Forewarning, or foreshadowing, are subtle moments you plant that give the reader or audience a sense that something is coming. If it is too obvious, you will have a “Duh!” moment.
I read far too often lines like:
If only Bob knew what awaited him around the corner.
Jeffrey didn’t know this was the last time he’d see his family.
If Jane knew that when she woke up in the morning, everything would be different, she would have slept in—only Jane didn’t know.
Although the point is to make the reader sense something unexpected is coming, not only is this author intrusion—the author telling us what the author knows that neither the character nor we know—but it’s lazy writing and a cheap way to foreshadow something is going to happen and create an anticipation for tension.
When written well, foreshadowing can be very effective. Later the reader will say, “I should have seen that coming.”
These are rewritten from the character’s perspective.
a) The day was perfect. The sun shone down and warmed Bob’s face; a smile played on his lips. Another few minutes, and he’d be there. He was almost to the corner when he heard a dog barking, its yelps growing louder and more urgent the closer he got. The noise was ruining his walk. At the corner he stopped, that prickly sensation of alert he sometimes got started at the base of his neck and ran down his spine.
b) Goodbyes were always difficult and Jeffrey hated them. He always wondered “what if I never see her again,” and then he’d go through the day in a kind of dread until he realized how silly he was being. Today wasn’t going to be like that. He’d be back, she’d be there, and life was good. His silliness wasn’t going to ruin the day for him.
c) Jane never woke up early. She loved sleeping late, so when her eyes popped open at the crack of dawn, she was more than a little surprised. Tossing and turning, pulling the pillow over her head and wrapping herself in the blankets, it soon became evident she wasn’t going back to sleep. She might as well get up and start the day, hoping it would go better than her morning’s sleep.
The reader realizes that the character is being a bit naïve or sensing something that is now going to start playing out.
Using foreshadowing effectively creates surprises for your audience. There are moments that you plant as throwaway comments in your story that later add up to reveal something unexpected. Think of pieces to a puzzle that don’t become the picture until the last piece has clicked into place. By using details for one event that actually are foreshadowing for another event, you can keep the reader from catching on.
Martha loved her morning coffee. She took great pains to make the perfect cup and then added a dollop of flavored creamer. She hesitated before opening the refrigerator, her mind still on the bed and Mark’s lovemaking. They’d been through so much, and this felt like old times, good times. In the door she discovered the amaretto-flavored creamer that her husband had brought home from the store last night, another way he was showing her he wanted to make up. She smiled. Most men brought home flowers when they were apologizing. She opened the container and sniffed, ummm, almonds. He used to be thoughtful like this. She used to not be such a witch. Why do things change in a marriage she wondered. Why can’t people always stay in love the way they are when they meet? Maybe she and Mark were the lucky ones, if they had found their way back to each other. Martha promised herself today would be a day without nagging, a good day, a loving day as she poured the exact amount of creamer she liked in a spoon and then drizzled the creamer into her cup, watching the color of her coffee turn from dark chocolate to milk chocolate brown. She sniffed deeply to inhale the aroma. He would be out of the shower soon; she’d make him a great breakfast, her way of repaying him.
Later we find that one of them has killed the other. The detail in bold serves the purpose of focusing on the coffee; however the reader may see it coming that he is poisoning her with cyanide. On the other hand, her last words in bold may be the tipoff that she is going to “repay” him by doing him in. By taking out the details in gray and focusing on the emotional side of the events, there is less emphasis on what later proves to be very meaningful, using just enough details to plant that the creamer was laced with cyanide or that the breakfast supposedly made in love was really what killed Mark. If, by the tone of the story, the reader already suspects that one is going to kill the other, then I might want to use the bolded details about the coffee that give the impression Mark is going to kill her or her final detail in bold to steer the reader into believing she is going to kill Mark.
1. Is there a forewarning or foreshadowing in your story?
2. How will you use it—as a single moment in the story or will it be throughout the action?
3. Which details give clues that later will prove significant?
4. Are there details that give away too much?