I’m very nearly finished with my first semester as a doc student. While I seem to have survived relatively unscathed, I wonder if I’ll have as much luck next term when I’ll be taking a research statistics class. Let me put this in proper perspective–I haven’t taken a math class (that’s maths for my British friends) in 25 years. That’s not an exaggeration. I counted. You Doctor Who fans out there will know what I mean when I refer to the Ood–some space alien thingamajigs that carry their (what is it they carry? I can’t remember…was it their hearts? Their voices?) around in their hands. Well, I’ll be carrying my brain around in my hands next term while I look around, perplexed, saying, “I don’t know what happened. It just fell out…”
On a lighter note, I’ve come across some interesting studies about how our identities as writers are formed and how teachers play a big role in shaping those identities. For those of you out there who are writers (and you know who you are), how much of your self-identity as a writer was shaped by your teachers? Have an answer? Good. Remember it because I may need you for research purposes.
For now, here’s an oldie but goodie with some thoughts about one of my favorite aspects of writing fiction–the breadcrumbs, also known as foreshadowing. I wrote this while I was writing Her Loving Husband’s Curse, Book Two of the Loving Husband Trilogy.
What is foreshadowing? Foreshadowing plants clues for the reader. It drops hints about events to come. It creates suspense. It tells the reader to stay tuned. I like to describe foreshadowing as the writer leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for the reader to follow. Readers aren’t sure where the trail leads, but the crumbs sure are tasty so they’re willing to follow along. Then, when they get to their final destination, there’s an “Aha!” moment where they realize that the journey, every step of it, makes sense. They can see how the turns and detours were connected all along.
Foreshadowing shouldn’t be obvious. Sometimes the detail the author is pointing out may seem unimportant in the moment and it’s not until later that we realize that that empty bottle of whiskey on the kitchen floor or those keys left in the ignition in a car in a garage were clues. Sometimes authors like to drop false hints, known as as red herrings, to deliberately mislead readers. This is especially true in mystery and suspense novels.
They way I incorporate foreshadowing into my fiction is fairly simple. Whenever I begin a novel I create a blueprint, a rough outline of what I think will happen in the story. And, as I said before, I must know the ending so I know where I’m heading. Once I begin the first draft I try to work in a few scenes that I know will act as hints about what’s to come. But I don’t worry too much about foreshadowing in the first draft since I’m still feeling out the story and a lot of what I write will change as I understand more about the characters and the plot.
The revising stage is where I go heavy on the foreshadowing. Now I understand the story, the plot is set, so I go back into earlier chapters and find places where I can drop those tasty breadcrumbs I want readers to follow. For example, in Her Dear & Loving Husband there’s the opening scene with Sarah and her landlady where the landlady warns Sarah about the ghosts from the Salem Witch Trials that still haunt Salem. Ghosts in Salem? Sarah dismisses the irrational concern, saying she doesn’t believe in ghosts. What at first seems like an odd conversation between Sarah and her elderly landlady becomes important because this is Sarah’s first hint of the supernatural world she has unknowingly entered in Salem. Sarah has more to do with ghosts than she knows.
And there’s the scene in The Witches Lair where Sarah receives the psychic reading from Olivia, the motherly Wiccan who is also a powerful seer. I wanted the reader to sense that something big is coming for Sarah, and since Salem, Massachusetts really is a center for Wiccans and psychics, I thought Olivia’s prophecy was the way to do it.
In this scene I used dialogue to create the foreshadowing. Here are Olivia’s cryptic words to Sarah: “I can see that he will find you. He is here and he will find you.” When Sarah asks who, Olivia responds, “He will. The one who has been waiting for you. He has been waiting for you for oh so very long.” The phrase “oh so very long” isn’t remarkable in itself until another character says something similar later on. Is there a connection between Olivia’s “oh so very long” and this other character? You’ll need to keep reading to find out.
Keep in mind that if you promise something through foreshadowing, deliver it. If you hint at a connection between characters, then develop that connection. If you bring that empty bottle of whiskey to the reader’s attention, then show why that bottle was important—someone is hiding alcoholism, for example. Otherwise the breadcrumbs become a wasted opportunity on a dead end trail. It’s true that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but if you’re going to make a point of showing that cigar to your readers it should have some purpose. Some writers refer to this plot device as “Chekhov’s Gun.” The playwright Chekhov said that if you put a gun on stage in the first act, then it should be fired in the second act. If you’re not going to fire the gun, then don’t bother with it. Leave it for your next story where one of your characters will have a reason to shoot someone. If you show the gun, the cigar, the bottle of whiskey, whatever it is, and you don’t do anything with it then you’re setting your readers up to be disappointed.
If you’re writing a series then you can carry your foreshadowing through your next books. Does the fact that Olivia is a powerful seer play an important role in books two and three of the Loving Husband Trilogy? You betcha. Will Sarah continue learning about the supernatural world? You know it. Then there’s that nosy reporter determined to reveal James’s secret. Will he cause more problems for our favorite preternatural professor? That’s the beginning of a new trail of breadcrumbs I hope readers will follow through the journey of Her Loving Husband’s Curse and Her Loving Husband’s Return.
I love foreshadowing. I love the connectedness it brings to a story. It’s an important part of fiction writing, and it’s a great tool to bind a stand-alone story or the books in a series together.