A Few Thoughts on Foreshadowing

Let’s start with a definition: Per Wikipedia “foreshadowing or adumbrating is a literary device in which an author indistinctly suggests certain plot developments that will come later in the story.”

Usually when you think of foreshadowing, you think of a plot device that is used in mystery or suspense, but as more and more authors are writing series books, I am discovering that it is being utilized more in the romance genre.

In the mystery genre foreshadowing is used typically as a precursor to pending doom and build suspense for the great pièce de résistance.  I remember racing through the pages of Tom Clancy’s Patriot Games desperate to find out what was going to happen to Jack Ryan’s family.

In the romance genre it can be used for a mystery within the story, however many authors use it to create desire for the next book in the series.  It is like a movie trailer broadcasting coming attractions.  It can be about a character and a potential relationship or it can be a plot device.  But no matter what it is about the author creates a hook for the reader and gives them a reason to buy the next book.

However using it is not as easy as it seems.  A lot depends on the placement, simplicity, and the reader’s ability to interpret the clues.  Also how soon the reader receives the resolution.

For me the placement is paramount. Recently I picked up a suspense book and the opening page was about a killer watching a potential victim’s home.  Since I dislike serial killer books, that foreshadowing killed any desire to continue reading.  However, if the author had created a sympathetic or interesting character first then I might have been motivated to continue reading even with my abhorrence to serial killers.

Two books that I am reading for review (which is why I not mentioning titles) have the author using foreshadowing that again didn’t quite work for me.  While I enjoyed the first book there is the possibility of a potential triangle that has me leery, leaving me unsure if I want to invest anymore time in future books.  And in the other book, the author had a mystery about a ghost but after three books the ghost’s identity wasn’t a mystery, making the last book seem very anti-climactic.

Many romance authors use it for couple pairing. Suzanne Brockman in her Troubleshooters series was a master at foreshadowing future relationships.  With a paragraph she could ignite readers’ imagination for a new potential couple.  The problem occurred when some readers didn’t realize that the statement in Flashpoint by Sophia saying “I’ve got him at the very top of my short list of second husband” was actually a relationship prophesy.  Some readers look at this as a very obvious simple clue but the issue was complicated by later statements, a red herring within the romance, and other readers fixated on those supporting a Decker and Sophia coupling.  Nalini Singh also foreshadowed the coupling of Sienna Lauren and Hawke.  Since this was over a four year period, it left many questioning if they were reading the clues correctly.

Nora Robert’s in her new Inn BoonsBoro Trilogy has used it for couple Ryder Montgomery and Hope Beaumont, but didn’t do any for Owen Montgomery and Avery McTavish.  In this case the lack of clues about the Owen and Avery’s pairing brought me out of the story.  Although I can pretty much count on the fact that that the three women introduced are going to be paired with the men introduced in the books, it appeared that Owen and Avery’s relationship existed in a vacuum only being brought to the forefront with their book.

As far as timing, some authors give bits and pieces through numerous books, and then other authors not wanting to overshadow the main couple only do something at the end of the book.   Getting bits and pieces over several books certainly increases the anticipation for the couple.  Eloisa James has done this with several of her series like Desperate Duchesses. I personally enjoy this type of insight into the potential character’s growth.  However, with the bigger anticipation there is the bigger risk for disappointment.  And for me the days of waiting years for a character’s story are long gone.

Can you think of a series, where the author portending of a future plot device or future relationship has increased you enjoyment in the book?  How about when it fell flat?  Do you prefer being introduced to the characters in the beginning book, or do you just want an introduction before their actual book?  Have you quit a series, long before the resolution because of the timing?

- Leigh AAR

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18 Responses to “A Few Thoughts on Foreshadowing”

  1. farmwifetwo says:

    Back to Carolina….. Virginia Kantra’s book.

    1. The child and her issues that were quickly ignored even when mentioned by various characters. So is her father going to marry the lawyer or child psych? I’m voting lawyer since that’s who his Mother was going to see. Or the other teacher.

    2. Accident to drag eldest daughter home. She’s gone back but we all know – even without reading the back blurb – that she’d be returning.

    3. The only village character – along with the Teacher – introduced in the first book was Sam and huge emphasis was put on “BFF and screwed up family”.

    These very obvious plot holes I find more and more annoying. Write a stand-alone or complete a plot-line. You could have finished the story about the child’s issues. Moved on to the “therapy” in book 2. Court case in book 3. Or for that matter, dragged Father home for book 2 and their sister for book 3. If you dragged out helping a real child in real life, I wouldn’t respect your choices and don’t in print. It lowered my enjoyment of the story.

    Stand alones, even in series writing, are IMO a necessity.

