Wink, Wink; Nudge, Nudge

I’m having difficulty with another aspect of writing and I’m looking forward to hear your thoughts on: Finding a balance between what the reader ought to know, and what to hold back. Foreshadowing. Oh, for such a fun word to say, with such great literary purpose, it is most troublesome.

“Why is it so tricky?” one might ask. “All you’re doing is giving a hint at what’s to come. Just throw in a purposeful glance at the bad character, or a clever absent comment about the object that will destroy the world. It’s easy.”  To that person I say: 😛

I’ve read some books where the foreshadowing was not handled well at all. A quarter of the way through I had figured out most of the plot, and not just because I’m clever — they actually spelled it out with the thought they were being devious.

It’s an understandable error, and one I fight with all the time. As a writer, you know how it’s supposed to end. You know what all the little clues mean, and that the climax of the book comes when the MC discovers alien overlords have actually been hiding all these years in our breakfast cereal, plotting their rise to power. The reader, on the other hand, shouldn’t know everything that’s coming up, just that there’s some connection between granola and aliens (I’m certain there is, by the way).

To keep the reader in the dark but moving in the right direction, it’s necessary for the writer to throw breadcrumbs, but how much credit should we give our readers for picking up on them? Things that seem blatantly obvious to the writer (“Didn’t you read the end? OBVIOUSLY, the almonds were the clue all along. Couldn’t you tell when there were almonds in every bowl?”), don’t necessarily mean anything to reader — they read to escape, not to analyse every single line for meaning and symbolism. Or the writer falls on the other side and explains too much, worried that the reader won’t pick up on the hint (“Ally stared deep into her bowl. There was something about the almonds, something that always seemed….sinister.”). Every book has an element of mystery, as question of what’s going to happen, and to give up the game with some in-your-face foreshadowing makes for a disappointing ending. Why bother to read the rest if you know what’s coming?

So where is the middle ground?  I think it’s something only practice can build, that ability to keep the subtlety, but create that epiphany at the end when the reader’s mind is just blown that it was the almonds after all. Is there a rule of thumb? Do’s and don’ts of foreshadowing? I’ve read suggestions online, in books, through four years of university, but I’m interested in hearing from readers – what do you like/not like? And from writers, any tricks you care to share?

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8 comments

  1. Some day I'm going to figure out how to comment without it eating the first one! Anywho. . . what I said was something along these lines: I tend to be too subtle in my hints. My readers pointed out a couple areas where they were taken by surprise by something I *thought* I had made quite clear, in a subtle manner. 😉 There's a big difference between the reader thinking, "Wow! I didn't see that coming!" and "WTF Where did that come from?!!?"

  2. This is something I do think about at certain points while I'm working on a ms. I've never actually "planned" the hints –they just kind of happen as I'm writing as a natural outcome to the way I've structured my outline. Sometimes I catch things while editing that are a little too obvious but for the most part it words out okay –or at least I've never been criticized for this aspect of my writing.Great post, Krista!

  3. I think its easy to go too far. Many books assume the reader is a dolt, it's very irksome. I big dilemma for sure, and one that varies between adult and YA. I think this is again where Beta readers who ARE IN your target market are so key. 🙂

  4. I love those times when you read back over your completed ms and hit on points you don't even remember adding that tie in so perfectly with where you ended up. Great feeling 🙂

  5. The emerald light flashes once more; the smell of burning organic matter fills the air.Hi Krista. Nice post on a complex topic. I've used it with mixed success, and I suppose if you aren't confident in some genres you could leave it out, but not if you're writing detective stories or most horror…He re-calibrates the laser. The Crunchy Nut Cornflakes and Cheerios are next. No one invades my breakfast table. Not now! Not ever!

  6. Not really a writer, as the blogger knows, but my thought is that subtlety actually is the middle ground. I think if you worry about making sure the reader picks up on foreshadowing cues, you may have already gone too far. All your readers will have different focuses and attentions and I would think that trying to ensure they grasp something is going to make it far to blatant. I've discussed writing with the blogger occasionally and while I like to think I'm decent at paying attention to composition, character, meaning and the possiblilities in a narrative… I'm garbage at picking up foreshadowing. My wife sees things coming in a text, or a film for that matter, miles before I do. The thing is, I like it that way. When I do catch something, I feel very engaged, and when I don't, I allow myself to be surprised by the twists and turns in the narrative that I did not see coming.Feedback from betas, mentioned in the comments, makes a lot of sense to me too – and I think a key would be getting several of those, because different people focus and attend to things differently.I think that if the world and characters are rich and well constructed, then simply writing about them will bring out subtle cues. Maybe that is too simplistic a way of looking at it, but I definitely would be a proponent of subtle as opposed to slap-you-in-the-face foreshadowing.The almonds though? That whole plot twist was just nuts.

Thoughts?

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