F is for Foreshadowing

This is a plot device that sees an author planting clues in earlier scenes of a story for a payoff at a later stage. If it is done well, the reader won’t see it coming, but upon reaching the payoff, will realise that the clues were there all along. Depending on what is being foreshadowed, it can be weaved through narration, hinted at through dialogue, or shown through description. It can be subtle or ‘in your face’ although the reader may not realise the relevance in earlier chapters. Foreshadowing can build suspense and adds dimension to a surprise or twist (the payoff). However, if at the end of the book you reveal the murderer is some obscure character you mentioned once – briefly – in an earlier point in the book, with no clues hinting to his potential guilt, the reader is going to feel (like you) cheated.

There are two parts to foreshadowing:

The Set-up

Setting up foreshadowing is akin to sowing seeds. You are planting seeds of thought that you may or may not nurture through your book (depending on the role it plays). The earlier you can foreshadow a key event or twist (and continue to do so) the bigger the payoff.

If we return to Bob (again) who I have featured in C-E of this series, you may recall that I hinted at the shoddy interior of the space station he arrived on:

Bob stepped through the airlock and whistled as the door clicked shut behind him. The rickety-looking interior wasn’t something he associated with Space Station Ex, though it had been a while since his last visitHe secured his helmet in its designated storage unit and half bounced, half floated along the narrow corridor. The sporadic flickers from the emergency lighting stuttered and died, plunging the station into darkness.

The ‘rickety-looking interior’ and the emergency lighting ‘stuttering and dying’ was my way of trying to hint to the reader that Bob isn’t on the space station he should be. Possibly the reader doesn’t know enough about the newer station to pick up on this – but Bob should.

The Payoff

Think of the payoff as the seeds you planted growing into full bloom. You’ve laid hints and clues throughout your book and it all comes together towards the climax of the book.

In Bob’s case, it’s a little sooner than that:

He thumped the top of the comm unit. It flickered before fizzling out with a distinct pop.

He leaned back in the chair with a muttered curse, and then floated back out of it almost immediately, pressing his nose to the window. Space Station Ex – his intended destination – stared back at him.

“You have got to be kidding me!”

The hints regarding the state of the space station should have told Bob (and by default, the reader) that he was in the wrong place. At the point he looks out of the window and sees the real space station Ex, all the clues I’ve been leaving about the less than pristine condition of this station should allow the ‘penny to drop’. I’ve confirmed it at a point after the reader may or may not have realised what was going on, which means we’re all on the same page for the next part of the story.

This is a subtle example of foreshadowing and it doesn’t have a huge payoff. In a larger story, I might play on that for longer, perhaps by having the shutters down so he can’t see out, or something like that.

You can also think of foreshadowing as a trail of breadcrumbs, giving your readers a series of clues to store up for later use. I particularly enjoy working out who the ‘baddie’ is just moments before the author reveals it. If I arrive at the payoff without having worked something out for myself, I usually feel like I’ve missed something, or perhaps there weren’t enough clues?

The balance between your set-up and payoff is important as it can make all the difference between a reader saying ‘Wow, I didn’t see that coming, even though all the clues were there,’ and ‘Ugh? What’d I miss? Who is this guy anyway?’