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?