Crimes Against Literacy – Foreshadowing

I’m not talking about all the usual suspects of literary crimes – the ones we’ve all discussed ’til we’re blue in the face – but rather,  the other things that aren’t as commonly discussed but, nonetheless, drive me batty.

I’m currently reading a book (not work related) that is filled to the gills with foreshadowing statements. I kid you not, there is at least one in every chapter, each suggesting certain plot developments will happen later in the book. There are so many, in fact, that I’d like to predict this author’s literary career over and done with. Yes, it’s that bad. And I have to give a shake of my finger to the editor, who allowed this travesty to go unmolested.

What do I mean by this?

Foreshadow: to show or indicate beforehand.

It’s one of the literary devices in a writer’s tackle box. In the hands of a skilled writer, foreshadowing sets its little literary trap without the reader even being aware of it. It’s usually a small aside, meant to be akin to a passing statement. When that plot development happens, the reader instantly remembers the hint that was dropped chapters earlier.

It can be a big thing (the foundation of the plot, like in Romeo and Juliette, who would rather defy their families’ feud than live without each other. Or it can be a small thing like walking out without your new car registration and getting on the freeway. The foreshadowing hints that the character will need that registration at some point in the future.

It’s fine to just leave it at that:

Jane grabbed her purse and yelled upstairs to her husband. “I’m leaving now for the drive-thru daiquiri factory. Be home soon.”

Ron looked at the mail sitting on his desk and saw the car registration. He jumped up and ran downstairs. “Jane, hold on, you forgot to take the car registration.” Too late. Ron stood in the middle of the street and watched the tail lights of his wife’s car disappear around the corner.

That’s foreshadowing, and the reader now has a hint something is going to happen that involves Jane not having her car registration. Bada bing, bada boom.

What I really, really, really detest is when the author feels compelled to add a…“Jane would soon learn that she should have checked the mail.”

It’s unnecessary pluff and takes the reader out of the moment. The author makes a huge mistake for not giving the reader some credit for having a brain.

How you deliver that hint is what makes for fun reading or the fervent desire to consume bleach. Right now, I’m in the drinking bleach category because the author is so hideously clumsy with every single chapter…and this is a Random House pubbed book. There’s no attempt at being clever or remotely artistic. Readers don’t need to be told,

I’ve noticed that some writers worry that they’ve been too subtle and the reader won’t pick up the clues, so they feel compelled to give the reader a helping hand with a “HELLO, PAY ATTENTION TO THIS PART!” statement. If you’re that concerned, run it past your beta readers. Readers are a lot more intuitive than we think, and the worst thing we can do is treat them as if they’d dropped their brains in the back alley.

Are there scenes in your book where you do this, or are tempted to?

5 Responses to Crimes Against Literacy – Foreshadowing

  1. danholloway says:

    never never tempted to do this as a writer because it’s driven me nuts as a reader too many times. Especially in thrillers – readers want to be made to feel clever because they got something not stupid because they had to have it said ALL CAPS

  2. authorguy says:

    You see the same thing a lot in TV when the camera focuses on the dropped glove or whatever and you know that glove is crucial. I try to leave that stuff out but my editor once told me to put it in so that reader’s wouldn’t get confused. I did it but not the clumsy way. Even Ron with the registration sticks out like a sore thumb.

  3. The Ron example may sound clumsy all by itself, but given the context of the chapter, it works. I made it up, so there it is.

    The main point I was trying to get across is that foreshadowing should be given far more respect than it is because it can draw a reader into the web, or make him toss the book across the room.

    The foreshadowing statement of “Jane would soon learn that she should have checked the mail.” is redundant and irritating.

    Also, the thing about foreshadowing is that the author has to decide how subtle they want to be. The scene and the plot should dictate the balance of foreshadowing without resorting to the in-your-face Jane would soon learn that she should have checked the mail.

  4. […] Edit June 7, 2012:  Editor Lynn Price cautions writers to be subtle when using foreshadowing in her blog post today. […]

  5. Team Oyeniyi says:

    I will take special care to look for these when I am editing now! I had to stop by when I saw the photo in my reader – it lept out of the screen! 😆

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