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!