Foreshadowing

It’s true that fiction has to make sense, whereas real life doesn’t. You’re asking your reader to willingly suspend disbelief and take your story at face value. Sure, they’ll let you colonize Mars. Or they’ll buy a new breed of dogs that can walk on water. Talking squirrels. That’s all fine. But if your make-believe world doesn’t hang together conceptually, you’ll lose your reader.

Even when you throw in some strange plot twist, your reader must say, “I didn’t expect that, but now you mention it, it makes sense.”

And how’s that going to happen? You do it with foreshadowing. What’s that? You must plant clues so that your reader is prepared. They don’t have to be big clues—in fact, the more subtle the better (but not so much as to pass unnoticed).

Here’s an example of foreshadowing:

Mary rifled through the letters on her elderly father’s desk, looking for bills he hadn’t yet paid. She worried he was succumbing to Alzheimer’s more rapidly than the doctor had predicted. Electric bill—unpaid. Gas bill—same. And so on with a his Visa account and trash collection. She sighed, wondering if now was the time to talk to him about entering a nursing home. Three of the envelopes were not bills, but appeared to be letters from old friends, and another was from a Masonic Lodge he’d been a member of many years before. Mary smiled at memories of being a Job’s Daughter as a teen. She stuffed the bills into her purse, left the letters on his desk and dropped the Masonic note on top. Looking around for any last-minute chores and seeing none, she turned out the light and pulled the door shut softly behind her.

Ok, what’s being foreshadowed here? Mary thought only of the unpaid bills, except for a brief memory which she quickly dismissed, and her concerns were entirely for her father’s present well-being. But there are three letters from friends and that Masonic mystery. Are they significant, or are they just little details to add realism to the scene?

The answer, of course, is that anything is possible at this point. But, when she gets a telephone call five chapters later from an old Masonic brother who thinks he has a share in her father’s business, it doesn’t hit your reader as an utterly unexpected surprise. We already knew there was a Masonic connection. But note the part about the connection to her father’s business. That probably should’ve been foreshadowed as well, perhaps with an offhand comment early in the narrative that she never really understood her father’s business dealings, especially since her niece began running the family firm.

In other words, there’s such a thing as surprise (an unexpected but plausible plot twist) and congnitive dissonance (something unexpected that doesn’t make any sense at all). For example, suppose your heartfelt life story of your maiden aunt, a religious woman who devoted her life to caring for the poor, suddenly ends with an alien appearing at the window. Say what? How do aliens figure in a loving story about someone who really lived? The answer is they don’t.

Of course, you could start with the alien peering through the window and then spin your story around your aunt’s secret life communing with Jovians and how they gave her special powers to know what people are thinking—something she kept secret all her life but which enabled her to have a special understanding of the needs of the poor. Ok, we might buy that, because you created a fantasy universe to begin with.

So, the point of foreshadowing is not to make everything obvious to the reader, but rather to help your reader be ready to accept a revelation you’ll discuss later. Remember: fiction has to make sense.

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