I believe that one of the biggest tricks you can ever hope to pull off in writing a story is the art of foreshadowing, which is a LOT more challenging than you might think it is. This is due to the fact that you have to be able to set up a series of major events in advance...without letting your readers know what those events are ahead of time. In fact, you don't even want your audience to know that you're doing it at all until you get the pleasure of landing that 'zing' moment upon them later on. It's one of literature's most impressive magic tricks! And hopefully, this little piece will help you to effectively pull it off without a hitch.
So...let's get started.
What is foreshadowing? It's the daunting task of secretly setting up future events in your story ahead of time without letting the reader in on the secret. For example...maybe your main character just happens to be a computer hacker. That might not have anything to do with 75% of your story...but as you reach the climax? You might have an issue where someone says, "If only we could find somebody with the ability to hack into the system!" Dun dun dun! Your main character just so 'happens' to have some hacking experience! Something that you casually alluded to earlier on in your story. Problem solved. The question is how do you set up that important payoff in advance without your audience rolling their eyes and saying, "Well, THAT'S definitely going to be a part of the story later on! Ugh!"?
It's not easy. Trust me.
Readers are much more savvy these days. People absorb sooooo much media in a single evening these days. They've seen every movie, read every story, heard every song...no matter how HARD you try, they will always try to outwit you and jump twelve spaces ahead of you to figure out what you're going to do next. Everybody's looking to be the first one to shout out, "CALLED IT!!!"...followed by them calling your work contrived and predictable, of course. (Sigh...I really hate that second part...) But when people are reading ten to fifteen stories a week, sometimes even double or triple that number, it's hard to surprise them with much of anything at all. You have to be sneaky about it. You've got to toss a banana peel on the floor. (Tosses banana peel!) And while I realize that giving some of my secrets away will now make readers even MORE savvy and it will ultimately make things harder for me to ever surprise them with anything ever again...I'm going to give them to you anyway. Because...why not? Hehehe!
The first part of the process is obviously the most necessary piece of the puzzle. PLANNING! Planning, planning, planning! This is something that can't be ignored, skipped over, or taken lightly with you story's foreshadowing. You need to know, ahead of time, what's going to happen, why it happens, and what impact it's going to have on the rest of your story as a whole. Remember, your readers already have a seriously unfair advantage when it comes to your creative solutions and set ups. So if you're going to write a story with any surprises at all...you're going to need to take their advantage into account. Because some people are just WAITING to tell you that your story sucks! Hehehe! And that they're smarter than you for figuring things out before you told them what was going on. They live for it. Be prepared for that.
Just kidding. They're not that bad.
Plan! And don't be 'vague' with your planning. You have to have a definite idea of where you're going to end up from the beginning. Before you even start writing a story where foreshadowing is a technique that you want to use, figure out what you want to reveal, when you're going to do it, and how you want to hide it. Vague and unspecific planning leads to severe plot holes and inconsistencies later on in your project. A good example would be the original “Star Wars” trilogy, where it is revealed that Luke and Leia are brother and sister...but were clearly seen kissing in the first episode. Ummm...yeah, so...great plot twist, but you might want to have a major detail like that worked out beforehand. Otherwise, it only causes problems in the end.
So, to avoid this...try to visualize your story fall the way through. Try to think of it as your own personal movie trailer. Seriously, if you were going to market this to an audience, what would be in the trailer? What happens in the beginning, what happens in the end, and how do you get from point A to point B in an entertaining way? Think of all the interesting major events that will carry your reader on the journey you want to take them on? Visualize it in your mind. Now, once you have the whole story in your mind (Don't worry, you still have enough flexibility to spontaneously change things around while you're writing. I know that inspiration can be unpredictable, but that's where some of your best work comes from.) it's time to move on to the second part of your magic trick.
Pick your moments.
When thinking about your completed story, ask yourself, “What are the events that stand out to you? Which ones are most important? Which events will have the biggest impact on the over all outcome of the story?” These are going to be your golden moments, and the ones that you want to concentrate on building up to. Great use of foreshadowing can really bring an already exciting moment to the next level. Imagine if your main characters are being chased by some kind of deadly enemy and they're trapped at the end of an alley with a locked door. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. What do you do? Well, what if the main character notices a special shaped keyhole in the door, and suddenly notice the chain around his neck...which holds a charm that fits the lock? Imagine him giving it a last minute try in a moment of desperation, and it opens the door...saving everyone from an untimely demise. Awesome! The hero wins again! But something like that can't just 'happen' in your story out of the blue. That would seem a bit weird, right? So, how do we fix that?
