About Writing | The Hollow Man Series, International Espionage
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Foreshadowing is a literary technique used to give the reader clues about what may happen later in a story. It involves dropping subtle or indirect hints and suggestions that prepare the reader for the events that are going to occur in the plot. The simplest example would be something like this; if a character mentions offhandedly that bad things always happen to them in autumn, then the reader will be alert to danger when the leaves begin to fall.
However, foreshadowing can take many other forms, such as a character's words or actions, the setting or atmosphere, or even symbols or objects that carry special significance. Foreshadowing is most often used to create tension, build suspense, and keep the reader engaged in the story.
In the novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee, there are several instances of foreshadowing. The presence of the mysterious and reclusive character Boo Radley is mentioned early in the novel, which foreshadows his eventual appearance and role in the story. The mention of the mad dog that Atticus shoots also foreshadows the trial of Tom Robinson, as it represents the violent racism that the town is grappling with.
Foreshadowing can also be used to create irony, where the reader knows something that the characters in the story do not. This can lead to dramatic tension as the reader wonders how the characters will react when they finally discover the truth.
Anton Chekhov once explained foreshadowing like this; if you introduce a gun in a story, it should go off at some point. Otherwise, it shouldn’t be there at all. Of course, this is a generality and there are always exceptions. However, the introduction of something major like a gun, especially where it does not belong, or a piece of shocking information (like a character discovering his colleague has committed fraud) needs to have a payoff later in the novel. Otherwise, the reader is likely to feel cheated and confused regarding what is significant and worth remembering and what is incidental in your work.
Make sure the pay-off in your plot fits the tone and mood of your foreshadowing. If you think back to movies you’ve seen and books you’ve read, you can probably remember examples where you’ve been let down by not having the appropriate pay-off. The story built until you expected something spectacular; a conspiracy unmasked, a great love revealed, a criminal brought to justice, an enormous secret finally told.
When what happens does not live up to these expectations the author has deliberately stoked, the disappointment can be crushing for the reader. It can, in fact, ruin the entire novel even if it has been satisfying up to that point. Even so, there are authors among us who masterfully use anticlimax to get in the way of our expectations.
Overall, foreshadowing is a powerful tool that can be used to enhance the storytelling experience and make the plot more engaging and memorable for the reader. By providing subtle hints and clues about what is to come, the author can create a sense of anticipation and build a more compelling narrative.
But try not to overdo it. Getting foreshadowing right is all about using the right amount of emphasis. Ideally, when an event that will later prove significant occurs, the reader will be able to look back and see that the event was clearly foreshadowed even though they did not pick up on the clues. Often the best plot reveals combine surprise with inevitability. Of course, they were the killer, the reader might say, even though there were other equally plausible candidates.