Every novel needs suspense. If you raise interesting enough questions, people will keep reading because they want to know the answers. You should be raising questions like “Who is this person?” “Will they achieve their goals?” and “Will they get a happy ending?” Every chapter should answer some small questions and raise more to keep the readers in suspense. By the end of the book, all or almost all of those questions should be resolved so that they feel like their purpose in reading the book is fulfilled.
That’s where foreshadowing comes in. Foreshadowing is about raising questions that build towards the major events in your novel. All of the questions your reader asks are driving his curiosity toward the climax—that’s what makes the climax exciting and the ending so riveting. You need to introduce characters, objects, and feelings that raise the questions answered by the major events of your novel.
If an important person isn’t introduced at all until the chapter before they do something huge, your reader will probably feel tricked and confused. They’ve been asking questions and making guesses about the people that are already involved in the story this whole time, and now it seems like everything they knew up until that event was pointless. Why would they have to read so many chapters of information that barely had anything to do with the story? You should prepare your reader for any important event, including plot twists. Surprises are good, but only if they’re connected to the story up until that point.
Sometimes a lack of foreshadowing is because you didn’t know where you were going with the story until you got there. Your readers are going to feel like you’re wandering all over the place. If you were feeling out where you were going with the story until you came up with a great idea, you’re going to have to go back and make the scenes before that build up to that great idea. I recommend following a pattern like the one I described in Purposed Scenes: Write a list of all of your scenes and figure out how each one is building on each other to reach the climax.
Foreshadowing is most important in the beginning of your book. Your reader should get a feel for who the book is about, what the theme is, and what kind of book it will be—all before they ever leave the first chapter. If you’re writing a romance novel, it should seem like a romance novel from the first chapter. If it doesn’t, people who want to read romance novels won’t make it past the first chapter. Then people who like the first chapter will be disappointed when it turns out to be a romance.
So here are three ways you can foreshadow important events in your novel:
- Introduce an object that is connected to the event or plot twist. It keep showing up throughout the whole story, but it doesn’t seem important until the moment of discovery. The reaction you’re looking for is “Oh, now I understand why that was there!”
- Keep a character involved in the story, but don’t explain much about who they are. It makes sense for them to play the part they’re playing, and no one really asks any questions. Your reader doesn’t realize that she didn’t ask those questions until you show something about that character that no one expected.
- Use your writing style to create a mood echoing the mood of what will happen. Jane Austen was a master of this with her slicing wit and sarcasm. You couldn’t expect anything less than stubborn, cutting arguments and the regrets that followed from Elizabeth Bennet. A dark tone is an essential for macabre or gothic fiction. Sometimes the mood that you set is enough to set expectations of how the rest of the piece will go.
These are only a couple ideas to get you started, of course. There are many ways you can foreshadow turning points, and they will change depending on what you’re writing about.
Foreshadowing is one of the hardest techniques a writer can learn, but also one of the most important. You constantly have to manage the delicate line between preparing your readers and giving the story away. The best way to be sure that you’re foreshadowing properly is to have someone else read your entire manuscript without knowing anything about it. If you want feedback on foreshadowing in your unique manuscript, send me an email or take me up on a free chapter edit.
Your turn: What ways have you used foreshadowing in your writing?