Foresha...DAMMITT!!! You guys said it before I did! See? Quit trying to jump ahead of me all the time!
If this is going to be a big moment later on in your story, you're going to want to make a few 'loose' references in it ahead of time. Maybe the charm on his neck was given to him by a lost parent when he was younger, or by an ally that he met in his journey's along the way, or maybe he took it from a slain enemy...however you want to work out the fact that he now has the essential tool that he needs hanging around his neck at the moment he needs it most, use that. It sets up that magic moment when he finally realizes why he has it, and everyone reading will say, "Oh yeah!!! I remember he had that from before!" Or...some of the folks who are skipping ahead will be silently screaming, "Use the charm! Use it! C'mon!" Both of these things are good for your story. So don't worry too much, either way. What you want to do is sufficiently set up the future scenes in your stories early, so when that big moment hits, your audience will be able to think back and trace the natural progression from one moment to another and have the big 'design' suddenly be revealed to them.
This method goes for whatever you're writing. If you're writing a romance story, you don't just want two people getting together and a few paragraphs later they're already making out and dry humping on the living room couch. I mean...where did that come from? You know? Romances use foreshadowing too, albeit a lot more visible. Maybe they meet, they smile at one another, the develop an interest for one another, they begin to flirt, then they get some time alone, and...when they finally share that very first kiss, you readers can go back and follow the breadcrumbs as to how all of this happened. That's all foreshadowing is...setting up the big events that are going to ultimately define the kind of story that you want to tell.
Now comes the hard part.
If you're foreshadowing consists of someone giving your main character a charm to wear around his neck and saying, "This will save you when you need it most."...then that's all your readers will be looking for from that moment on. They will have a whole 'Batman' board on their wall with pushpins and photos and strings, connecting one event to another, trying to beat you to the punch. You've got to be sneakier than that. Here...follow me into my secret Comsie lair!
(Laughs as you slip on a banana peel!)
Hehehe, do you see what I did there? If you go back and read the beginning of this article, does the mention of a banana peel being tossed on the floor seem odd or out of place to you? Just Comsie being dumb and goofy again, right? Good! That's the point.
The only reason I even put that sentence or two in this article was so I could bring it up again later and use it as a lame joke to prove what I was talking about. That's foreshadowing. Put it early in this post, and then go on talking until you forget about it, and then bring it back when you least expect it. So everyone reading this can go back to the beginning of this article later on and think, "Damn...you got me, Com. Bastard."
When hiding your foreshadowing clues, you want to simply mention them as though they're something insignificant. Something mundane that won't really mean much in the future of your story. A few good ways to do this is to hide it in some random dialogue between characters, or to perhaps have something much bigger going on at the time that it's mentioned. You use the 'shiny' object to distract your audience, and then slide the true gems right under their radar without them knowing it. The conceal and reveal part of the process is the fairy dust needed to make this magic trick work, after all!
This takes practice and instinct and it's VERY hard to pull off in a story anymore! As I said, people have seen every plot twist, every red herring, every distraction, by now...and trying to misdirect them is going to be an exhausting experience. And even then, some will spend a lot of time trying to figure you out and beat you to the punch. BUT...if you can make your clues subtle enough, do a little misleading, and then announce everything early enough to have your readers 'forget' about them by the time you're ready to spring the big revelation on them...it CAN be done. And if you can catch just a FEW of your readers off guard with a well executed secret...there's no better feeling in the world than that! Hehehe! Especially when you've been laying the breadcrumbs out ahead of time. You can practically hear their jaws drop all around the world. Hehehe!
To find some examples of expert foreshadowing, I'd recommend a few movies that I think did a great job of it. No spoilers, don't worry! Give these movies a look, watch them twice if needed. "The Sixth Sense", "Usual Suspects", "Frailty", "Seven", "Angel Heart", etc. Check out the way these movies build tension, give you hints, and then force you to go back and watch what you missed the first time around. This is what you want to accomplish. Study them and see what made them work. Then...go and do it better!
Being able to toy with your audience is a skill that has to be earned over time, so start today! Hehehe! Plan ahead of time, pick your moments, and be sure to hide your hints and clues as best as you can! It's all you can do! But the payoff is sooooo worth it in the end! So take a stab at it, and I wish you guys the best of luck!
Happy writing, you guys!