I read a lot about craft issues—writing the perfect opening sentence, creating a cliff-hanger ending to a chapter, character description that reveals something more than height and taste in clothes, and the like. One area I’m working on now is foreshadowing.
When I begin a story I rarely know exactly where the characters are going, but I follow them faithfully through the mine fields of their lives until I reach what seems to be the end. It isn’t until I’m working on the third or fourth draft that I realize instead of foreshadowing an approaching development I’ve anticipated it in a truncated scene.
There’s a big difference between foreshadowing and getting ahead of myself, revealing too much too soon. In foreshadowing properly done, the reader doesn’t know what’s going to happen, only that something will. A character joking about her horoscope on the train into work is a hint that the unexpected is on the horizon, but her report of what the horoscope promised would be getting ahead of the story.
Foreshadowing is a device for increasing or maintaining tension, directing the reader’s attention to a particular issue or relationship, for example, hinting at where danger lies. Anticipating too much too soon or too clearly does the opposite of creating tension; it undermines the climax or twist to come. It takes the air out of the balloon.
This would seem to be an easy technique to master but in my first drafts I often slide right past what I’ve done. It’s not until a much later draft that I notice that I’ve told the reader almost exactly what’s coming, and to make the narrative work effectively I have to cut that part and rewrite. The danger, of course, is that I’ll miss it and be shocked when a Beta reader finds it. (Love my beta readers.)
Someone who has published ten mysteries with three publishers and a few self-published also could be assumed to know all the basic techniques of crafting a novel, but that would be naive. I always find something more to learn. Right now I’m focused on foreshadowing, but next month I could be focusing on dialogue. In some stories the characters emerge clearly in dialogue and I don’t doubt what I’ve written. In others I can’t seem to get them to say a single line that isn’t forced or awkward. But that’s another problem for another post.