January 31, 2013

Shadows and Echoes

After reading books, blogs, and websites on writing for any length of time, there are certain phrases and bits and pieces of literary jargon that begin to be familiar.  It's not always clear what they mean, and sometimes they're downright unfortunate - internal conflict, for instance, always makes me wonder if the character had mayonnaise and pickles for lunch.  Some of them, however, are quite apt.  One rare example of this is foreshadowing.

Those of you who have followed Scribbles since pretty near the beginning are already aware that foreshadowing is one of my favorite aspects of writing.  It gives me a thrill to read a book, especially one familiar to me, and catch a new instance where threads of future scenes are woven into earlier sections; I love it when the first book of a series plants seeds for those that follow.  I am not sure why, save perhaps that, though (and perhaps because) I am a writer myself, it never ceases to amaze me that an author's mind can contain such a monumental and complete thought.  It is one thing to start at the beginning and bumble clumsily to the end; it is another thing entirely for the ending to be foretold by the beginning.

There are many different styles of foreshadowing.  One of the most obvious is that of premonition or deja vu, two phenomena we don't really understand, but that serve us well as writers.  They allow us to give the character a hint of whatever disaster is to come - not a vision, for that tends to ruin the suspense, but an unpleasant and indefinable taste.  And through the mind of the character, the reader feels it as well.

Foreshadowing can also be done in less obvious ways, ways that will probably not be noticed until the second reading when the ending is already in mind.  They can be as slight as a word that a minor character uses, a change in the weather, an insult, the writing of a letter or the killing of a moth.  It can be anything, really.  There is nothing so slight that the mind cannot latch onto it, connect it with an event and rethink it months or even years later.  The association needn't even be direct; it may be a connection may be only in the character's mind.  Personally, these are my favorites because of the detail and nuance they reflect - and because they're even more natural than a premonition.

As splendid as foreshadowing is, however, it is but one side of the coin of continuity.  Foreshadowing is what the writer does at the beginning of the novel; it is the darkness cast by the real event to which the author was looking.  But later on, especially in a long novel, it is necessary to harken back to earlier scenes and bring them clearly before the reader's mind again.  I call this echoing; like as not it has different names in different places. 

At any rate, for me these are usually pointed (often unintentional) repetitions of something that happened many chapters before.  Again, they're usually small things - the flipside of foreshadowing.  A phrase might be reused that harkens back to another scene; a character's expression might remind the narrator of someone else; a color might be tied to something critical.  Whether indirect or direct, it is an association that carries the mind back across the pages even more plainly than foreshadowing carries the mind forward.

However they are used, foreshadowing and echoing are wonderfully tantalizing ways of bringing together the pattern of a story.  And on a rambling side note, they represent to me one of the spectacular aspects of the Bible: no other book in the world so reflects the perfect continuity in the mind of its author.  Perhaps, after all, that is what we all pattern our own writing after.


  1. Loved this! One of my favorite moments when writing is the moment when I suddenly realize in mid-sentence that I have an opportunity to use one of these techniques. It immediately gives me a much stronger feeling of the whole story being linked together instead of being just a sequence of scenes. I think the subtler kind of foreshadowing that you mentioned can be vital in a good mystery too—a little incident that just grazes your notice, but is really a major clue.

    Have you ever seen the movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, by the way? I've always thought the early part of the film is a superb example of skilful foreshadowing.

  2. Great post! I Think I may have used foreshadowing in one of my books without meaning to! lol

  3. Similarly to Elisabeth, sometimes I am writing and suddenly I realize that I can slip in something tiny that will tie into a future episode, or sometimes I write a sentence without being fully aware at first that I've just used a foreshadowing technique :) I don't care too much for extremely obvious foreshadowing, but I get so excited when I'm reading along in a book and realize the significance of just one word the author slipped into the beginning of his or her story. It's like I've been let in on the secret :)

  4. Foreshadowing is one of my favorite writing elements. However, I think at times I have a tendency to be _too_ subtle, occasionally referring to my shadow in brief abstract terms that no one would ever catch no matter how many times they read the story.

    Interesting thoughts on "echoing", I don't think I've ever seen the concept named, though it occurs often enough in fiction.

    Incidentally, my favorite aspect of your book's craft was the foreshadowing you accomplished. The way your plot weaved throughout the whole story was beautiful to behold.

  5. Elisabeth Grace - Exactly! You capture my own sentiments perfectly. And I think you're right about the importance of such instances in mysteries; I don't write them, but I do read them, and the best are the ones that have little details like that. They're harder to convey in film, though; either the camera points them out so specifically that the viewer can't help but realize the importance, or it doesn't focus on them enough. That's something I've been noticing while watching the Poirot series.

    I have not seen "Treasure of the Sierra Madre," but per your suggestion, it was put on our Netflix list and just arrived today! (Humphrey Bogart for the win.)

    Writer - Accidental foreshadowing is the best!

    Sarah Ellen - "Like being let in on a secret." I heartily agree. When I notice it in a book while reading, it gives me a greater respect for and connection with the story; and when it slips in while writing, as Elisabeth said, I suddenly feel like the characters have let me in on a secret. Either way, it's exhilarating.

    Mark - "Echoing" is something I've used for a while, but I only stuck a name to it recently. I hadn't thought about it much except as an extension of foreshadowing, but it's really a different concept altogether. I think Rosemary Sutcliff is one author who uses it splendidly; but then, she was a master of foreshadowing as well.

  6. This post made me think a bit about foreshadowing and echoes in my writing as well, Abigail! I love those aspects of a story so much... I do have some struggles with them though, in particular foreshadowing certain events and setting the situation for a future echo of that thing. Both The Crown of Life and A Love that Never Fails seem to demand a lot of echoing and foreshadowing, yet it is such a trying aspect of novel-writing for me personally, especially knowing how much foreshadowing and information I should give to the readers. You may recall that I struggled quite a bit with that in relation to the betrayal of Flavius in The Crown of Life When do I foreshadow a shifting of the relationship that may well lead to betrayal? How do I echo all those things later on when the situation occurs and how much do the readers know vs. the main characters? I still struggle a lot with that.


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I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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