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I am a "reread reader" - that is, I like to read the same book more than once. The books I have the most fun reading again are the ones that effectively foreshadow what comes later in the book. This is something I'm terrible at doing, unfortunately. Here are some questions I have regarding this topic:

  • Should foreshadowing be used for all or most events, or should some events in stories be (seemingly) random? How do you know when it should be used and when it shouldn't?
  • What are the most effective literary techniques for foreshadowing events? Is it best done in dialogue, description, character actions, etc.?
  • How does an author effectively foreshadow future events in the story without giving so much away that the reader sees the events coming? What are techniques for making effective foreshadowing subtle?
  • Are there any times when foreshadowing ought to be blunt and obvious? If so, why might an author consider this route? What, if any, would be reasons for wanting readers to know what's going to happen in the future?
  • Does foreshadowing lend itself better to some genres than others?
  • How can an author effectively foreshadow across an entire series? Without leaving the reader frustrated that all the questions raised in one book (especially the first book of a series) haven't been answered?
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4 Answers

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Stories with foreshadowing that I like most are the ones that make the foreshadowing appear random at first or at the very least like an extra but unimportant detail.

If I can smell that a certain event is foreshadowing, I won't be too happy unless it takes some thinking. But if I can't understand that an event was foreshadowing in retrospective, then it was not useful to put the foreshadowing in in the first place.

So implementing foreshadowing is like walking a tightrope. There's a delicate balance between too obvious and too hidden. More importantly, you can't implement this well if you don't have clearly in mind how your story is going from A to C through B.

EDIT: If I had to define foreshadowing I would say it is the partial, but often cryptic, disclosure of information pertaining to as-of-yet unrevealed (most of the time future) events. This can happen to the reader only, or to the characters. It can be done by the storyteller or by a character in the story.

To answer your last question, the events should subtly point to Y while the character has only limited information which makes him conclude X should happen. So, in your story, you need to implement two types of information about the events, let's call them A and B. Information type A is accessible to the reader and the character. Information type B is only accessible to the reader, but possibly in a coded form. Or possibly, B could be accessible to the character as well, but so coded that he doesn't manage to decypher it. Don't take my use of the word 'coded' here too literally. It could simply be a feature of a room that you describe to the readers which contains a clue, but not obviously so, and that your character overlooks.

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You made me think of another question: What's the difference between foreshadowing and what characters think will happen? How can both of those be used effectively together? If a character thinks X will happen, but Y actually happens in the end, then how do we foreshadow Y in the midst of the character preparing for X, and so on? –  Nathan Fischer Dec 5 '10 at 9:48
    
I edited my reply to answer. The answer is vague of course, but that's because it will strongly depend on the kind of story and situation you are describing. There is a manga artist who in my opinion is a true master in the art of foreshadowing, it's Yoshihiro Togashi. Especially in his Hunter x Hunter series. In literature, I would take detective stories or stories that have a detective component as examples. Doyle, Dostoievski, but even in Orwell's 1984, there's a lot of foreshadowing. –  Raskolnikov Dec 5 '10 at 13:59
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A very "simple" way is to distract the reader. For example the hero(es) are sent to kill a demon. It hides in a church which is full of "good" symbols. There are powerful spells to prevent entrance but none of them lethal. Since everyone concentrates so much on the goal (destroy evil), they don't notice that they destroy a place which has been built by the good forces to fight evil - and that their employer is in fact the demon they were sent to destroy.

All the time, the hero(es) will wonder how the demon could "spoil" such a place. How he got past all the traps and spells without breaking them, etc. The reader sees the place through the eyes of the characters. If she can take part of their thoughts and discussions, that gives you a great tool to control what she "notices" and if the story is exciting enough, that will prevent that she notices what is going on before it's too late -- even if it feels pretty obvious to you.

So what you need is to run two stories alongside each other. One is what the characters see and one is what is really happening. You show the reader one and glimpses of the other (as the characters encounter them). Or you can add a character that lies, plain and simple. Small lies tend to get overlooked because people aren't 100% perfect.

If the liar says "I saw one armed person" and it turns out it's a mother carrying her child on the shoulder, readers are bound to accept that, especially if the liar weeps "I was so sure! I'm so sorry!" afterwards.

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  • It shouldn't be random. Make it important. You want to do it to be more dramatic, so be sure, it is a dramatic point in your story.
  • I prefer one single sentence at the end of a section. ("He poured in another glass of whiskey. But he should never taste the golden fluid again.")
  • Just be imprecise enough here. Look at real life. Imagine you have to forecast, if you neighbor dies by a car accident. How could you do that? When do accidents happen? Is the road icy? Is it foggy? Is he drunk? You mentioned that something will happen with these clues. But you do not mention, if he dies or his little daughter on the back seat.
  • "Senator Graham walked to the microphone. This would be the last speech of his life. He would be dead this afternoon. Why do I know that? I'm his murderer." This in the beginning of a book, will make the reader curious, why the narrator wants to murder him.
  • Genre independent. At least you do not tell the reader, that the murderer is the gardener on the first page ;)
  • Note every open loop in your notebook, and make the heck sure, that you resolve them in within the next books. If you add one, you should already know where you will answer it.
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Your comments are definitely helpful for an omniscient third-person viewpoint, or even a first-person "memoir" of sorts, but considering that the most popular viewpoint today (and the one I write in the most) is limited third-person, I wonder especially how one effectively foreshadows from that viewpoint. Saying something like "He'd never taste the whiskey again" definitely jumps out of the limited view. –  Nathan Fischer Dec 5 '10 at 8:37
    
You're limiting your third-person viewpoint too much, @Nathan. How do you want to foreshadow anything then? Don't be a slave of your viewpoint. know when to bend the rules. –  John Smithers Dec 5 '10 at 14:12
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Another form of foreshadowing is to link a single event to a greater one by making it a metaphor for what's about to happen. For example,

"This little rock," my guide said, "has had a remarkable journey--one that mirrors our own. It started out as a small piece of a larger form, perhaps even another island, far away from the one we're standing on. Over time, the erosive force of the wind and waves conspired to separate it from its home, breaking it off and casting it out to sea. Thousands of years went by, and all that time the tides were breaking it down further, softening it, rounding it down until today, when it so conveniently washed up at our feet. Here, feel it for yourself..."

He handed me the pebble, and continued, his body pitched forward like a pigeon, hands folded behind his back, eyes downcast, his head nodding a bit with every step.

"You know, our past is not much different. Before we evolved into the cells, organs, and bodies we have now, we were all united in the primordial soup, just like pebbles locked away in a mountain. We tend to think of evolution as linear, but everything works in cycles. That rock you hold is on its way back to where it came from. Eventually it will become sand, then sediment, then bedrock, and finally melt back into the molten lava it once was, only to erupt from the depths of the earth and become part of a mountain once again."

I pondered this, staring at the rock, not looking where I was going. When would we humans become sand? Will we be reborn as mountains?

"Ah, here we are. My favorite lava flow on the island!"

Looking up, I saw that the beach had stopped abruptly, and we were just a couple yards away from the face of a cliff, a stack of hardened rock which tilted into the waves to our right. I was totally overwhelmed. When I dropped the rock, it broke in two at my feet, and I was rooted to the earth by more than just the harmless quicksand of the surf.

In the example above, the reader doesn't know where the main character is going, or what the guide is taking him to. But the theme of their destination (the lava flow) has already been planted in the reader's mind, foreshadowed by the metaphorical implications of the pebble in the narrator's hand. When he drops it, causing it to break, he is like the ocean (relatively close to the primordial soup) against the mountainside, further linking the metaphor to the event.

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