Foreshadowing is the seeding of minor precursors to some greater event in a story. This is how believability is created. If you want the reader to believe an event in your story that might not seem altogether credible, foreshadow it and the reader will believe it. Even if the major event is already believable, foreshadowing will draw the reader in and make it even more convincing.
For example, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is set in Old China, where every aspect of life is arranged according to strict rules and customs. The narrator, Lily, has a special friendship with Snow Flower, one that was arranged especially to improve Lily’s marriage prospects. In fact, this friendship is dearer to Lily than the wealthy marriage she enters into as a girl of seventeen. But at the climax of the story, Lily humiliates Snow Flower out of jealous vengeance, and she loses the one relationship in her life that matters more to her than any other. Without foreshadowing, this climax might have been unbelievable, since Lily loves Snow Flower. Why would she do such a thing to the woman who matters most to her? Lisa See foreshadows it in a confrontation between Lily and her mother, one that reveals her vengeful spirit. She acts spitefully in this confrontation, and thus, her greater spitefulness in humiliating Snow Flower in the climax is foreshadowed. We have seen her behave vengefully once before. So at the climax, when the story needs us to believe it without question, we do thanks to foreshadowing.
I see foreshadowing as a two-part affair―first the hint (or hints), then the payoff. If a jewellery store is to be robbed, there might be a suspicious customer in the day before. If a man is to leave his wife, he might be reluctant to make holiday plans. Keeping the hint and payoff firmly linked in my mind, will make the setup more straightforward. Sometimes I write myself notes about it. And the more significant the payoff event, the earlier I like to plant hints.
As a reader, I always love when crucial events are deftly foreshadowed. That Ahh, I get it! moment is immensely satisfying. The classics are full of them. In John Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men, the killing of Candy’s old dog hints at the later killing of Lennie. In Macbeth, Shakespeare uses the witches and their prophecies to foreshadow events. They warn that ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’. In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet complains to her nurse ‘My grave is like to be my wedding-bed.’ And in the wonderful Charlotte’s Web, Charlotte the spider explains to Wilbur that all living things eventually die. This foreshadows the main plot conflict, which is saving Wilbur from the slaughterhouse. Charlotte weaves a web over the barn door with a message that startles the humans into sparing Wilbur’s life. In the process of spinning her web, Charlotte expends all her energy and dies, just as she had hinted to Wilbur at the beginning of the story.
I will often read a novel containing clever foreshadowing a second time, in order to fully appreciate the author’s skill. But as a writer, I find it a fine line to tread. Too blatant a hint might give the game away. Too subtle, and readers might not make the connection at all. These days I err on the side of subtle. Readers are clever and sophisticated creatures! Sometimes writers forget this.
Of course the wonderful thing about foreshadowing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time. It’s rare to nail it in a first draft. I’ve often gone back through a manuscript and added clues. That’s when a good chapter summary document – a road map – comes into its own. Sometimes too, my editor suggests I either tone down or ramp up the foreshadowing. It takes a lot of practice.
The funny thing about foreshadowing is that if done well, it happens all the way through. EVERYTHING is foreshadowed. You realise this if you study closely the favourite novels that you read again and again. I’ve been studying Snow Flower with one of my students and we keep stumbling across instances of foreshadowing. It becomes the cement that glues a narrative together. It makes the story stronger, more solid. It putties in the gaps.
Foreshadowing is not to be confused with predictability, though. Predictability arises out of clichéd characters who act in clichéd ways. Foreshadowing is the trail of breadcrumbs you follow, not realising they’re breadcrumbs. You think the forest is thick with trees, that the way stumbles right and left. But in fact there is a path, and that path is foreshadowing.