Write It Sideways

Three Pitfalls of Foreshadowing

Today’s post is written by Amanda Bumgarner.

Two years ago I read Stephen King’s newest (at the time) novel, 11/22/63I was hesitant at first, not being a fan of horror and never having previously read one of King’s novels. But it came highly recommended from a friend I trusted, so I gave it a shot.

Thus began a week of reading, wherein I refused to put the book down even for a moment. It became one of my favorite reads of 2011, and it’s always one of the first books I mention when I’m asked for a recommendation.

However. (Doesn’t it seem like there’s always a however?)

I did find one sour note, and that was King’s tendency to use foreshadowing.

Often I come across authors who are using this literary device or that one, and when I suggest a change, they say, “But [insert name of famous author] does it!” Whether it’s Nicholas Sparks or J.K. Rowling or George R.R. Martin or Stephen King, the message is the same: if a famous author can do it, I can too.

My answer in these cases is this: just because they’re doing it doesn’t mean they should, and it certainly doesn’t mean you should.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you as an author aren’t allowed to bend or break the so-called rules of writing. But I do think that doing something just because a bestselling author does it isn’t a good excuse. Sometimes they shouldn’t be doing it either. Case in point: Stephen King’s use of foreshadowing in 11/22/63 (i.e., making reference to an event in the story that hasn’t already happened).

So let’s take a lesson from one of the most widely read fiction authors in history and look at three pitfalls of foreshadowing.

1. Excessive Use of Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing can be effective when used correctly, but one sure way to kill the mood is to foreshadow everything and tell nothing. Readers want the story to move; they want things to happen. And if the author is repeatedly saying things like, “Little did she know this would happen” or, “He could have no idea that would happen” but nothing actually does happen, then the book becomes all talk and no action.

Readers will become confused about the possibility of so many upcoming events and start wondering when said events are actually going to happen.

Excessive foreshadowing feeds into another pitfall . . .

2. Foreshadowing an Unimportant Event

Unfortunately, I felt like this happened more than once in 11/22/63The narrator would make a comment about an event that was to come, and I would wait and wait for it. When it finally arrived, it wasn’t anything to worry about, and I was left feeling let down and taken advantage of.

That’s why it’s best to foreshadow large events that will change a character’s life or change the direction of the plot.

For example: it would be ridiculous if an author foreshadowed what a character was going to eat for lunch. Unless, of course, the lunch ended up being important to the plot. Excessive foreshadowing is a precursor to foreshadowing unimportant events. Both will frustrate readers and cheapen your plot, harming your credibility to make a promise of a plot event to come and then actually deliver.

3. Foreshadowing Too Much

Foreshadowing too much is different from excessive foreshadowing in that the former refers to giving too much information so readers are no longer in suspense. I’ll borrow from another book I read a year or so ago: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I enjoyed this book a great deal, but one thing that bothered me was his use of foreshadowing to tell us early on that a certain character was going to die. There are different opinions about foreshadowing a character’s death, but in general it’s good practice to be careful about giving away too much information.

Foreshadowing a character’s death can be done well—for example, the prologue of Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants (2006). But often I get frustrated when a death is spelled out for me so that I don’t have to wonder what’s going to happen.

Instead of being invested and suspenseful, it’s just a matter of when rather than what.

Foreshadowing can be a useful device and is often used well to add suspense and mystery to a plot, but it can go wrong when used incorrectly. Keeping in mind these three pitfalls will help you create foreshadowing that will engage readers until they’ve turned the last page.

Amanda Bumgarner is a freelance editor who loves helping writers make their publishing dreams come true. Follow her blog for weekly writing and editing tips, or find her on Twitter.