…Hm. Perhaps, in keeping with the theme of the rant, that should be Hot damn! Subtle foreshadowing!
Just for the sake of getting the arguments out of the way, I do not consider any of the following to be subtle ways of foreshadowing:
-Prophecies, whether or not they are a page and a half long.
-Announcements of proverbs about death while staring at the character in question.
-Gifts of mysterious amulets/swords/jewels/rings with much fanfare, including portent-loaded statements about “This may be useful someday.”
-A red comet appearing in the sky. (Can we give the red comets a rest, please?)
-Any scene with a fortuneteller reading runes/tarot cards/tea leaves/a crystal ball/bones. (I may be tempted to give you a pass if you go whole hog and use chicken entrails).
-Mysterious paragraphs thick with italics or ellipses that are just ripe and steaming with the damn portent, and are meant to make sense in a few thousand pages. (Yes, hi, Janny Wurts).
-Any sentence that actually involves the following words: omens, portents, doom, prophetic, doom-laden.
All of those, as far as I am concerned, are the equivalent of waving flags and blowing trumpets and lighting up the sky with blazing neon signs. They’re for when you want your reader to know that you’re foretelling the future.
This rant is for those times when you don’t want them to—at least not right away.
1) Plausible objects/explanations in suspicious contexts. This works especially well with a multiple-viewpoint story. Perhaps the temple’s acolyte notices that Arsha the priestess has a new silver knife. She asks about it, and Arsha explains that it was a gift from their goddess for killing the last sacrifice with a minimum of screaming. The acolyte blinks, because she remembers a lot of screaming from the last sacrifice, and then shrugs and dismisses it; she’s still young, and they let her sleep through most of the sacrifices even now, so probably Arsha means one of those.
A few chapters later, a nobleman on a pilgrimage to cast a curse on one of his enemies visits the temple, and notices the new silver knife on the priestess’s belt. Arsha explains it is a gift from the goddess. The nobleman admires it, and asks for her to use it in the curse ritual, as he believes it will make the ill-wishing even more powerful. Arsha gladly agrees.
A few chapters later, a spy for a rival religion visits the temple, and Arsha catches him, putting her very shiny silver knife to his neck. The spy senses the knife’s power, and believes it must have come from Arsha’s goddess. Arsha whispers in his ear that she’s going to take him to her superiors, and then, on the way, slits his throat for no apparent reason.
There are now three scenes with That Damn Knife, and the reader is probably a little jumpy around it. However, the explanations are plausible; it’s the contexts that seem a bit off (human sacrifice? Casting curses on one’s enemies? Murder? Ew). That Damn Knife is a definite part of the story, but that doesn’t mean the author has given away what the knife is or means. When it comes to play a more prominent part later, then the reader can say, “Ah-HA!”
However, perhaps the problem is with Arsha, or the goddess, and not the knife at all; it’s a sign or signal of something wrong, but not the wrong thing itself. If that’s the case, then the reader is conveniently looking in the wrong direction when the acolyte later finds the knife, picks it up—and has nothing bad happen to her. The reader relaxes, and then here comes the nasty surprise.
Nice work if you can get it.
2) Scene-burial. This involves listing, which is something I’m often against; lists, paragraphs stuffed full of nothing but detail, can make a scene clunky and slow it down. As well, I’m against paragraphs that have only one purpose.
However, if you scene-bury an important foreshadowing detail in the middle of a paragraph, then the paragraph is serving two purposes: giving visual or auditory or whatever detail of the scene, and misdirecting the reader. Like so:
Anarria was quite convinced this was the noisiest city she’d ever been to in her life. The dusty red dogs, descendants of normal dogs and the dhole that roamed the outskirts of the city, barked like bells around her feet. The true iron bells on her mule’s harness clinked and barked in answer. It was judgment day, the reason she’d chosen to come in the first place, and members of half a dozen confederations were yelling and releasing flocks of their fortune-birds, which squawked in their cages and squawked when they were put to flight and squawked as they joined the flocks circling above the city. Tired and hungry children screamed from their parents’ arms, or ran in circles and giggled until one of them pushed another and roused screams once again. The wind had picked up since she’d come in off the plains, too. Anarria grabbed at her sun-robe as the wind almost dashed it off, and wondered whether the shrieking in her ears really came from the air, the children, the birds, or her own temper.
What’s going to be important later from that paragraph, and show up in other places in the chapter/story? It could be lots of things, all of which can easily return several times without causing suspicion, now that they’re established as parts of the background:
-Anarria comes from a confederation hostile to one to whom the dhole are sacred, and some of the crossbreed dogs are going to turn on her.
