Foreshadowing is the device an author uses to drop clues to what is going to happen further in the story. The purpose is to help set the foundation for the essential story to come, as well as to establish the presence of important settings, objects, attitudes, etc. that will play a role in how the story comes together in the end.
Let's look at a few examples so we're all clear on what foreshadowing is, and then we'll talk about how to do it.
1. At the very beginning of the Due South Pilot, Bob Fraser shouts, "If you shoot a Mountie, they'll hunt you to the ends of the earth." And Fraser does – not only to avenge his father's death, but because Bob has told us what to expect an honorable Mountie to do. Conversely, this also lets us know what to expect from a dishonorable Mountie, and thus beautifully frames the Pilot and the series to come.
2. In "Call of the Wild" the opening scene shows us Fraser, Dead!Bob, and RayK together on the frozen ice of the city reservoir. Fraser has chopped a hole in the ice so we can see the frigid water below, and in his attempts at ice fishing, he reels in a dead ATF agent. As we know, the end of COTW has a nuclear submarine surfacing through the surface of the bay, with Fraser and RayK positioned to capture it.
3. Let's jump to Wilby Wonderful for this one. Near the beginning, Carol French climbs a ladder on the porch of her late mother-in-law's house to replace a light bulb – despite being dressed for work (in heels) and despite having her husband right there to potentially do it for her. Feminist issues aside, what this does is show us Carol can handle moving and climbing a ladder on her own, and she can do it in heels. Changing a light bulb is hardly rocket science, but the movie would have a very different ending if Carol couldn't (for whatever reason) manage a ladder on her own.
Integral and Organic
The key to good foreshadowing is that it feel organic to the story. The introduction of important objects (especially objects that will become murder weapons, stolen goods, or the means to saving someone in danger) must be a natural part of the story's unfolding. There's no need to shine a bright spotlight on them, but at the same time, a character needs to notice or handle the object so we don't miss them entirely.
Getting the balance right is crucial. Too much emphasis and we figure out the mystery and we roll our eyes at the ham-fisted appearance of three weird sisters chanting "Double double toil and trouble". Not enough emphasis and we're left wondering where the hell the deus ex machina materialized from and how they knew to show up at all – much less show up in the nick of time.
Red herrings are your friends! Red herrings are, of course, the falsely accused suspect, the guy who looks guilty (and may be, just not of the crime he's accused of), the lead that takes our heroes on a wild goose chase while the real bad guys make a break for it, etc.
Putting red herrings to good use means that you give a number of false clues along with the clues that do actually lead to the resolution of the plot. It means offering multiple witnesses and conflicting witness statements. It means playing multiple suspects off one another – especially if there are payoffs and hitmen and estranged family members you can use to populate your story and give it depth.
We don't really know our characters until we see them in relationships with other people – our heroes don't exist in a vacuum, after all, and all those supporting characters function as opportunities for you to further build character as well as lay more groundwork for your plot's big finish.
What about relationship plots? Up to this point, I've focused on action plots because it's easier to do foreshadowing in action plots. Straightforward romance plots are: flirting » dating » falling in love, right? What will happen (two characters hooking up) isn't a mystery, but how it happens is. In that sense, Fraser noticing a Matchbox GTO in the toy aisle of the supermarket (and thinking about RayK's smile as pets his car) could foreshadow a scene where Fraser and RayK have their first kiss in the front seat.
If you work a 'boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy gets boy back' sort of romance plot, then you will want to foreshadow the areas of conflict. You can see this in nearly every post-COTW fic where RayK returns to Chicago – it takes a serious conflict to defeat the canonical setup of their happily-ever-after, so we need to see mention of hidden attitudinal issues, as well as more subtle things like migrating geese or caribou going to places that suit them better. If boy gets boy back, then you also have to make sure your images don't preclude a return. (Geese fly north in the spring, etc.)
Fraser uses Inuit stories to three main purposes.
1. Distraction. They're a great diversionary tactic when he wants to deflect attention from something he doesn't want to talk about.
2. Rhetoric. They're effective for persuading people to do the right or courageous thing.
3. Self-soothing. Inuit stories are for Fraser what the rest of us think of when we hear, "Well, my mama always used to say…" It's the comfort of his childhood, of a time and place where he still had family to love and take care of him.
