by Doug Lewars (originally posted on ryanlanz.com)
SECOND WITCH. All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor! THIRD WITCH. All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be King hereafter!
– Macbeth – William Shakespeare – Act I Scene 3
The above is a classic (pun fully intended) example of foreshadowing. The witches lay out some key elements of the plot and do it in such a manner to build tension in the story. Macbeth, at the urging of Lady Macbeth, might still have gone on to usurp the throne even without the witches but the desolate heath with thunder rumbling in the background does wonders to shape the mood.
Foreshadowing is an effective literary technique but it needs to be used with a bit of caution. On the plus side, it can build up suspense, alternatively, it can ruin a plot. One thing most readers dislike is to arrive at the ending long before the mid-point of a story. By telegraphing what is going to happen, the author assumes a position of being vastly superior to the reader. For example, if a character spends time sharpening a knife while muttering threats against some other character, spends a few chapters plotting a murder and then, in a climactic scene, commits it, most readers will remain unimpressed.
Consider the following: ‘She blamed Dennis. Oh, how she blamed Dennis. The one thought absolutely fixed in her mind, the one thought sustaining her through her lack of food, water and sleep was revenge. She didn’t know how she was going to get out of this fix, but she was determined to find a way and when she did – when once again she was on the outside, free; and able to make and execute plans – when that was accomplished, she was determined to somehow find a way of killing Dennis Pritchard’.
Here we have a character who’s pretty clear about her objective so the reader knows there’s going to be some major confrontation in the future. But what the reader doesn’t know is how such a killing might be executed and whether her eventual plan will be effective. Nevertheless, as the story progresses, all of Dennis’s actions are performed with the shadow of this threat in the background.
Generally, suspense in a story is good but not always. Hinting at unpleasantness to come may cause some readers to abandon a book. An example of this is Margaret Atwood’s book, ‘Bodily Harm’. From the beginning we encounter a protagonist moving step by step closer to danger. Although I generally enjoy this author’s work, I was unable to make much progress into that one precisely because she’d dropped sufficient hints about what lay ahead to make me want to quit before things got worse.
One author who uses foreshadowing rather like a sledgehammer is John Irving. He uses it to deliberately suppress suspense. For example he might start of a passage with something like, ‘Years later, he would look back on that time and wonder…” thereby making it clear the character so mentioned would survive the events of the book and, presumably, live a long life. With that out of the way, the reader can focus more on what is happening, rather than what might happen. It’s an interesting approach and requires a delicate touch not to make the reader lose interest.
Red-herrings are not foreshadows. Only hints about events which will come to pass meet the criteria of foreshadowing; nevertheless, a few red-herrings scattered among the actual hints is a good way of adding a feeling of uncertainty to the plot.
In summary, foreshadowing is a good way of building suspense, preparing the reader for a scene to come, and making the plot come alive. On the other hand, used improperly it can give away too much and render anticlimactic, what should be the most exciting part. Occasionally it can be used deliberately to suppress excitement but the latter is difficult to achieve without causing readers to lose interest.
Guest post contributed by Doug Lewars. Doug is not necessarily over the hill but he’s certainly approaching the summit. He enjoys writing, reading, fishing and sweets of all sorts. He has published thirteen books on Smashwords.com.