I’ve been reading Anthony Doerr’s wonderful novel, All the Light We Cannot See. I could say so many things about its powerful story and evocative prose, but the first thing I thought of is how he uses foreshadowing to build tension in the story.
What is Foreshadowing?
Foreshadowing is something introduced in the first part of a story – an object, a line of dialogue, even a characteristic – that only reveals its significance much later on. Foreshadowing shouldn’t be obvious. If a character says at the beginning of the book, “I’m going to kill John.” and then does kill him later, that’s not foreshadowing.
Here’s a very simple if crude example: At the beginning of a story, we’re introduced to a single mom who has two young children she’s raising. One of the children finds a trophy buried in the back of the closet. The mom admits that at one time she was training to be a champion marital arts fighter, but she gave it up when she got pregnant by a man who’s no longer around. At this point it’s just an interesting bit of character background. It has no significance in the story. Perhaps one other time in the book it’s brought up. (Foreshadowing usually works best if we see it a couple of times before the payoff.) Maybe one of the kids is frustrated because he can’t find a saw to cut a board, so the mom breaks it in two with a wicked karate chop. (I told you this was a crude example.)
The real story kicks off when the mom witnesses a murder. Now hired killers are out to get her. She’ll protect her children at any cost. The killers break into her house and threaten her kids. She summons everything she knows about martial arts to kick their asses. Hooray!
What if there was no foreshadowing in that story? What if the mother just suddenly started beating up these tough guys? We would think it was ridiculous and probably give the book a swift kick into the trash. Foreshadowing helps make the impossible possible.
Foreshadowing in All the Light We Cannot See
Now for a much better example. (And if you haven’t read the book yet, you might want to rush out and do that now, because this will contain minor spoilers.) Near the beginning of the novel, Doerr introduces us to a Nazi treasure-hunter, Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel. He’s on the hunt for a magnificent gem, the Sea of Flames. Most evil Nazis are portrayed as brutes who use violence because they’re impatient to get what they want. But van Rumpel is the complete opposite. He gets the French museum director to reveal what happened to the gem by using extreme patience. He makes the director wait for hours with him in his office until the director can’t stand it anymore and breaks. It’s a brilliant, vivid way to turn what could have been a stock villain into a unique, memorable character.
But it’s not until the climax of the book that this foreshadowing pays off. Marie-Laure, a young, blind girl is the heroine of the book. Her father worked at the museum, and he’s the one who kept the Sea of Flames for safekeeping. After he and all the adults in her life are either dead or arrested, she is left alone in a large house with the gem. She has a very clever hiding place for herself and the stone, created by her uncle. No ordinary person would be able to find it. But as we’ve seen, thanks to foreshadowing, that van Rumpel is no ordinary villain. He doesn’t know that she’s in the house, but he’s patient enough to continue his search long after others would have given up. Marie-Laure is running out of food and water. The situation seems hopeless for her. We know all about his patience, but Marie-Laure doesn’t. The tension is excruciating, thanks to foreshadowing.
How Not to Use Foreshadowing
If you’ve ever seen M. Night Shyamalan’s movie Signs, then God help you. But it is an excellent example of foreshadowing overkill. Mel Gibson’s family is introduced at the beginning of the movie. His son has asthma and his daughter has a strange habit of leaving unfinished glasses of water around the house. Meanwhile, his brother is a former baseball player who couldn’t make it in the majors because he swung at too many pitches.
Other than the fact that the family is struggling none of this is significant until aliens invade. They spray a deadly gas. Nothing can stop them. Finally, they break into Gibson’s house. How will the family survive? Well, the son happens to have an asthma attack just as he’s sprayed with the deadly gas, so he can’t breath it in. Meanwhile, it turns out water is deadly to the aliens, so all those glasses of water become weapons. Finally, the brother who couldn’t stop swinging his bat uses it to kick alien ass.
When I first saw this movie I’m sure my jaw hung open in disbelief. Talk about foreshadowing overkill. The problem is, if you use foreshadowing too much, it backfires and becomes ridiculous and unbelievable. I could almost see Shyamalan rubbing his hands together, thinking how clever he was. Guess what? He wasn’t.
Use foreshadowing wisely and it can do wonders for your story. Good luck!