As far as foreshadowing goes, they're awesome for preparing us for wacky strategies or nutty bits of magical realism that the show does so well.
Foreshadowing and Endings
Part of what a good ending does is lay the groundwork for the characters to have some sort of future. A basic example of this is how in "Cinderella", her royal wedding directly implies her happily-ever-after. She's going to be queen one day; all her worries are over.
I'm going to do something a little unusual here and talk (with permission) about a fic I beta'd because the beta process of this particular story is a great example of how foreshadowing works.
china_shop wrote an amazing story called This Here Now last summer, and I don't want to spoil the ending for you if you haven't read it – so please go read and come back. It's worth it.
Okay, back now? First, now you see what I mean by the self-soothing. Second, it's an absolutely perfect ending – we know in vague terms what Fraser will do, and we don't feel any need for a sequel to further resolve things because it's gorgeously complete as it is.
In the original draft, there was no Inuit tale at the end. Fraser was on the plane, stoically resigning himself to return to the RCMP, where maybe he could make friends wherever he was posted next, hopefully somewhere close to his sister Maggie.
Here was my comment to her on the ending:
Last phrase isn't working for me. It's Fraserish to moralize, but…okay, you may hate this, but I think he tells so many Inuit stories because he finds them soothing, and here I see him looking out the window at the blue sky, thinking about where he was a week ago and where he's going next now that he can go anywhere—and maybe he tells himself the story (that I'm totally making up:) about the Inuit who died but one day came back to life only to find he'd lost his home, his family, everything. And so (truncating the story of his long, unhappy quest to collect the lost bits of his former life), after receiving the blessing of his lost love, he got into his sealskin kayak and set out for someplace new.
I'm wanting more of an elemental, fundamental, mythic ending because Fraser hasn't been "Constable" Fraser through any of this. He's been a man in search of the love of his life and he's been immersed in some sort of native culture for however long he was amnesiac…so "putting those lessons into practice" feels a little like a step backwards in terms of his character development.
I dunno, you may feel differently, because I CAN see him embracing the structure of the RCMP to rebuild his life, like he's done before…but he's avenged his parents' deaths, he's lost Dief, he's lost both his Rays…and he's had a taste of what it is to be simply a man, not a cop, and taken at face value as such. I think he might choose to explore that.
Now, if you look back at the story you can see how china_shop took my (really long, wordy) need for Fraser to have a more hopeful ending – and ran with it! He had many adventures…it's such a simple, powerful statement, and it's a fantastic reminder that ultimately Fraser's really good at taking care of himself, much like the guy in the Inuit story. *loves*
A Final Note on Scale
Using foreshadowing is not limited to longfic. A drabble can use foreshadowing, provided something is actually happening in those hundred words that can be foreshadowed. If no story is unfolding, then you don't have plot points to hint at.
Take a look at the depth of your plot. Is it simple or complex? The more you have going on in your plot, the more foreshadowing you need; otherwise the story's too predictable. Consider children's fiction: kids mysteries tend to have a hero, her friends, a victim, some witnesses, one red herring, and one bad guy. Shows like Matlock and Murder She Wrote use the same formula, and we can generally tell who did it five minutes into any given episode. The bad guy is going to look sketchy and either get caught in a lie or have major money troubles. The red herring will be seen protesting his/her innocence in an unrelated conflict. The hero will frown doubtfully at a witness trying to frame the red herring, etc. Without a dozen other clues to sufficiently muddy the water, it's no trouble to guess who's guilty. And unfortunately for the audience, in simplistic formulas like this, there's rarely enough character-building to make us care what happens.
Two films that do foreshadowing particularly well are The English Patient and The Sixth Sense. We get clues all throughout about what's going to happen, but they aren't so heavy-handed as to undermine the emotional impact of the drama when it unfolds.
And now, I want to do something a little different this time! You probably noticed my relative lack of examples from fic. The reason for that (apart from my terrible memory) is that good foreshadowing should be invisible. It's so organic to the story that we don't notice it at all.
Now, here's my challenge to you: if you can think of examples of great foreshadowing in fic, please comment below with links and talk a little about what you think makes them succeed. \o/
Also, a brief admin note: The next volunteer call post will go up shortly. Please sign up if you can! :D