    • Leigh says:

      farmwifetwo: Back to Carolina….. Virginia Kantra’s book.
      1. The child and her issues that were quickly ignored even when mentioned by various characters. So is her father going to marry the lawyer or child psych? I’m voting lawyer since that’s who his Mother was going to see. Or the other teacher.2. Accident to drag eldest daughter home. She’s gone back but we all know – even without reading the back blurb – that she’d be returning.3. The only village character – along with the Teacher – introduced in the first book was Sam and huge emphasis was put on “BFF and screwed up family”.
      These very obvious plot holes I find more and more annoying. Write a stand-alone or complete a plot-line. You could have finished the story about the child’s issues. Moved on to the “therapy” in book 2. Court case in book 3. Or for that matter, dragged Father home for book 2 and their sister for book 3. If you dragged out helping a real child in real life, I wouldn’t respect your choices and don’t in print. It lowered my enjoyment of the story.Stand alones, even in series writing, are IMO a necessity.

      Ironic – because the type of foreshadowing you disliked about this book, I liked. The issues surrounding the child should have been move foreward a bit – although, I see why they weren’t -the niece/granddaughter just moved there, so the heroine assumed it happend in the past (not a good idea) still there are laws that state you must report suspected child abuse.

      I am hoping it is Sam (grin) – he seems like an interesting hero.

      I didn’t get the lawyer vibe -

      You talking about this book, make me realized I need to see when the sequel is due to be released.

  2. Maggie AAR says:

    Brockmann’s foreshadowing worked for me until she did the big switch. Also, HOW she did the big switch. For example, in all her polls it was Deck and Sophia, never the pairing she went with. In the books the scenes between Deck and Sophia outnumbered the scenes between Dave and Sophia. This is all old news so I won’t rehash the battle here but it was the fact that over several books I was led to expect one thing and then in THE book received another that had me boiling over.

    This is very different than the excellent foreshadowing used in LOTR where the sword found by Merry in book one is the only sword capable of killing the witch king in book 3. That reveals the authors cleverness in setting up his story. What Brockmann did just shows she probably likes to play nasty practical jokes in real life.

  3. Lynn M says:

    I think the master of foreshadowing is J.K. Rowling. Throughout the entire seven-book Harry Potter series, things that seem unimportant or offhand in an earlier title ended up holding great importance by the end of the series. Characters who appeared as background players or one-offs ended up playing a key role in the entire mythos. I was always stunned by the amount of planning (or luck!) J.K. Rowling must have put in from the very beginning to have so many loose threads come together before the last page. Foreshadowing over a series of books is more impressive to me than in a single title. I can’t imagine it’s as difficult when you finish writing a stand alone book to go back to the beginning and sprinkle some clues through the beginning chapter. But once Book 1 of a series is printed, the canon is established and it’s a lot harder to twist those elements into foreshadowing of a future event.

    • Leigh says:

      Lynn M: I think the master of foreshadowing is J.K. Rowling. Throughout the entire seven-book Harry Potter series, things that seem unimportant or offhand in an earlier title ended up holding great importance by the end of the series. Characters who appeared as background players or one-offs ended up playing a key role in the entire mythos. I was always stunned by the amount of planning (or luck!) J.K. Rowling must have put in from the very beginning to have so many loose threads come together before the last page. Foreshadowing over a series of books is more impressive to me than in a single title. I can’t imagine it’s as difficult when you finish writing a stand alone book to go back to the beginning and sprinkle some clues through the beginning chapter. But once Book 1 of a series is printed, the canon is established and it’s a lot harder to twist those elements into foreshadowing of a future event.

      Like you I have read some intricately plotted series books. While I can’t say for sure that they didn’t just use a previous plot device, it really does seem that when they started the series, they planned far ahead rather than winging it.

    • Carrie says:

      I was going to use the example of the Harry Potter series, as well. There are clues and snippets in early books that don’t become “important” until the last couple of books. The foreshadowing become apparent, and even more amazing, when the books are read back to back. Whatever can be said of Rowling’s writing, her ability to weave a story is masterful.

  4. Leigh says:

    When I read Elizabeth’s blog yesterday (great minds think alike -grin) and Mrs Fairfax comment about Erin Morgenstern, author of The Night Circus, saying “Remember back when books had endings?” I realize that as readers we have been trained to see foreshadowing, even when it is not there. Sometime it is just a character. But I wonder if we brought this on ourselves? Remember reading a book, and then begging the author for this character or that character’s story? I do.

    • Tee says:

      Leigh: When I read Elizabeth’s blog yesterday (great minds think alike -grin)and Mrs Fairfax comment about Erin Morgenstern, author of The Night Circus, saying “Remember back when books had endings?” I realize that as readers we have been trained to see foreshadowing, even when it is not there.

      Yes, I had very similar thoughts following MrsFairfax’ comments also. There was a time…

  5. ell says:

    Your post brings to mind a couple of things.

    First is Suzanne Brockman’s spending literally years teasing her readers about Max and Gina. For me, that went on way, way too long, before she finally got to their story. Of course, I might have felt more forgiving about the whole thing if their story had been ( a lot ) better. I think authors can only carry the tease along so far before it stops being suspenseful and just becomes obnoxious.

    The second thing is this….if the author is going to use a character as a villain in one book, she can’t turn around and use the same character as the hero of another book without some serious foreshadowning of change, or growth, or something. Anthing else feels like cheating….

