Saturday, July 30, 2011

How to Hook Your Reader: Foreshadowing

Once your arm falls off, it’s not hard to figure out that the day is going to go way downhill.”

                “I sat in the field, baring my face toward the heavens as I watched the stars die.”

                I love coming up with first lines like this, almost as much as I love reading them. I love coming up with a line that will make a reader sit up straighter, or do a double take, or – most importantly – move on to the next sentence.

                Any reader knows how important the first lines of a book can be. They decide whether you keep reading or put the book in question back on the shelf.

                But what about the rest of a first chapter? If the first sentence is a taste of frosting that you’ve swiped, then the rest of the chapter is the whole slice of cake. As writers, our job is to help the readers avoid that sickening despair that appears when you take a big bite and realize that the main event isn’t going to live up to your expectations. It’s easy to forget about the necessity of a good hook when you’re writing a first chapter; there’s so much description that needs to take place introducing the setting and characters.

                Not to mention the rest of the entire book.

                So how do we keep a reader sniffing for crumbs and licking the plate?


In both of the first lines above, there are hints of the story to come. In the first one, the fallen arm serves as my attention-getter, while the rest of the sentence makes the reader wonder how exactly the day is going to go downhill.

                That said, there are a few different kinds of foreshadowing that we can use. I’ll list three here, but I’m sure there are more out there.

·         Plot: Show us something important. Make us realize that it’s important. Show us what the meat of the story is going to entail. What comes after the idle pleasantries of setting and character introductions? A (blatantly obvious) example:

“Well, gee,” Randy said, scratching his head as he took up his station guarding the glimmering crystal sphere. “Considering that there crystal is the life source of our solar system and the only thing that keeps neighboring planets from attacking us, it sure would be awful if someone stole it!”

Yes, it’s an awful example, but hopefully it helps you to understand what I mean. A savvy reader should immediately lock onto the fact that this crystal is crucial, and something is going to happen to it.

Some foreshadowing is more subtle than others, but a true master should be able to weave things together so skillfully that the reader will be having revelations about your plot progression days after they finish your book (ß I love these moments. XD)

Not sure how to use this method? Try looking at your climax/conclusion. Read through it. Now look back at your first chapter and see if you can find a place where a reader could look back and go, “Oh my gosh! I didn’t realize it the first time around, but they alluded to *this* way back on the first few pages!”

Because I’m freaking out about the impending awesomeness of Legend of Korra, I’ll use an example from Avatar: The Last Airbender that comes to mind. You know the episode where he’s floating around on a gigantic lion-turtle the size of an island, talking to his past lives? Think back to the episode with the library in the desert. In one of the scrolls Aang looks at, what does he see? A reference to a gigantic lion-turtle.

I geeked out when I noticed this. XD

·         Character Relations: The easiest way to use this method is with romance. You know what I’m talking about. Those two characters that you automatically know will be planning their wedding day by the end of things. The fun part is getting there. Romantic tension. Two characters who refuse to admit that they’re in love, despite the fact that everyone knows it already. Two characters kept apart by circumstances beyond their control. In some cases, this is the basis of the whole story. In others, it’s a welcome bonus that will keep a reader interested even if the plot is moving slowly.

To make things fun, I’ll use an example of gripping character interaction that isn’t romance:

Alice pressed her back to the wall as the guards escorted Fiona into the hall. She pointedly avoided Alice’s gaze, an infuriating smirk on her face. Alice busied herself gathering up her things, then hurried toward the door with her head down. Suddenly she went flying, her things skittering across the floor, and she looked  up to find the smirker staring down at her, hate in her eyes. She matched the expression for a split second before the guards dragged Fiona away.

Okay. This example is a little better, I think. XD Within a few sentences, we can already tell that these two hate each other, and might even end up killing each other. We’ve all encountered these characters, too. Rivals. Enemies. People who hate each other to their core. You could watch a whole series just waiting for these two to engage in a battle of epic proportions. And along the way, their little skirmishes will be just as entertaining.

·         Instructions: “I hope you enjoy your stay in the mansion,” the butler said, remaining stiffly by the door as the young woman took in the room’s surroundings. TV, hot tub, a balcony facing out onto the ocean… It was all so perfect!

“One more thing,” the butler said, hesitating. “We would ask that you don’t leave your room after dark. And if you should hear any sounds during the night… Unusual sounds… Well. It would be best if you did not mention them.” The door slammed shut behind him before she could even muster up a question.

What do you think’s going to happen next? Bingo. She’ll go out after dark and mention some strange noises. We constantly come across all these rules that you just know are going to be broken. What keeps the reader going here is the thought of what the consequences might be. >;)

                These are just a few examples of how you can use foreshadowing to keep a reader flipping pages.

                So, Ladies and Gents. What kinds of foreshadowing have I left out? How have you been attempting to foreshadow in your writing? What books/movies have left you geeking out days later because of a connection you never noticed before?


  1. First off: I love reading your blog posts. You are amazing and very eloquent.

    I love that you give examples, which is how I understand best.

    Recently, I started posting an edited version of my novel on YWS, and I love it when the reviewers tell me: OMG! I see where this is going now! I hadn't realised it before!" I'm foreshadowing certain parts, and only now are they realising it.

    It makes my heart soar every time.

    Keep up the great blog post. I, for one, am following!

  2. Thanks, Tanya. ^^ Great to hear a comment. :)

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