Foreshadowing

by Quang
(Vietnam)

Question: I am currently working on a fantasy novel of my own. However, I am having problems with foreshadowing. How do authors foreshadow? What are effective ways of foreshadowing? If I have a deux ex machina, how could I foreshadow that?


Answer: The first thing I would suggest is that you don't get stressed out about this topic. Foreshadowing is not a requirement, though it is a useful technique.

Second, there are many ways you can use foreshadowing. Generally, foreshadowing is demonstrating or hinting at a potential. The potential may or may not be realized later in the story (you can have false clues or red herrings). But just making the readers aware of a potential invites them to anticipate the potential being realized later on.

Let's start with your deus ex machina.

The trouble with having a deus ex machina is that it can feel like a solution that comes out of nowhere, like a big letdown. All the effort your characters make to solve their problems seems pointless if a deity is going to just turn up in the end and impose a solution anyway. This is especially true if there has been no build-up, no suggestion that such an event might occur.

However, if you lay the groundwork for your deus ex machina, dropping in hints and clues that there is the potential for such an event occurring, then you are creating suspense and perhaps anticipation. The deus ex machina becomes part of the story, not something that appears tacked on artificially at the end.

For instance, suppose you have a impact character who has reason to expect the deus ex machina will arrive and tries to pressure the main character to change his ways in line with what is coming. The main character may ignore the warnings until the moment of crisis where he decides to heed the impact character's advice.

In fact, you don't necessarily need an impact character. You can simply plant clues regarding the possibility that your deus will arrive - perhaps evidence that it has happened before, or hints that certain people or elements of Nature are preparing for it - so that the main character pieces together the truth in time to make the right choice.

This is fun for the reader, who may also try to interpret the clues as the story progresses.

Another type of foreshadowing is when you anticipate a character's actions at the climax.

For instance, often the main character will have a unique trait or ability that allows him to solve the crisis. You can foreshadow what is coming by presenting him/her with a little problem early on that demonstrates to the reader that your character has the potential to act in a certain way or to manifest certain special talents. For example, early in the animated film Mulan, there is an incident where Mulan helps someone win a chess game by showing him the right move. This reveals her hidden talent for strategy, foreshadowing her later success as a soldier.

Similarly, you can give a hint about a character's weakness or flaw, if that is something that will play an important role later. For instance, when Indiana Jones is frightened by someone's pet snake, it foreshadows the challenge he faces later on when he encounters a room containing hundreds of vipers.

You can also demonstrate the potential of objects. For instance, in fantasy it is common to have an object display unusual properties, which is a way of foreshadowing its potential for being used to do evil acts later on.

Or you can hint at the potential of a location. For instance, if your castle is dark and foreboding, full of bones, or has nasty servants running around, there is an obvious potential for wicked deeds to be done there.

Another variation of foreshadowing is to show a problem in its infancy. For instance, a hairline crack forming in a dam can foreshadow the dam breaking - especially if the crack is unnoticed or dismissed by the characters.

Also, there is a type of foreshadowing called Chekhov's Gun, in which you present an object with obvious potential so that the reader anticipates its use. It's a way of setting the stage for what is to come. For instance, if King Arthur pulls a sword out of a stone, the reader will probably be disappointed if he never engages in a sword fight. If your characters stumble on a magic book, they darn well need to use it, or else what's the point?

I should add that sometimes you can reveal potential through dialogue (for instance, if a character expresses his belief in a potential or his worries about what might happen). And you can also have the narrator hint at potentials - since the narrator already knows what will happen.

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