To Foreshadow, or not to Foreshadow

Have you ever settled yourself into a movie theater with your overly buttered popcorn, your much too large drink (you just know you’ll have to leave during the best part to use the lavatory), and the comfort of darkness? You prepare yourself to experience something you hope is truly amazing, and then someone sits behind you. Someone talkative. A talkative someone who has already seen this movie, and is bent on telling their neighbor everything before it actually happens on screen. Often times when it happens to me, I’m lucky enough not to be the neighbor, but unlucky enough that I can still hear everything said.

The movie is ruined.

Not only is it ruined for me that first time I watch it, often I never attempt to watch it again. It simply brings up the bad memory of someone sitting behind me and ruining every single suspenseful moment, every single answer to my questions, every single time the music told me something was coming, and every single upcoming scene.

Believe it or not, some foreshadowing in books can have the same effect for me.

Books do not have the same advantages that movies have in some ways. Eyes can’t catch the strange shadow passing by the window, and ears can’t catch the sound of the spooky music – telling you something is about to happen, but not letting you know what it is until it actually does. Situations that make you jump, scream, sit forward on your chair, or even shiver because you don’t realize you’re sweating can greet you if you fully immerse yourself in the screen before you just wouldn’t have the same effect if you read them in a book.

Books can have great advantages, as well, though. Let’s face it, literature leaves more flexibility for revealing your character’s thoughts and ideas without some sort of tinny, superimposed voice over the happenings on a screen. I’ve alternated between laughing out loud and being terrified out of my mind within only a few pages of some well written works – and I love the emotional roller coaster! You don’t need a huge, colorful moving screen to make your audience sit on the edge emotionally, wondering what can happen next, and desperate to find out.

Mystery, in particular, lends to this beautifully. There is already a sense of mystery, crime, discovery, love, hate, deception, clues – I could go on forever!

Now, I’ll admit what ruins it for me, sometimes. Others may disagree, of course, but it really does drive me absolutely batty when I see, “Little did she/he know, …..” and then the author goes on to reveal something to me that the main character doesn’t know. This feels, to me, exactly like hearing that person in the theater lean toward their companion to say, “Hear that music? The killer is going to jump out of the closet with a gun. Right…. now!”

I’m sure the purpose is heightening the suspense. I suppose, if it is done correctly, that can be the case, but how can you really heighten suspense by telling the reader exactly what is about to happen? The majority of the time, it has actually deflated my interest as soon as I see it.

I am one of those types who enjoys discovering things right as the characters in the stories do. Watching and being involved someone is expecting to go to a desert, but when they step out of the plane, they find themselves surrounded by snow and filled with confusion is so much more fun than having an author tell me, “Little did Bobby know, he wasn’t going to the Sahara this trip.” I can experience the confusion with the character in the first example. I can experience the, “What the …?” feeling that the character does. In fact, I read mystery and suspense novels to have the opportunity to mentally puzzle out mysteries, and to feel suspense.

Rather than telling me with a single sentence of foreshadowing, “Little did Bobby know –,” give me visual examples of foreshadowing any day!

Have the windows mysteriously blocked so Bobby can’t see out. Have goose-pimples rise on Bobby’s arms and legs as the temperature lowers, rather than rises, as he expects – maybe even have him think that the plane has an awesome air conditioner as a result of his own confusion. Have him lose his breath at the sudden gust of cold air that floods into the plane when the door is opened in a land covered in white snow, rather than bleached sand. Give me the opportunity to experience what the author does, and give me foreshadowing that I actually have to figure out and decode, rather than simply telling me – and you’ll be soon on my list of amazing foreshadowers. (Is that a word – foreshadowers? Well, I suppose I’ve made it one now.)


I wrote this for a Mystery genre newsletter on Writing.Com (more lovingly known to some as WdC). As I’m using this blog to write down things that I’m actually passionate about and that I’d like to share with others, I decided to share it with you, as well. I will not do this with everything that I write for the newsletters there, but perhaps I will with the more interesting ones.

If you enjoy writing, I encourage you to take a look at the linked website. It’s a community of author peers designed to help writers of all levels learn from one another, grow with one another, and improve their craft. There are countless published authors who spend their time there, as well as an even larger amount of authors wanting to simply “get better”. For me, it has been one very large support group for the past several years.


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