FORESHADOW: clues planted in the text to prepare a reader for an event to come later


In a well-written novel a name will be mentioned in an early chapter and then not heard of again until much later in the story.   When it pops up, the reader may be stunned, thinking I remember that name!  I wondered what happened to him.

The author has foreshadowed the event by simply mentioning the name.   It leads to a rule which should be followed by writers:  Do not drop names in a story unless you are coming back to them later.   It leaves a big hole in the story if they are never heard from again.

Rather, the mentioning of a name, a piece of evidence, or an obscure place plants itself in the reader’s mind, only to reappear when the clue plays a significant part in the plot.  The other rule might be: If you expect to create a major twist or turn in the story, you are wise to have planted the name, location, or piece of evidence in an inconspicuous place earlier on.

For instance, if I were writing a mystery story about a person who has been kidnapped, I might include a scene early on in which the protagonist walks into a coffee shop and finds herself sitting at a counter stool next to a stranger.   He turns to her and says, “I don’t think we’ve met before.   My name is Charlie Underwood.  You must be new in town.”  She responds, “No, just here for a brief visit.  But it’s nice to meet you.”

Charlie Underwood never appears again until the penultimate chapter when a fingerprint at the scene of the abduction turns out to be for a retired teacher from the village, Charlie Underwood.  You as the reader say to yourself, “I remember that name.  He was in that coffee shop way back in an earlier chapter.”  And it turns out that Charlie is the kidnapper.   As the reader, you feel a connection to the new moment, and slide into the culmination with a sense of belonging.

It can be very, very subtle, or it may be quite obvious.   If you’re watching a TV show and the culprit in the plot is not immediately obvious, your spouse may say, “I think there’s some connection to that Charlie Underwood guy.”  The fact that he had a name mentioned earlier just plants a note of suspicion in your spouse’s mind.   If, however, there were a lot of names dropped (a really bad writing technique) the connection may be lost.

Yes, writing fiction has a great deal of spontaneity to it.  But there are also “rules” of writing which are important to the flow of a plot.  This is just one of them.  That doesn’t mean that a rule can never be broken, but the writer does it at a risk, and should have another method of achieving the same effect.

If you know “Charlie Underwood,” he is just a fictitious name in this blog posting.  Your friend is innocent.


Cartoon Credit:  John Atkinson

Speak Your Mind