Foreshadowing is that most fundamental of narrative tricks, the suggestion or weaving together of future action or outcomes with a character’s ‘present’ situation. The Publetariat provides five snarky but all too accurate examples, including:
There should be a useless looking object that your character gets stuck with. It should be so seemingly irrelevant that it can only be exceptionally relevant. Later, it saves your protagonist’s life
It’s particularly on my mind at the moment because of both the revision of the WIP I’m prevaricating about and the novel I’m currently reading – Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Silver Branch.
I’ve written before about Sutcliff’s marvellous Eagle of the Ninth where foreshadowing is used in an allusive, poetic way. The hero, a Roman centurion called Marcus, forms a close across-cultural-barriers bond with a local chieftain with whom he is later to come into conflict. Further on in the book (notice how carefully I’m trying to dance around possible spoilers here?) Marcus forms a not dissimilar bond with another Briton. The parallels in the two relationships and the many contrasts and ironies they suggest are never explicitly pointed out. Instead, Sutcliff simply lets the story unfold and the resonances accumulate beautifully and poetically for themselves. The result is a yet another thematic layer added to an already richly layered story.
With The Silver Branch, things are a little different. I’m only fifty four pages in (and I’m enjoying it) but the occasional foreshadowing doesn’t so much whisper in the ear of the reader as yell “Ahoy! Seriously plot point alert! PAY ATEN-SHUN, READER!” while waving a placard. For example, The Eagle of the Ninth centres around a quest to recover a lost Eagle, a standard belonging to a legion that marched north and was never seen again. Twenty or so pages into The Silver Branch, we learn that an ancestor of the two main characters was rumoured to have had some sort of a quest to do with an Eagle. “I’m not sure,” a character says, “but I’ve always wondered if it could have something to do with the lost Ninth.” Now I suspect that the Eagle is going to turn up in a very satisfying way but the hint lands in the text like a brick.
Of course, this highlights another problem – how to weave information from a first book into a sequel, especially if the lives of the characters are completely discontinuous. Without getting too sidetracked into what is another question entirely, I note that foreshadowing in sequels seems to all too easily tip into information dumping, a little bit of which seems to have happened here.
A separately clunky bit of foreshadowing is a scene, very early on, when the main villain of the piece crushes a moth in a really brutal way. The scene in itself is perfectly well-written but it’s just too much – we’ve already had half-a-dozen hints in the same scene that this individual is a nasty piece of work. Again, the foreshadowing commentator with a megaphone is at the reader’s ear: “This man is a killer and he will crush someone like a moth!”.
Now I don’t want to put you off what is shaping up to be a worthy (if occasionally flawed) sequel to something of a minor masterpiece and I’ll review The Silver Branch in full at a later date. But this foreshadowing stuff. Tricky. As Lynette Labelle notes, you want the reader to understand that the clues to the killer or thief or trickster or whatever were there all along, if only they’d noticed them. Diana Wynne Jones does this particularly well in Archer’s Goon.
What’s the best and worse bit of foreshadowing anyone’s come across? Currently, I’d personally go with the use of the gun in 1Q84 (I reviewed it here). But you’ll have to read it to see what I mean.