Tuesday, January 22, 2013

What's the difference between foretelling and foreshadowing?

Practical Magic, Stockard Channing
 My scheduled guest had to postpone because of illness, so I'm reposting an old article from May 2011. It still crops up from time to time.
Foretelling is when the author jumps ahead of the story with a “had I but known” statement or scene, though maybe not in those exact words. It's generally the prerogative of witches, discouraged as a plot device. It's a kind nana-nana-nanha (my creative spelling there), an obvious tease.  Foretelling takes away the element of surprise and deprives the reader of experiencing the events with the character.
Had I but known what lurked under the eaves, I would not have gone to the attic. And then the story begins but avoids telling what was under the eaves. This is supposed to build suspense, but most of us find it annoying. It takes away the reader's pleasure in figuring out the plot and trying to outwit the character.
In a movie, it would be letting the viewer see the killer in the shadows as the victim walks innocently down the dark street. The audience may anticipate but would be deprived of the big gasp and adrenaline rush when the killer jumps out wielding the axe.
Sometimes the author tells the reader the outcome—if Bob had known he'd end up locked in a cell, he wouldn’t have gone out that day—so the reader doesn’t feel the tension build along with Bob. Instead he waits for Bob to catch up. He knows what’s going to happen, so there’s little suspense.
If the same scene were done with foreshadowing, the camera would make sure the viewer saw the deep shadows but stop there, letting the audience figure it out. The tension is much greater that way. Foreshadowing is done with small portents of evil or small incidents that hint to the reader that worse is coming. In foreshadowing, the sky darkens, the wind rises, and the swells deepen. Tension develops as circumstances worsen. The timbers creak, a sail rips in a gust, and a barrel washes overboard, but the reader experiences it through the character, sharing his or her feelings. When this is done well, the reader’s heart races, his breath comes faster, and he turns the pages faster and faster.
Another way to foreshadow is with a small incident that shows something about the character, say an excessive reaction to a spider. Though nothing more is told at this point, the reader knows Corey is terrified of spiders. But the seed has been planted. Now the reader will be watching for spiders, sure something bad is going to happen. Then let the reader forget, lull him into complaisance. Then, when things slow down, have the giant spider spring from the tree and grab the hero (gasp), or depending on the genre, drop silently onto the hero's shoulder (scream "look out").
Do you use either of these? Can you give an example?


Polly Iyer said...

I'm reading a book now that does this very thing, so far three times. He even told someone was going to die before she died. It's a good book, but this ploy has ruined what could have been tension in the story. Surprising, because it's otherwise well-written.

Leslie Ann aka LA said...

The ticking clock in screenwriting is kind of like these examples, we know something is going to happen, the characters don't. So the audience is on the edge of their seat waiting, waiting...until the crisis happens.

But the ticking clock doesn't take away the edge as foretelling does, it's more like foreshadowing.

Hitchcock was a master at the ticking clock!!

I use foreshadowing a lot. I'm not sure if the reader always finds it, but I'm hoping they do. It's a fun technique.

Foretelling drives me crazy.


laura thomas said...

I've read your books. I've experienced this:):)
You are really good at steering the reader away from something they should be remembering. Those spiders of yours are startling:)

Ellis Vidler said...

In Haunting Refrain I came close to foretelling with the opening line--it sounds a bit like "had she but known," but it isn't. I have to admit it was more luck than judgment. HR was my first book, and I had no idea how much I DIDN'T know.

Sandy Cody said...

I was glad to come across this post. The timing is perfect for me since I've been going back and re-reading some books that I particularly enjoyed. Right now I'm reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "Chronicle of a Death Foretold". I can't think of anyone else bold enough to actually title a book with foretelling. In this case, it works, but Marquez is a genius (my personal opinion). The rest of us should probably avoid this device. I enjoyed your description of the difference between foretelling and foreshadowing. I'd never thought about it before.