Give Me A Hint: The Use of Foreshadowing

I was at work discussing books with a physician who is an avid reader as well of Robin Cook’s novels. Cook could be considered the grandfather of the medical thriller with his ground breaking The Year of the Intern, which highlighted the training physicians go through.

Cook, for me, delved into what a medical thriller should be. Take something medical in nature (like organ donation) and put a twist on it (genetically engineered individuals being used for spare body parts). That novel was Chromosome 6. What my physician friend said was, “The great thing about Robin Cook was he grounded you in the science before he took that leap, so when he did go over the cliff with his theory you were able to buy it hook, line, and sinker.”

Book #3 Bloodline Trilogy
Book #3 Bloodline Trilogy

This conversation got me thinking a lot about my third novel, Peril, which just released. I’m asking the reader to take a big (HUGE really) theoretical leap, but had I spent time grounding them in how this medical theory could really play out?

That question led me to rewrite the first third of my novel.

Some people view foreshadowing as the scary thing suspense novelists do to readers to get the hair to stand up on the back of their necks. Truly, this is part of it. The scary music cuing up before the axe falls on the victim.

More importantly, though, foreshadowing could be viewed as the details we plant for readers so that when the character does something unbelievable, the reader won’t be rolling their eyes in a jump-the-shark moment.

In my first novel, Proof, I needed there to be a instant in time where one character could place a lethal (or was it really?) shot to the villain. In order to do that, I had to paint a picture for the reader of the character being capable of doing it mentally and physically when that moment came.

Step One: Show that she is comfortable with weapons–and maybe a little too psychotic about her safety.

Step Two: Show that she is a good marksman. This scene included her taking a close friend to an indoor shooting gallery. Let’s just say that girl had some skill even with a little bit of alcohol on board. Plus, she had purchased another weapon, which increased the probability of one of them being used. Don’t give the character a weapon and then never have her use it.

Step Three: Show that she will use a weapon when in a dangerous situation. At one point in the book, the villain is giving chase and she fires at him from a moving vehicle.

Step Four: The ultimate showdown must take place. Don’t plant any seeds that aren’t eventually harvested.

Does anyone remember the Laura Croft Tomb Raider movies? In one, it dealt with her finding Pandora’s Box. The whole two hours is devoted to the adventure of discovering ancient clues that would lead her to the ultimate treasure. At the end of the movie, she has the box in her hands and . . . she doesn’t open it.

Huge let down.

What do you think about foreshadowing? How do you think it’s been used effectively or poorly in books and movies?

4 Replies to “Give Me A Hint: The Use of Foreshadowing”

      1. I agree with Rosalind. Rochelle Gardner has a good post on the difference between foreshadowing and telegraphing – she explains telegraphing as when the reader sees the plot point coming, while foreshadowing is when you can see all the clues pointing towards the climax, but only in hindsight.

        An example of not so subtle I’ve just read was a romance/mystery, and I worked out the identity of the murderer about a quarter of the way through the book. That’s not subtle enough.

  1. It’s the Chekhov’s gun principle: “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” Likewise, if someone pulls a gun, you need to have introduced it ahead of time.

    I remember someone using Aliens as an example. Early in the movie, there’s a scene where Ripley learns how to use a power loader. So when she shows up in it at the end in the same machine, ready to fight, the audience is immediately a part of her mission & knows she knows what she’s doing.

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