Notes on Writing: Effective Use of Foreshadowing

The other night I started reading a novel that was sent to me for a review. I won’t name the author or the title of the book but this will be the second novel by this author I will have had the privilege to review. I have relatively few complaints about the writing.

Ok, I can almost hear you gasp, Really, Michelle? Are you sure? You’ve found fault with almost every urban novel you’ve reviewed thus far.

No, really, it’s not bad. I’m rather enjoying the book actually. The main character is compelling. Other characters are interesting, too. Even the most hardened killers occasionally elicit a certain amount of sympathy. It’s a fun, if violent, read. With that said, I do have a couple of issues with the novel. The one that has led me to put down the book and boot up the baby laptop is the use of foreshadowing, or rather, the author’s attempts at foreshadowing.

I’m not sure whether or not you recall the third Indiana Jones film: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It was on USA this weekend. One of my favorite uses of foreshadowing occurs at the beginning of the movie when Indy is in class explaining to his students that Archeology is the search for facts, not truth. He ends his lecture by saying, “…and ‘X’ never, ever marks the spot.” Of course, those of you who are old enough to remember the movie or who happened to catch it today will know that X did indeed mark the spot to locate one piece of the Holy Grail puzzle.

Stick with me. I promise I’m going somewhere with this.

I bring up the scene in Indiana Jones because in the novel I’ve been reading, the author seems to have tried to use foreshadowing. However, instead of using an event or, as in Indy’s case, the character’s own words to hint at an upcoming event, the author has resorted to characters having vague feelings about something bad happening. Below is one of the scenes from the book. I’m leaving the characters names out intentionally to keep the anonymity of the author.[i]

After ---- threw on some jeans, he left with -----. Unable to go back to sleep, ----- put ----- in the bed next to her and hugged him tightly. Deep inside she wished that their fairy tale would never end. But, like ----, she had also been battling a nagging feeling lately, which made her more fearful than she had ever been in her entire life. [Sic]

When she closed her eyes she said a prayer to herself, asking God to protect her family, knowing deep down that something bad was about to happen real soon. [Sic]

I wanted to shout, “Of course something bad is going to happen soon, you twit! It’s a novel, there has to be drama or it just doesn’t work!” Of course, yelling at the book would have only have made me a candidate for the 3rd floor of Charity if the 3rd floor of Charity still existed, but I digress.

Let me be clear, there’s nothing wrong with characters anticipating trouble or having a bad feeling about a person or a situation. But, the character’s feelings are not sufficient to foreshadow an event. True foreshadowing would look more like this:

Through the fog of sleep, Angela heard the phone ring. Maria was roused from her sleep more quickly. Phones just didn’t ring in the middle of the night in their home. 

The bedroom door opened slightly and Maria’s father poked his head into the room, “Señorita,” he said gruffly, “teléfono.”

Angela’s heart skipped when she heard Sr. Lopez. He spoke softly but she could tell, even in Spanish, that he was angry that she had caused this late night – no, early morning – disturbance. Angela slipped out of bed and followed him into the hallway where the family’s only telephone sat. Timidly she took the receiver off the side table and said, “Hello?”

“Hey babe!” a familiar voice slurred. Loud music and yelling in the background told Angela that James’ weekly fraternity party was in full swing.

“Hi, James,” Angela said quietly. She was terribly embarrassed that her boyfriend drunk-dialed her in the middle of the night.

“I loooove you. I just had to call to tell you that. I miss you,” James slurred into the phone. 

“I miss you, too, but you can’t call here this late. I’m a guest in the Lopez home. Nobody in Oaxaca has their phone ring in the middle of the night unless it’s an emergency.”

“I’m sorry,” he said sadly. “I just missed you so much. Tell them I’m so so sooooo sorry.”

“I will. Goodnight. Call me in a couple of days but not in the middle of the night.”

Angela hung up the phone, apologized to Sr. Lopez, and loped back to the room she shared with his daughter. She had only been with her host family for a couple of days but she’d already caused them aggravation. As she climbed into bed, Angela prayed the phone wouldn’t ring for her again in the middle of the night. She couldn’t take the embarrassment of it happening twice.

We might assume from the above that the phone will ring again for Angela in the middle of the night but we don’t know why. Who will call? Will it be her boyfriend again? Will it be an emergency? How will her host family react? Will it cause problems for her in the school program?

The reader can sense something is coming based on what is happening and/or being said but neither the reader nor the character(s) have a clue what is about to happen. The biggest issue for Angela right now is how embarrassed she would be if the phone rang for her again in the middle of the night. She couldn’t possibly guess that when the phone rings in the middle of the night a few days later she will receive devastating news.

Foreshadowing is a wonderful technique designed to hint at upcoming events. Readers shouldn’t be hit over the head with characters’ feelings that “bad” stuff is about to happen. Of course, bad things are about to happen. As I said above, it’s a novel. That’s what’s supposed to happen. But the reader should feel the tension building and should gather clues of what’s to come, not have it handed to him/her. Give the reader a chance to be surprised. Let your readers work through the story along with the characters sometimes. It will make for a much more interesting reading experience.
M.B. - Michelle BishopWrites

[i] After the book review is published, I’ll update this post to give proper credit to the author for his/her work.


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