I want to start with a short little snippet of a story, nothing major, but take a moment to read this–it’s part of the post.

~~~***~~~

The couple lay together in bed, in each other’s arms, laughing at a shared joke. She felt his heartbeat against her ear with her head on his chest. He liked the way her hair cascaded down onto his chest, covering part of her arm and bare breast. The moment was peaceful, happy, romantic–and the entire moment was blown when the doorbell rang, and the dogs barked at the intrusion, making the young lovers jump.

The woman threw on her robe and stuffed her feet into her slippers. “I’ve got it,” she said.

He offered no argument, simply stretched and rolled over, trying to suppress a grin.

“I’ll let you,” he said.

She laughed.

When she returned to the bedroom, she carried a long box. He rolled over and asked, “Who’s that for? It’s sort of early for a delivery, isn’t it?”

She shrugged and tore into the package. Once opened, she said, “Oh, Michael! They’re lovely! Thank you!”

“Here,” he said, “let me help you put those in water.”

~~~***~~~

Now, this is a silly little, non-edited, non-perfect snippet to use as an example so I can talk to you today about the right way to foreshadow. I wanted an example, so you could get an idea. Don’t complain that it’s a stupid example; I KNOW it’s a stupid example, but try to take the point I’m trying to make. It would require too much build up to do this the right way, like one might do in a novel, and still get it into a blog post.

When you get to the end of the snippet, you can go back and say, “Ah ha! He knew what the delivery was!” His comments, the grin he’s suppressing, they are because he knew. His actions and expressions are based on foreshadowing that he knows what’s to come, little hints to the reader that he had some involvement in the scheme. If, however, you didn’t know that, it’s easy enough to think he’s suppressing a grin because he’s happy and he doesn’t want her to see him smiling like a fool, or whatever. And perhaps his comments about who the package is for are innocent enough, right? Definitely something someone might really ask if a package were delivered, even if they had no part in it.

But when you get to the end and you realize he was the one who had sent the package of long-stemmed red roses (I know, it didn’t say that in the snippet–but that’s what they were!) then you can think back and say, “Ahhhh…” I see that foreshadowing now!

When you foreshadow something in the story, you have to make it work. You don’t want to be too obvious and you don’t want to leave out any hint of the future to come either. If you’re too obvious, folks will read and get frustrated, because they already know what’s coming. If you don’t give any foreshadowing at all, folks will read and wonder why this ‘solution’ or ‘problem’ in your story just popped up all of the sudden.

Another thing you don’t want to do is to foreshadow in such a way that you’re leading your reader intentionally down the wrong path, then at the last minute, spring something totally different on them.

Now, let’s look at the same scene above with too much foreshadowing.

~~~***~~~

The couple lay together in bed, in each other’s arms, laughing at a shared joke. She felt his heartbeat against her ear with her head on his chest. He liked the way her hair cascaded down onto his chest, covering part of her arm and bare breast. The moment was peaceful, happy, romantic, but Michael couldn’t invest in the moment, because he was too excited about the surprise he had arranged for her later in the day. Even so, the romantic moment was blown when the doorbell rang, and the dogs barked at the intrusion, making the young lovers jump.

The woman threw on her robe and stuffed her feet into her slippers.

“I’ve got it,” she said.

“Yeah, it’s probably for you, anyway,” Michael said. Then he grinned and stretched and rolled over.

She laughed.

When she returned to the bedroom, she carried a long box. He rolled over and asked, “Is that a gift for you?”

She shrugged and tore into the package. Once opened, she said, “Oh, Michael! They’re lovely! Thank you!”

“Here,” he said, “let me help you put those in water.”

~~~***~~~

As you can see, there are very subtle differences in the two. In one, Michael clearly knows what’s going on, and the reader is made clear that he knows too. This isn’t really foreshadowing. In the first part, it’s hinted at, but you don’t know for sure until you go back and think about it.

That’s what you need to do: Hint at things just enough that when people go back and think about it, they realize they should have seen it coming, but not so much that they just roll their eyes and know what’s coming.

One of the biggest mistakes new authors make when I’m editing them is that they try too hard to point at ‘clues’ they know they are leaving in the story. They point at them so hard they aren’t clues, really, but big signs saying, “I’m foreshadowing here! Pay attention!”

This falls under the category of: You’re reader isn’t stupid.

Sure, some readers might not get all your clues at first. Some of them might never get any of your clue. Some of them will read other reviews and say, “Oh, man, I never even noticed that!” and some will even notice clues you hadn’t even intended to give!

But you have to trust your writing skill, your story telling ability, so that you’re not spoon feeding your reader the warnings and foreshadowing of your story.

I have edited numerous stories in which I could tell the author didn’t feel confident the reader would ‘get’ what they meant. They will. Think about your own reading experiences, when you’d be frustrated that people would tell you what was going to happen before it happened.

Try this one on for size.. THIS is what most new writers do:

~~~***~~~

The couple lay together in bed, in each other’s arms, laughing at a shared joke. She felt his heartbeat against her ear with her head on his chest. He liked the way her hair cascaded down onto his chest, covering part of her arm and bare breast. The moment was peaceful, happy, romantic, but Michael couldn’t invest in the moment, because he was too excited about specially picked box of red long-stemmed roses he had arranged to be delivered to her later in the day. Even so, the romantic moment was blown when the doorbell rang, and the dogs barked at the intrusion, making the young lovers jump.

The woman threw on her robe and stuffed her feet into her slippers. “I’ve got it,” she said.

“Yeah, it’s for you, anyway,” Michael said. Then he grinned and stretched and rolled over.

She laughed (and looked at him like he was an idiot).

When she returned to the bedroom, she carried a long box. He rolled over and asked, “Hope you like roses.”

She tore into the package. Once opened, she said, “Oh, Michael! They’re lovely! Thank you!”

“Here,” he said, “let me help you put those in water.”

~~~***~~

Subtle is almost always better. Almost always. Don’t give away too much to your reader.

This is especially true when writing suspense, mystery, crime, drama, and other more twisting story lines. Some story lines don’t really need foreshadowing as much, but you always want to continually set up the future in your story, without giving it away too much. You never want to get to the point where your reader knows what to expect so there’s no reason to read or when the reader hasn’t a clue what to expect and your solution seems to come out of left field. You’ll disappoint the reader and a disappointed reader is a lost reader.

Hope this helps.