Using Subtle Foreshadowing To Strengthen Your Writing

“People assume time is a strict progression from cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey…stuff.” -Ten

There’s probably some great quote on subtlety or foreshadowing that I could look up and post here to subtly (or not-so-subtly) foreshadow this post, but…I don’t have any at the moment. So, instead, here’s a fun quote from one of my favorite shows, Doctor Who, also known as like the best sci-fi show ever. Although…Stargate is pretty amazing, too. But Doctor Who has been going for 50 years, so I think it wins by default. 😉

Honestly, I’m not sure how that ties into this post, but it will eventually. Foreshadowing! 😉

Anyway, as I’ve not-so-subtly subtly hinted at, this post is about foreshadowing, specifically subtle foreshadowing.

To understand what I mean by this, let’s first look at an example of not so subtle foreshadowing.
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A team of scientists are working on a mysterious machine that may or may not be very dangerous. The main characters are working busily in the safe computer-filled room, and meanwhile, an unknown walks into the testing room.

“Redshirt,” my brother calls out in boredom, just knowing what is about to come next.

A few seconds later, the machine begins to overload. An energy spike envelops the room, dosing the unknown with lethal radiation. A moment later, he is dead, and everyone else looks on in horror.

“…Called it.”
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We see it all the time in, like, everything. There’s even an entire cliche ‘term’ for it: redshirts. The people who always die to show a mistake or catastrophe, while the main characters get away unharmed. They are the first victims, the brainless or unlucky ones who stumble right into the enemy’s clutches only to do nothing but scream as their fate is sealed.

It’s such a cliche that we all see it coming, don’t we? If anything, the appearance of a redshirt on a team is evidence of trouble lurking, ready to devour the unsuspecting victim. 4 blue shirts and a red shirt beam down to a planet…guess who’s not coming back up. Sorry, guy, you chose the wrong color shirt today. You are the weakest link…goodbye!

This is probably the most blatantly obvious foreshadowing. There are others, of course, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about. Nope, we’re here to talk about the opposite, the foreshadow so wonderfully subtle you don’t even realize it until after the event has occurred, at which point you go Ohhh. How did  miss that???

In movies and tv shows, these are usually little things in the background, or subtle comments by people. In books, however, readers are often too keen for that sort of thing. If you mention out of the entire description of the room a red tomato on the desk, readers most often expect that tomato to have significance later. If there’s a gun on the wall in Act 1, it better go off by Act 3.

So…how do you slip subtle foreshadowing into the pages of your novel, so covertly even the readers won’t catch it until later?

Simple. It all goes back to a post I did a while ago about word choice. Not only can the right word choice strengthen your story’s excellence or convey a certain emotion, but it can also help convey certain imagery by using the right words.

My eyes were first opened up to this incredible type of foreshadowing by a novel I read about time travel that I can’t remember the name of, but was really cool…as well as comments others made on my story. The first couple chapters or two of the time travel book didn’t mention time travel, or even reveal that was what was in the book…or did it?

See, the author slipped a bunch of words in those first few chapters that subtly foreshadowed the story ahead. They were all words having to do with time. Time, a watch, similes and metaphors referring to time, etc. I didn’t notice the significance until I read it through a second time, and then I was like WHOA, how did I miss that??

And now I know how that quote from Ten above ties into this post. Time is a wibbly wobbly ball, and so is a story. To the reader, it may go straight, but to you, there kind of is no beginning and no end. And this allows you to slip in that foreshadowing with ease.

I also found examples of this in my own stories. I write dragon stories, and in the first chapter of Dragons’ Bane, which you can read here, one of my characters says “It doesn’t matter if you’re Galdanian, Calestan, or even a dragon in disguise!” Not only did this help set up my worldbuilding by showing dragons are known and maybe even common in Calest, but it hinted at things to come. Why mention a dragon if you’ll never see one? (Why name it Dragons’ Bane’ if there were no dragons? 😉

This is a not quite as subtle way of foreshadowing dragons, though it does work. Even more sneaky ways would be to start using dragon-like words and associations, like mentioning something is serpentine or shimmers like scales (maybe even dragon scales) or other such things, even like ‘fire-breathing beast’ or something like that. It doesn’t specifically have to shout ‘dragons’, but subconsciously the reader will begin to pick up on it, and when the big reveal comes, they’ll be delighted in puzzling over how they never noticed it before. 🙂

Have you had any experience with this sort of ‘subtle foreshadowing’, or have you noticed it in your stories?

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Published by: MelodyJAuthor

Melody Jackson is a young “crazy dragon lady” and a lover of all things geek. She resides in the unbearably hot state of Arizona with her family and a menagerie of animals, including her four siblings, two cats and three chinchillas. When she’s not spinning the tales in her head into stories, she can be found working undercover at a pizza place, gathering intel for her next stories. and food for the dragons. Dragons need pizza too, you know?

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