-The bells on her mule’s harness will later prevent her from sneaking away from her enemies, at least as long as she has the mule in tow.
-No one can hear her when she screams for help, given all the yelling in the air.
-The fortune-birds are going to be important later in the story.
-Anarria will have her purse stolen by one of the racing children.
-The wind is the first signal of a coming windstorm, which will be severe enough to delay Anarria’s departure from the city and allow Plotful things to happen.
Choose ordinary things, don’t make a big deal of them—the opposite of point 1, really—and use them early, and they can do a lot of the work for you.
3) Tiny out-of-character moments. Oh, well, let’s just say that there is a good legitimate crown prince and his illegitimate half-brother, who’s evil. (But smart!) Lately, the crown prince has been spending lots of time with his brother, something that most people don’t like, as he seems to be picking up on his brother’s mannerisms. Finally, after he is mean to his younger sister and teases her into tears, she loses her temper and calls him a bastard.
He smiles at her and says, “That insult has long since lost its power to sting me.” Then he locks her in a closet.
Now, is that the kind of thing the crown prince would say? Since when does he have people walking around and calling him a bastard, if he’s supposed to be nice and is legitimate besides? I hope no one would be too terribly surprised later when it’s revealed that the bastard has the power to exchange his spirit with his brother’s, and the crown prince is in his body, which is also locked in a closet. (He is clever, but not really all that imaginative).
I’m sure that you can imagine lots of other instances like this. Once again, as in point 2, what is important is the lack of fanfare. The character he addresses does not immediately pause and reason it all out; that’s left to the reader, who may not even notice. That’s all right; she doesn’t have to notice. What’s important is that she can catch it at some point, either then or on a second rereading. What you really don’t want to do is cheat, lie to the reader, or simply spring a surprise that she has no way of guessing.
“But,” you may say, “that is the kind of thing any reasonably intelligent character would pick up on in a moment!”
Um, well, no, not really. One very common mistake I believe fantasy authors make with characterization is to make their characters too introspective, too prone to acting like people who know they are in a novel and have readers looking over their shoulders. No matter what’s happening around them at the moment, they seize on every tiny hint that the author means to leave as a clue to the reader and analyze it to death. This is one reason that so many fantasy mysteries are easy to guess.
But take the princess, whose POV you are certainly writing the scene from—well, either that or a variety of omniscient—since writing from the bastard’s/prince’s head would reveal the deception in a moment. She’s just been very upset, and now she’s in a closet, and perhaps no one finds her until dinner is almost over. She has her own emotions and circumstances to concern herself with, as well as whatever taunts the bastard/prince delivered to her, and not just that one sentence. I don’t think anyone can blame her for being upset first, and analyzing the bastard remark later, if at all.
We’re going subtle, remember. That means that not everybody is going to pick up on everything. And this is okay. Trust your readers to be clever, and smart, and intense rereaders if they really want to know where something came from.
4) You don’t want to lie to the reader. Your characters can. A character can be absolutely, 100%, dead-set convinced of something, and still be wrong. That doesn’t happen very often, of course. When a character has an epiphany about what the Bad Guys have been doing and dashes off to stop them, the Bad Guys are indeed where she thought they were, doing what she thought they were doing, on the schedule she imagined they were doing it, and she’s in time to stop them.
Now imagine what happens if she goes in prepared—to face the wrong set of Bad Guys. The real Bad Guys tie her up without much fuss, since they had a lookout standing ready, something her suspected group of Bad Guys wouldn’t have thought to do, and continue with their super-secret evil plan uninterrupted.
It can be that way, you know. One way of subtle foreshadowing is to have several plausible alternative explanations for events in the works, or even just two, and have the viewpoint character choose the wrong one.
Now, of course, she’s going to have her reasons for choosing the wrong one—and no, a sudden bout of temporary stupidity, such as well-characterized people often have near the climaxes of fantasy books just so the plot will work, is not a good reason. Instead, make the reasons fit with her character. Quick to jump to conclusions, is she? Choose the simpler explanation—which is wrong—and give it to her. Trained in political intrigue, is she? Choose the more convoluted explanation—which is wrong—and have her explain breathlessly to her best friend why it’s right. Have a grudge, does she? Have her suspect her long-time petty bully—who is innocent—and go rushing after her. Protective of the ones she loves, is she? Have her suspect that the Other Woman hanging around her husband is the culprit—she’s not—and off she goes to accuse someone who’s going to kind of blink at her, and say, “No, Court Adviser Wintergreen did it.” And then doesn’t your poor protagonist feel a bit petty?
