Should you foreshadow, or should the ninja space whale come as a surprise?

I am currently editing (or, rather, re-editing) the revised version of my novel, The Heartland of the Winter (having managed to piece back together the work I lost in last week’s Tea-on-Laptop Disaster). One of the things I am trying to decide is how much foreshadowing to do. Some readers have suggested I should do more; some have said it’s fine as it is. Ultimately, of course, I need to go with my own judgement, although being so close to the work can make it difficult. Part of the problem is that the tale changed in the telling: for the better, but this does mean the earlier parts of the book were written with a slightly different climactic scene in mind.

Ideally, what you want as a writer is that the reader will be initially surprised by the twists and turns of your plot, but will then say ‘of course, it had to be that way!’. It’s a delicate balancing act: give away too much early on and it’ll be predictable, give away too little and your revelations will come out of nowhere, leaving the reader feeling cheated. If your character uses a get-out-of-jail-free card, you need to show them picking it up earlier on – but not too obviously.

As well as the general issues around foreshadowing, there are some issues which are peculiar to the fantasy genre. One is that you’re not restricted to real-world rules. Which is part of fantasy’s appeal, but can also be its downfall if you resolve your plot by just making up new bits of magic on the fly. A hallmark of well-written fantasy is that the author creates a world which has its own internal logic, so that any magical or otherwise fantastic solutions to the characters’ problems feel consistent with what has gone before. IMHO, Robin Hobb and Anne McCaffrey get it right; Naomi Novik does not. Since the fantastic elements in my story are quite downplayed, my current issue is more around character motivations, but I expect this is something I’ll have to deal with in future books. Assuming I get around to writing any.

The fact that fantasy books often come in series is the source of another potential issue, namely that you need to start foreshadowing stuff which will happen not just later in the same book, but in a subsequent volume. As the gap between set-up and pay-off widens, readers may completely forget about something that happened two books and five years ago. Or you may have the opposite problem: that the fans have guessed everything in vol.3 by the time vol.2 comes out. The internet makes it very easy for fans to put their heads together and figure out what you’re up to. The author is then left with the options of either carrying on as planned, only it won’t be much of a surprise any more, or making it up as they go along. The 7th Harry Potter book suffered from this: fans had already figured out who R.A.B. was and the identity of the final Horcrux, so JKR threw in some previously-unheard of stuff about Deathly Hallows which left many feeling a bit cheated. A Song of Ice and Fire may well be headed the same way. But hey, I think this falls into the category of ‘problems I would love to have’. And then the ninja space whale killed them all. The End.

4 thoughts on “Foreshadowing

  1. Jeyna Grace says:

    True. The right twist at the right time. Not easy…

  2. I think that foreshadowing can be a bit of a double edged sword (See how I mercilessly shoe-horn a fantasy themed idiom there?) While you want to make the reader think ‘Hmmm… I wonder what that is.’ when you present them with the hook, you don’t want them to think ‘Hmmm… I wonder why our hero is considering ordering a Ninja Space Whale from Amazon?’

    I freely admit that I’m a little bit linear in my writing style. I design a few set-pieces and think roughly about in which chapter they will feature, then have my character meander (Not always by a particularly straight route) from one to the other. I’ll insert the odd clue, but I find that some of my Beta Readers find things that they identify as foreshadowing, that are better than the ones that I’ve actually thought about.

    They’ll say something like ‘I’m looking forward to finding out why she always carries that small piece of sparkly rock with her.’ And I have to look for the reference and say ‘Bugger! that would make an interesting device later, rather than the thoughtless MacGuffin that I’d originally intended.

  3. David Ball says:

    Good picture! I used that one when I wrote an alien profile for SciFiIdeas

  4. Ben G says:

    From the view of a barely-literate-studied-science-live-inside-spreadsheets reader, I’ve always thought foreshadowing was a game of statistics. However perfectly you place the emphasis on that whale, there will be a bunch of people who are entirely oblivious to it, and a bunch of people who are absolutely certain they know what’s coming next. You choose how many of your readers you want to get it the first time. And yes, the internet pulls the curve to the right by letting people share good insights.

    Personally, I prefer the author to take me on a walk, rather than challenge me to work it all out (perhaps I’m lazy), so if the Ninja Space Whale Factory is pointed out by a character, or mentioned in bold type at the very end of a chapter, I’ll assume I’m supposed to notice it. If we just walk past it along with a dozen other building, I’ll ignore it. I like to be surprised. And then, if I’m re-reading, I like the clues to be just enough that I can see them when I know the whale is coming.

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