Foreshadowing is like salt in a recipe. Sure you can try to leave it out but everyone will taste that something is missing. You know how sometimes you're reading a book and a plot twist or major event comes along and it just well...feels completely contrived? Like the author just wacked it in for convenience. It just doesn't feel authentic. That's usually because the author hasn't used one of their most powerful creative tools—foreshadowing.
I see foreshadowing as coming in two parts; immediate foreshowing that directly precedes an event, and foreshadowing as part of story and plot layering. I believe authors shy away from foreshadowing because they don't want to be obvious, and they don't want to give anything away. Yet used with a light hand you can master this tool without screaming secrets at the reader.
Today I'll focus on immediate foreshowing because it's the stuff suspense is made out of. It's when you're watching a movie and the hero's wife and child are playing in the backyard and you just know something awful is about to happen to them—and not because they've just started playing jaws music in the background. Everything is too happy, too perfect, and then the camera shifts in at a harsh angle, there's a sound and the wife looks over her shoulder but thinks nothing of it. She's blissfully unaware that something is lurking—but we know. We are sitting on the edge of our seats because the director has given us just enough to make sure we are paying attention without being brazenly obvious.
An example of this is the beginning of the very first episode of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. There's a man and a child looking in a shop window. All very ordinary stuff. Then the camera shifts and for a split second focuses on the reflection in the window, and on the image of the building behind them. Then a few moments later, that building explodes. That to me is perfect foreshadowing. Everything is normal, but then we are given a clue. That building is pointed out to us and we know something is about to happen despite the scene being otherwise mundane. So when the building does explode out heart is already beating a little fast.
Now you take away that clue and what do we have? We have a building exploding behind two people for no apparent reason. There's no suspense, it just feels odd, contrived even.
So how to leave subtle clues in writing without giving everything away? It's all about changing the tone and alerting the reader. A sound, something out of place, changing language to be more menacing, varying sentence length to increase or slow down pace.
For the sake of convenience I've used a scene from my own book For Her Protection to demonstrate how foreshadowing can be achieved by using language to change the tone.
Charlize pushed down the handle of the back exit and shoved against the door with her hip. She barely had energy to haul her own ass out of the building, let alone the box of files in her arms. To top it off she had to lug it through the massive rear lot instead of to her usual spot in the underground parking garage.
Just like her perfect freaking day. She hoisted the box onto her hip and strode toward her car, sticking to the left of the lot where dim light streamed from streetlamps. The odd vehicles of late-working staff dotted the parking lot. The crunch of her heels on rock amplified in the deserted space.
Her Mercedes hunched in the corner, dwarfed by the Jeep looming beside it. She slid her keys from her pocket and pressed the button. Headlights flared in response. Half an hour and she’d be home, neck deep in files but with a tall goblet of Sav Blanc to take the edge off. Hopefully it’d take the edge off the raw ache between her legs as well.
She sidled up to the car and pressed the trunk release. Yeah she’d need a tall goblet alright. Better yet, she’d drink straight from the bottle. Maybe that would wash away the memories of dark blue eyes, thick fingers rocking against her hose, the addictive cologne she stilled smelled every time she inhaled, all which seemed stuck in her mind like a half-watched movie she was desperate to finish.
Charlize nudged open the trunk and bent over, lowering in the box. A door clicked next to her. She jerked up, spinning toward the Jeep. A dark figure rushed out of the vehicle in a head-down bull charge. She choked on a gasp and stumbled back. The body slammed into her. She fell to the ground, her cheek hitting rock. Breath rushed out of her.
Here I started off using ominous words, gradually increasing them to become more menacing as the event approached—dim lighting, crunch of heels in a deserted space, to words like hunched, dwarfed, and looming. So by the time we get to the event, although the heroine is preoccupied, the reader is alert. The click of a door next to her is the final clue.
So these are my tips on how to up the suspense in your writing using my favourite weapon—foreshadowing.
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