreshadowing when he reads the climax of the story. Yes they might have been hidden, but they should reveal their true nature at the end. Easter eggs on the other side reveal themselves often only after the second or third time you read a book (or when you google them on the web). If you use small hints to foreshadow the story, the small hints might become easter eggs in case you are too successful in hiding them.

When do we Foreshadow
The point in time when you foreshadow is probably an experience thing. While an unexperienced author will go back and place the foreshadowing after he has finished the plot or the first draft, more experienced writers will learn to do the main foreshadowing while they progress with their story. I am somewhere in the middle. I get the main parts right, but when I read through my first draft I still see many items that need more or better foreshadowing. Quite often I also have to go back and hide it better, because my original foreshadowing was too obvious.

Foreshadowing is a crucial element of storytelling. I always see it like the shopping list for a five course dinner and the reader has to guess the menu.

Happy shadow throwing,
Your writer in a foreign land

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