Advanced Storytelling



Read the following excerpt from the book How to Write a Damn Good Novel, by James N. Frey. (pp. 115–118)


Foreshadowing is not actually conflict, but rather the promise of conflict.

Here's an example of foreshadowing:

Joe got out of bed, ate breakfast, loaded his gun, and set out for town.

This is foreshadowing because the reader thinks, "What's the loaded gun for?" A story question has been raised. Foreshadowing is the art of raising story questions. If the story questions are slight, the reader is mildly interested. If the story questions are great, the reader is gripped. You can slip in foreshadowing artfully, as naturally as breathing. Here is an example:

Susie saw Eddie the first day of class and that night wrote in her diary, "If he doesn't take me to the prom, I'll throw myself off the water tower."

Here is another example:

Joe stopped at the kennel the night after the fight with his neighbor, Emil, over the lawn mower. He asked the kennel owner how much for a pit bull terrier. The kennel man said four hundred dollars. Joe said it might take him some time to raise that kind of money, but he could, if he put his mind to it. That night, full of Kentucky fried chicken and Tennessee sippin' whiskey, sitting on the back porch and listening to an owl hoot in the tree, he came to a decision . . .

You can also foreshadow in the narrative, apart from the actions of the characters:

When Pete got off from work that night, he had no idea any surprise awaited him in his car. In fact, he didn't hear the snake hiss as he started the engine.

Foreshadowing may also be used to get the reader through a particularly dull stretch of narrative. With the writer of genius perhaps there will never be a dull stretch in his story, but with most journeyman writers dull stretches seem inescapable. Say you're writing a novel. In it preparations are being made for a trip, say, and certain significant actions which occur during these preparations will play a large part later; the preparatory actions must be shown even though these actions are not in themselves dramatic. Say cheap rope is purchased and the cheap rope gets the heroes stuck on a ledge on Mount Awesome. The decision to buy the cheap rope is clearly an important one, but it only becomes important later in the story. To interest the reader in the buying of the rope scene, the later disaster may be foreshadoewed. You could begin the scene like this:

When Rudolf went into the store to buy his supplies, he had no idea that he was about to make one of the biggest blunders of his life.

Such a line makes the reader perk up. What could the blunder be? A powerful question has been raised in the reader's mind, and, for the author's purposes, that's good.

A dull stretch may not last for just a scene; it may go on for a chapter or more. Say, as an example, one of your characters, Jeffrey, has a history of emotional problems and toward the end of the story is going to do some wild things, including trying to scalp his future father-in-law with a power mower. However, in the beginning Jeffrey is as sweet as sugar, and responds to trouble by withdrawing sullenly into a shell. You suspect that the sullen Jeffrey will put your readers to sleep. The way to wake them up is to let them in on your secret, that the sweet, seemingly deeply religious, if not out-and-out pious, Jeffrey is a potential homicidal maniac. Now then, how can you foreshadow the coming storm? You could do it in the author's voice, in narrative, as was done in the previous illustration involving the purchase of the rope:

Jeffrey was on his way to church when he spotted the house where the little gray dog once lived. The dog he had killed one night in a rage. But that was then, and this was now. Now he kept his rages inside him, locked securely away where, he told himself, they would never get out again.

Another way to foreshadow is to have a character give a warning:

Julie didn't know the old woman standing on the porch when she came home from shopping. The old woman was wrinkled and hunched over, pale as death. Her eyes bulged in their sockets, the pupils opaque as the cold eyes of a dead fish. "Are you the one who is to marry Jeffrey?"

Julie nodded. "Yes. On Saturday."

"You should know that he has the madness in him. It is in the blood." The old woman then turned to walk away.

"Wait!" Julie cried. "How do you know?"

The old woman stopped, cackled, and looked back over her shoulder. "I am kin, and I have the madness in me. That is how I know."

Use your minor characters to foreshadow the actions of the major characters.

You can also foreshadow actions of a major character through his own actions. What a character does under a little stress is very telling about what he might do under a lot of stress. Say he drowns a kitten that annoys him. Or say he digs his fingernails in the palm of his hand so that it bleeds and is momentarily fascinated by the flow of blood. Maybe he screams at someone for crossing in front of his car. That kind of thing. Foreshadowing, remember, is a promise. If the promise is made and not fulfilled you are cheating the reader.


Instruction for the Quiz

Answer the questions.