Authors have been giving readers hints about forthcoming events since the beginning of writing. Even God did this. As Priscilla, author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, shows us in chapters 8 and 9, all those previous temple furnishings and ceremonies pointed to another, greater reality that is only revealed long after the first veils and curtains disintegrated into dust.
Up until a hundred years ago in English-based literature, sometimes the hints were very overt. "Dear reader, something is about to happen in my story which will shock you," was the general sentiment if not nearly the very words. Today we would not call that foreshadowing, but rather telegraphing -- stopping the course of narration of a story to make sure that the reader knows that something will happen.
Some of the greatest novels of our time have used more subtle foreshadowing. Consider the opening lines of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms:
The leaves fell early that year.
We may not know what will happen, but we have a sense of foreboding when we read those words. Similarly, Harper Lee gets our attention in To Kill a Mockingbird:
The night was still. I could hear his breath coming easily beside me. Occasionally there was a sudden breeze that hit my bare legs, but it was all that remained of a promised windy night. This was the stillness before a thunderstorm.
(I have a friend, now deceased, who loved To Kill A Mockingbird so much, and read it until the pages fell apart, that her daughter framed the book for her. This is now one of my treasured possessions.)
The challenge for a writer who wants to share a hint of something forthcoming is subtlety. How to know the difference between foreshadowing and telegraphing? Hallie Ephron gave the perfect definition, in my opinion, in Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock ‘Em Dead with Style (Writers Digest Books, 2005):
When you insert a hint of what's to come, look at it critically and decide whether it's something the reader will glide right by but remember later with an Aha! That's foreshadowing.
Clark did it by burying the foreshadowing in things the reader would want to rush through.
I'm aiming for more subtlety.
I think of it as the sound of the snapping of one's bones- a sound that would be drowned out by pain, but a sound nonetheless.
Do you have any favorite examples of effective foreshadowing? Have you consciously used it in any of your writing?