Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Telegraphing Versus Foreshadowing

I've mentioned before that the compelling first line of one of Mary Higgins Clark's novels, a line which contained foreshadowing, made me want to write novels. I didn't think about the fact that the author's off-handed remark--about a coming disaster buried in a sea of other details--was foreshadowing. I just knew that it made me want to keep reading.

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?

22 comments:

Megan Sayer said...

YES! I remember the first time I ever noticed it as a reader - that Aha! moment half way through the book when you realise you'd known all along where the story was going but it was so subtly planted that you never could have spelled it out. It was Thea Astley's An Item From The Late News. I haven't read it for about ten years (and probably should dig it out again), but I was very conscious of it when writing my last MS. I tried to walk Thea's fine line between hiding the seed in amongst all the other information and still allowing it enough light to grow into the aha! moment. I hope I did okay with that. Thea certainly did!

gadhill said...

"Last night I dreamed I went to Manderly again" is the first line of Rebecca du Maurier's classic suspense novel that hooked me for two straight days until I reached The End. Great post.

Sherry Roberts said...

What I think is neat, as a writer, is when you foreshadow in the first draft and don't realize it until the second or third round of rewrites. You come around the corner and there it is and you stop and say, "Cool." That's the aha moment for the writer.

Latayne C Scott said...

Megan, isn't it cool when we are so affected by a book's stylistic techniques that we don't even NEED to read it again to want to employ them?

Gadhill, I'm a big Rebecca fan too. Have you read the more recent novel that is told from the POV of another of the characters?

Sherry, that had to be satisfying. I always said I wrote my first novel because it was the kind of book I wanted to read. And now you've delighted yourself!

Josey Bozzo said...

Love, love love the Aha moment!
I'm a junky for it.
It's the one thing I would really like to do, if I ever write a fiction book. Well, acutally if I ever complete writing a fiction book.
can't think of any actual lines to quote here, but there have been many.

Cherry Odelberg said...

I kind of lean toward Priscilla too.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

I love reading and writing foreshadowing. It is such a powerful tool! When writing my first novel, it came naturally. With this second novel, it is developing very gently. This is a much more gentle novel.

Thank you for this post, Latayne! It's a great one!

Jennifer Major said...

I can't think of an example in anything I've read lately. So I'll be brave and use an example from my MS.

ex #1) “Grace, don’t speak of Indians. To think that you will be near those murderous savages just scares me to pieces.”

ex #2)“Ta-gaid, you must walk in beauty, however difficult that may be.”

**"Walking in beauty" is a core belief of Navajos in relation to the world around them.


Sarah, the speaker of #1, waaay later in the book, marries Ta-gaid, a Navajo man who reads Latin and quoted Byron's "She walks in beauty" while courting her.

I wanted to foreshadow her encounter with a Native American, and his ancient cultural beliefs, a how what she considered 'savage' is an essential part of her healing.

Or am I so off base I should change teams?

Marji Laine - Faith-Driven Fiction said...

I also thought of the opening to REBECCA. Such a haunted feeling it left.

Marian said...

Thank you so much. This is a very instructive post. I love those Aha bits of writing. You have explained it so well, I think I can do it now.

Latayne C Scott said...

Josey, are you currently working on a novel? How might you use the "Aha! factor

Cherry, I am also a Priscilla believer. Not a feminist, but a believer.

Susie, are you finding that foreshadowing is becoming more naturally to you (as well as gently?)

Jennifer, since I grew up literally within sight of Shiprock, the Navajo culture is very important to me. How cool that you're writing a novel about that; and also the connection with Byron. I never made that connection myself. Very cool.

Marji, do you know the more recent novel with a different POV I was asking about?

And Marian, you are so welcome.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Latayne, yes. Although it is very different this time. It points less to a twist (like in the first novel) and more to...well...what happens (I don't want to tell too much yet). I think that it is just "something I do" when I'm thinking and dreaming of the novel. Does that make sense?

Hallie Ephron said...

Latayne - Thanks for quoting my book!

Love foreshadowing... But it can quickly shade over into klunky telegraphing (unsubtly bashing the reader over the head with a heavy hint of what's coming) that takes ALL the fun out of the big reveal later.

A great piece of foreshadowing is the end of the first scene in GONE GIRL, Nick thinking about how he'd know his wife anywhere by the shape of her head but he has no idea what's going on in her mind. In a nutshell, it's what the book is all about -- what WAS she thinking -- and it's all the more shocking when we find out.

Latayne C Scott said...

Susie, it does sound like it's more natural to you.

Hallie, we are so honored not only to have you join us, but also for that killer definition and insight.

NM readers, Hallie also has a very insightful article in the current O magazine.

Hallie Ephron said...

THANKS, Latayne - and MY new book is out 4/2 (There Was an Old Woman) and I'm trying to think if I use foreshadowing... which is making me think about what's the difference between foreshadowing and ESTABLISHING. You know, establishing early in a novel that a cliff is steep and treacherous, for instance, long before someone tries to push your character off it.

Latayne C Scott said...

Oh, thank you for distinguishing between establishing and foreshadowing. Great example!

Hey, my newest book releases April 2, too! An apparently charmed day . . .

Jennifer Major said...

Latayne, I spent some time in Ft Defiance/Window Rock last summer, and all around AZ and NM, and to Bosque Redondo in Ft Sumner, NM. What an awful place. I'm hoping to get up to Canyon de Chelly and Chinle on my next trip.

Latayne C Scott said...

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder--- to me those are lovely places!

Jennifer Major said...

Latayne, I am DYING to see De Chelly. I have a contact in Blue Gap who mentioned riding through. AHHH!!Praying on that one!( And I even know how to pronounce it!) I loved all those places and the people who opened their hearts and private family history to me. I thought the Bosque itself was gorgeous, but the history is terrible. I could live in Northern AZ If hubs would go? We'd be long gone from here.

Latayne C Scott said...

I've never seen it myself! We should go together!

Jennifer Major said...

Are you serious? I'd love that!!

Latayne C Scott said...

Hey, it could happen. You might come this way? If I can't get away for an excursion, I'm almost certain I can at least have a cuppa with you!