    • Leigh says:

      ell: Your post brings to mind a couple of things.
      First is Suzanne Brockman’s spending literally years teasing her readers about Max and Gina. For me, that went on way, way too long, before she finally got to their story. Of course, I might have felt more forgiving about the whole thing if their story had been ( a lot ) better. I think authors can only carry the tease along so far before it stops being suspenseful and just becomes obnoxious.The second thing is this….if the author is going to use a character as a villain in one book, she can’t turn around and use the same character as the hero of another book without some serious foreshadowning of change, or growth, or something. Anthing else feels like cheating….

      What an excellent point. I love it when authors can make that switch because it is such a great example of character growth. However so many authors think that all they need to do is have the hero/heroine have an epiphany and we as reader will accept the completely new characterization without a qualm.

      Like Maggie, I don’t want to belabor Dark of Night but Dave’s change from a nerd to having SEAL like capabilities was very jarring.

      One example that worked for me was the transformation of Leopold Dautry, the Duke of Villiers (Eloisa James). The long illness and the fact that he faced death several times made it believable.

      And completely agree about the tease. Unless the writer is facing serious writer’s block then it shouldn’t go on for years. And if she is facing writer’s block, then don’t bring up the character over and over whetting the reader’s appetite. I quit Nalini Singh and that was one of the reason’s why.

      I get tired of author’s introducing a teenager as a love interest and they saying oh, they have to grow up. But then I am not a patient person (grin)

    • Carrie says:

      The villain of one book becoming the hero/heroine of another is too much for me. Susan Donovan did that with her latest series. In “I Want Candy,” the sister Taffy is hateful. Donovan did a good job of convincing me. When i realized she was getting her own book, I was appalled. She would never make it as a heroine after what she did.

      Georgette sort of made it work, however, with the hero from These Old Shades. He is very obviously patterned on the villain in her earlier book, The Black Moth. She changed names, but kept the backstory almost intact for the Duke of Avon and several other characters. For me, that worked.

  6. willaful says:

    Lora Leigh’s foreshadowing always falls flat for me. She sets up interesting situations that lead to me to expect interesting stuff that never happens. Plus, she retcons a lot.

    Linda Howard is another one that comes to mind, though perhaps foreshadowing isn’t the right word. But her heroes, introduced in other books, generally undergo personality changes when they get their own books.

    Brockmann has always worked for me. It’s agony, but enjoyable agony.

    • Leigh says:

      willaful: Lora Leigh’s foreshadowing always falls flat for me. She sets up interesting situations that lead to me to expect interesting stuff that never happens. Plus, she retcons a lot.Linda Howard is another one that comes to mind, though perhaps foreshadowing isn’t the right word. But her heroes, introduced in other books, generally undergo personality changes when they get their own books.Brockmann has always worked for me. It’s agony, but enjoyable agony.

      While I don’t read Lora Leigh – I know what you are talking about. There are several authors that create a great hook but just don’t deliver. And I haven’t been able to figure out why. Is it my expectations? Do I read too much into a simple scenario?

  7. Ducky says:

    I like the kind of foreshadowing where I will know only in retrospect that it was foreshadowing of something important about a character. For example: In Joanna Bourne’s Spymaster’s Lady an important spoiler about the heroine is foreshadowed in subtle clues long before the reveal. On re-reading the book it was fun for me to see all the little foreshadowing easter eggs that I missed the first time around.

    Unfortunately in general a lot of foreshadowing in romances is clumsy and about as subtle as a sledge hammer.

    • Leigh says:

      Ducky: I like the kind of foreshadowing where I will know only in retrospect that it was foreshadowing of something important about a character. For example: In Joanna Bourne’s Spymaster’s Lady an important spoiler about the heroine is foreshadowed in subtle clues long before the reveal. On re-reading the book it was fun for me to see all the little foreshadowing easter eggs that I missed the first time around.Unfortunately in general a lot of foreshadowing inromances is clumsy and about as subtle as a sledge hammer.

      You know that is fun too. Because once you know to look for them after the fact, you are so impressed by the author’s plotting.

      Still I don’t mind when it is obvious

  8. Susan/DC says:

    When, in one of the early Essex sisters books, Eloisa James had Josie, the youngest sister, say that she wasn’t interested in the Earl of Mayne because he was “too old for her”, I knew this meant that James would pair them off and said so in one of my posts here. Then, of course, she did pair them in a later book. That was a definite foreshadowing of a later event, even if it was supposedly an off-hand remark in the middle of a more wide-ranging conversation.

    • Leigh says:

      Susan/DC: When, in one of the early Essex sisters books, Eloisa James had Josie, the youngest sister, say that she wasn’t interested in the Earl of Mayne because he was “too old for her”, I knew this meant that James would pair them off and said so in one of my posts here.Then, of course, she did pair them in a later book.That was a definite foreshadowing of a later event, even if it was supposedly an off-hand remark in the middle of a more wide-ranging conversation.

      You know, I sort of thought the same thing, but then I thought yeah he is too old so I was a little surprised and a little not.

  9. Brianna says:

    Not the best example but Julia Quinn in the Bridgerton Series books. Specifically Colin and Penelope’s relationship.