This one is fun, because you can tell the reader exactly what will happen via the plot machinations, and the character will still get it wrong—plausibly—and carry the reader away in a different direction. Believe me, I’ve written and read those scenes where the protagonist gets everything right and dashes off to save the day. They’re exhilarating. If they bear the reader along, then he or she is much less likely to feel tricked, cheated, or simply that the character has been stupid.
This one won’t work for everybody. For one thing, having alternative explanations for Mysterious Events set up can be extremely hard to do. But when it works, it works so well, and everybody, including characters, author, and readers, wins.
5) World-based foreshadowing. Ooh, maybe point 4 isn’t the one I like best. Maybe this one is. It takes advantage of the fact that you are, after all, writing fantasy.
Let’s go back to Anarria and the fortune-birds for a moment. I may possibly have forgotten to mention that her confederation’s fortune-birds are peacocks, and she’s bringing a few cages of them on her mule to the judgment day. In the night, one of her peacocks escapes, and is later found dead a few streets down, where a dog killed it. Anarria winces and marches off, head high, to her judgment day. Things run badly for her from that point forward, until she manages to secure some eggs from a peahen.
Once again, no introspection to death, any more than someone in our own world would stand around musing endlessly about the significance of a rabbit’s foot or tossing salt over one’s shoulder. Anarria doesn’t have reason to speculate to death on it—and anyway, that would be more blazing neon signs for the reader to know that something bad is going to happen. Instead, bits and pieces throughout the story reveal what fortune-birds are for, and by the end of the story, or halfway through, or on a reread, the audience knows that the reason Anarria left the judgment day with a resigned expression on her face, with the lawsuit her confederation sent her to settle decided against her, is because she essentially played a part in the manslaughter of her own brother’s spirit the night before.
It should be noted, of course, that this will not work if the characters’ beliefs, or mythology, or cosmology, are treated on the same level as “superstition.” So often, a belief like Anarria’s brother’s soul returning in a peacock is ridiculed by the author. The character herself is skeptical, never mind that she has no reason to doubt something she was raised to believe was true. Her loss in the lawsuit comes as a big shock to her. Religions feel perfunctory. Received wisdom cannot possibly be true. Only the pronouncements of a Wise Old Mentor about a character’s Speshulness can really be trusted, and even then, he’s probably hiding something.
Quit it. You believe in your character’s emotions, don’t you? Then enter fully into their beliefs, too. Believe in them while you’re writing. Yes, perhaps you’re Christian and they’re not. I don’t care. Someone who can only whole-heartedly write characters of the same religion strikes me as rather narrow-minded. Of course, I think it’s not something that most authors even notice; they just write it, and then wonder why their religions feel shallow.
…*cough* This rant is supposed to be about subtle foreshadowing, yes. Well, this will help. And it will make the character and the world more real if we really can believe that the loss of Anarria’s peacock is devastating to her, or that a devout priest’s religion really is real to him, and not just something the author shoved in there because “A fantasy world has to have a religion.”
And making the world seem more plausible is never a bad thing.
6) They don’t notice? That’s okay. Then there’s the foreshadowing that is not meant to necessarily catch the reader’s eye, even on a reread, because it’s not necessary to foreshadow the villain’s plot or the true secret of the hero’s power or something else on which the whole story hangs. Instead, it’s a clue to something deeper and richer under the surface. If the reader notices it, great. If she doesn’t, great.
Perhaps a character who’s healing from a psychological wound thinks, at one point in the story, that’s not going to allow the danger she’s facing to hurt those she loves. It’s the first time that she’s used the word “love” in the whole story. She doesn’t stop and meditate on it. There is no dazzling blast of trumpets as the writer halts the whole story and forces it to revolve around the fact that this character loves someone now. No other character even shakes her slightly and makes her consider the fact that she thought it, because she thought it, only. It’s just there. Then it’s gone. The character grows steadily more loving from that point on, but that can be attributed to a lot of things, including the good treatment she receives from other people.
It was there, and it’s lying calmly in the story for readers to pick up on if they want, but it is the very opposite of a neon sign.
This is the kind of thing I love, the reason I’m glad that I write rather than work in some other medium. People skimming the book may miss it entirely. That’s okay. A reader may pause and frown, and then wait to see if a bigger deal is made of this later. A bigger deal is never made of it. The writer resists temptation, and just lets the small insight fall into a pond and make a single ripple. Not all foreshadowing needs to be obvious, even obvious in a subtle way.
This is fun.
“Ten things to do when you have an image and nothing else” is next.
*hides under bed*