Plot and Motivation: Foreshadowing and mystery

This morning, I realized I needed to do the reformatting work on the second edition of The Opening Bell and, in doing so, I wound up taking another look at the Prologue and Epilogue I had originally written for it.  I wound up taking both entirely out of the novel for the second edition, not because they were poorly written (they weren’t) or that they were unnecessary (though in a sense they were).  I took them out because I felt that they foreshadowed too much, especially the Prologue.  That then got me to thinking about the struggle between foreshadowing and mystery in general.

I think foreshadowing is a great thing, personally.  It helps provide a sense of logic to your plot and can give clever readers a feeling of satisfaction for noting the foreshadowing when it happens and the pay-off comes later.  I think the sense of logical consistency is the greater of the two benefits, especially in many kinds of genre novels.  Sometimes, the ‘rules’ of the genre can lead to a sense of illogic, but some proper foreshadowing can provide a trail for a reader who doesn’t normally read that particular genre to follow through the possibly confusing genre conventions.

The problem with foreshadowing is when it’s taken too far.  As a writing technique, foreshadowing is usually meant to be subtle, a trail of breadcrumbs that an astute reader can pick up on and follow.  The more experienced a reader is, the more he/she picks up on.  Every once in a while, a very direct application of foreshadowing may be called for or even used as a sort of red herring to obfuscate the plot instead of enlightening it.  However, if you find that you’ve not just scattered some breadcrumbs to follow but drawn a line in glow-in-the-dark permanent marker straight to the end of the plot, there may be too much foreshadowing.

It’s not foreshadowing if you have made an obvious arrow pointing at the heart of the mystery.  Instead, you’ve ruined that mystery for your reader.  This may not be too serious of a blow if your piece isn’t focused on the mystery, if it’s a side plot or a minor event in the main plot.  If the mystery you just revealed six chapters early is a critical point of the main plot, though, you have most likely shattered the dramatic tension caused by the mystery itself.  The reader is likely to become bored as he already knows the key plot points coming up ahead and his/her frustration at the protagonists for not also seeing the obvious plot point can lead to a breaking of the suspension of disbelief needed to enjoy the tale.  At worst, the reader will just sigh, close your book, and not come back to it.

That’s what I did with the first edition Prologue of The Opening Bell.  In just one page, I revealed a major character who is slowly built up to for chapters and laid out in the spotlight, straight down to a strong implication of motivation.  Thank God for second editions!

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5 comments

  1. My editor constantly picked me up on foreshadowing. It’s a technique I love, but overuse. Thank goodness he was there to pick out the best ones and discard the rest.

    1. Likewise. I made the mistake of not running the prologue and epilogue through my betas and editors … I hadn’t even originally intended to have them. I’m just glad I caught myself now before releasing the second edition!

      Once more, the importance of good editors and beta readers is reinforced.

  2. As a pantser who wrote my first novel in pieces (beginning with what turned out to be the end of Chapter 23), I wasn’t aware that I’d done any foreshadowing, until I was editing the completed book, and looking for themes and motifs, and all that jazz. Boy, was that an eye-opener. I don’t know if I could pull off premeditated foreshadowing.

    You make good points about prologues and epilogues. I’m generally unimpressed with them, and the only ones I can even remember reading were in professionally edited, traditionally published books. Because of their difficulties, they’re probably not worth the bother of my trying to write them. They’re kind of like writing in the 1st person, that way.

    Although I did toy with the idea of writing shorter first and last chapters in the 1st person, “book-ending” a sequel written in the third person. It would be the last story of the saga, with the protagonist being one of the strong secondary characters from the first book I wrote, and it would tie up other loose ends. We shall see.

    1. I think it’s just instinct as a writer that we put in foreshadowing on autopilot. You know what you like to read and so you put in that foreshadowing because you know it’s good to have. 🙂

      That is an interesting idea, actually. That would be a good use for a prologue/epilogue thing. Nothing wrong with them when they serve a good purpose. Just don’t put them in because you think you should like I did!

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