One Tip to Improve Your Foreshadowing

In my last writing post, I discussed the old writing lesson of Chekhov’s gun and it’s flip side, Chekhov’s gun. Today, I’d like to talk about a little idea connected to it that might help improve your foreshadowing.

Let’s start with two ideas straight in our heads. The first being what foreshadowing is: Put simply, foreshadowing is giving some warning or indication of a future event in the story. The second, what I discussed in my last post: You have created the world of your story, so readers will assume you put everything there deliberately.

There are obviously many ways to foreshadow an event, but I’m going to talk about one using this idea that you have placed everything in your story very deliberately, and I’m going to explain it with two examples.

The first comes from Christopher Paolini’s Eragon.

Beside the bed was a row of shelves covered with objects he had collected. There were twisted pieces of wood, odd bits of shells, rocks that had broken to reveal shiny interiors, and strips of dry grass tied into knots. His favorite item was a root so convoluted he never tired of looking at it. The rest of the room was bare, except for a small dresser and nightstand.

This is an often cited criticism of the writing in this series. Paolini takes great care to describe every item here in detail, and yet none of it comes in to play. Not only does it waste the reader’s time, it also has their mind working on what might come back later (as it’s been trained to do), only for that to fizzle out when none of it matters. Thay “favourite item” in particular is a letdown.

Compare that to this famous example from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. In this scene, the characters are cleaning out the seemingly unending mess in Grimmauld Place.

They found an unpleasant-looking silver instrument, something like a many-legged pair of tweezers, which scuttled up Harry’s arm like a spider when he picked it up, and attempted to puncture his skin. Sirius seized it and smashed it with a heavy book entitled Nature’s Nobility: A Wizarding Genealogy. There was a musical box that emitted a faintly sinister, tinkling tune when wound, and they all found themselves becoming curiously weak and sleepy, until Ginny had the sense to slam the lid shut; a heavy locket that none of them could open; a number of ancient seals; and, in a dusty box, an Order of Merlin, First Class, that had been awarded to Sirius’s grandfather for services to the Ministry.

I had to highlight the relevant section of that extract, but that’s good. Here, the locket in question is buried in the middle of the paragraph. And that locket? Well, it’s only one of the items they need to defeat Voldemort, tucked away in the middle of a paragraph like it’s adding nothing but flavour.

Here. This. This is what you can do.

Readers are trained to look for your hints and your clues. So what do you do? You hide them. They should be there, of course, but even in a story that’s not of the mystery genre, your reader should have some hope of working out the twist before it, you know, twists.

A good option for you, then, is to play with their expectations and sneak your clues in where they wouldn’t expect clues to be. That will also help you to use red herrings to your advantage. (More on red herrings another time.)

It’s a simple trick to summarise, and harder than it sounds. Nevertheless, with this little tip I’m sure you’ll improve your descriptions and know how to use them for more than scenery. Remember to use this tip in conjunction with my advice on Chekov’s Gun!


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On Writing: Chekhov’s Gun

Hello writers! I’ve got another piece of writing advice for you today. Specifically, Chekhov’s gun—but also, Chekhov’s gum. You should be familiar with both sides.

Many writers will be familiar with the dramatic principle of Chekhov’s gun. Specifically, it states that if you introduce a gun in Act 1, then the gun must be fired by Act 3.

If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.

— Anton Chekhov, from S. Schukin, Memoirs

Chekhov was “master of the short story,” so you’ll have to apply that quote to the structure of your own form.

We can thank How Not to Write a Novel by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman (a favourite of mine) for Chekhov’s gum, the flip side of the famous dramatic principle. (So famous that autocorrect doesn’t want me writing “gum” right now.)

In their alternative scene, a character enters a scene, chewing a piece of gum. The audience’s attention is drawn to this piece of gum, more so when she sticks it on the mantelpiece. At the end of the scene, the gum is cleaned up and never seen again.

Put simply, if something doesn’t have dramatic significance in your story, you should avoid implying that it does upon its introduction. You can imply significance by focusing on something a great deal, or by making an item seem unusual in context—by introducing something ordinary in an unusual situation, like people in cloaks having celebrations all around the quiet Little Whinging.

You should also remember that “guns” don’t have to be objects, either. They can also be significant characters and moments.

You can call the flipside “gum,” or “false guns”—I’ll use “gum” here—but both these play an important role in writing any story. Readers are trained to look for the significant and to ask for an explanation. That’s why red herrings work.

In Your Own Writing

  • Keep a lookout for “gum” and remove it. This can be during the planning phase or during revision. Either way, your story shouldn’t have any stuck to it by the finished product.
  • Consider what you do need to draw dramatic significance to, and where you need to draw significance to it. Again, you can do this in the planning or during revision.
  • If you get writer’s block, look through what you’ve already written and see if you spot a “gun” to get you started again.
  • It’s important, though, not to apply dramatic significance to absolutely everything in your story. That will kill it, in the end. If everything in Chekhov’s story had been a story had been a gun, that would have destroyed dramatic tension. Chekhov’s gun, on the other hand, should create it.

I’ll go more into how this principle applies to red herrings in another post. In the meantime, think about the little tips I gave above and how they might apply to your current story. Or, if you like, think of a writing topic you’d like me to address and let me know what it is!

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