One of the greatest faux-pas one can commit in this age of media is ‘spoiling’ a plot twist or the ending of a novel, television show or play. At a certain point in 2013, one only had to utter the words ‘Red Wedding’ to divide the room in two: those who had read a particular chapter of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and those who had only watched the HBO show.
Having been in the former group, I remember watching Game of Thrones with my happily oblivious parents, waiting eagerly for their reactions.
Did my mother throw a cushion at me for not warning her? Yes.
Would I have spoiled it for her by letting her know what was to come? Not on your nelly.
Plot twists, surprises and unexpected conclusions are a part of what makes story-telling such a timeless art form, regardless of its format. Yet, as a reader foremost and a writer second, I am in love with the art of foreshadowing.
For those of you who were asleep in English class that day, ‘foreshadowing’ is a narrative device that subtly hints at a – usually important – plot point featured later in the novel. Shakespeare was renowned for using this device: Romeo and Juliet (J: Methinks I see thee, now thou art below, /as one dead in the bottom of a tomb,/ either my eyesight fails or thou look’st pale.; R: And trust me, love, in my eye so do you.).
To use more contemporary examples, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban features extensive foreshadowing of the main plot point: every time Harry or Professor Trelawney ‘sees The Grim’, Sirius Black appears or is mentioned in the very next chapter; in Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s and Tawny Man trilogies, the foreshadowing is so intricately woven into the plot, it makes me want to cry with exhilaration and despair. Foreshadowing can add depth, detail and an entirely new level of enjoyment to reading a novel.
So, what makes it different to spoiling the ending of a story?
Foreshadowing is not that man in the midnight queue, shouting “Snape kills Dumbledore” and it shouldn’t be as obvious as the Star Trek crew wearing red shirts and a target on their chest. Foreshadowing, at its best, is the throwaway line you later kick yourself for skimming; the same line that, after you notice it, inspires the plot detective in you to start looking for more clues. Subtlety is key if you decide to use this device.
Using foreshadowing in your own writing can be a trickier skill than noticing it in someone else’s work. Most writers I know tend to dismiss it as a literary device, wary of ‘spoiling’ the ending of their stories or giving away key plot twists, because they are not confident enough to believe they can use it effectively. I wouldn’t claim to be an expert, but as this is something I have wrestled with a few times before, I have a few suggestions. I believe the best way to combat this insecurity is – as with any crafted form of writing – to plan ahead.
There is a common theory that there are two kinds of writers: Gardeners and Architects.
Depending on which ‘type’ of writer you identify with, there are different approaches one can take when experimenting with foreshadowing.
A Gardener has a more organic approach to writing than an Architect and, as such, foreshadowing usually happens naturally, if it happens at all. However, if you want to use foreshadowing and just can’t make it seem to happen whilst you’re growing your world, the best place to implement it is during your editing process. When growing your story, spotting patterns, symmetry and symbolism can be hard. When you’re confronted with an entire ‘garden’, however, it’s easier to see what themes and which characters complement each other. This is where foreshadowing can tie everything together into a cohesive narrative, if you slip it in where it’s wanted and don’t try to shoehorn it in for the sake of it. For example: Character A’s (a king) will die by being stabbed in the chest by Character B (a servant).
DON’T: Constantly make references to death, swords and blood every time Character A is on a page with Character B.
DO: Have Character B accidentally spill a drop of red wine on Character A’s chest during that minor dinner scene you’ve written early on in the book, and (perhaps) have Character C make a comment about how difficult the stain is to get rid of.
The above is a very simplified example of foreshadowing mainly to highlight the narrative difference between subtle and obvious.
It is arguably easier to use foreshadowing effectively if you are an Architect. You already know your plot twists and your conclusion, so you have the entire book to hint at plot revelations and you can put them in whilst writing it, which means they often appear to be more ‘natural’ than adding them in afterwards. The temptation to avoid, if you are an Architect, is giving too much away. Do not hint at everything. Mysteries are popular for a reason. Foreshadowing doesn’t have to be a prevalent narrative device – far from it! Choose one or two plot points to focus on.
Pacing can also be important with foreshadowing, regardless of your writing style. For example, if your foreshadowing concerns a major plot event, it would be best not to ‘subtly’ hint at it in every chapter. In George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, Martin uses the symbol of stags and wolves to foreshadow the fates of the Starks. In the same way a direwolf -the symbol of the Stark household – is slain by a stag – the symbol of the Baratheon household -Ned Stark’s decision to serve Robert Baratheon leads to his death.
Although this event is not repeated every chapter (“Hey, remember when that stag killed that wolf? That was worrying…”), the animal symbolism itself is repeated at several intervals to remind the reader of the link. In this way, additional foreshadowing is spawned: the dire wolf pups are taken by a different Stark offspring, in the same way the Stark children are then split up. This creates an over-arching mood of impending doom throughout the book and, indeed, the series as a whole.
So, if you haven’t used foreshadowing as a narrative device before, take a chance and try something new with your next novel. You might be surprised at how well it turns out.