Writing is about communication. Communication is about expression…and entertainment. Even when communication is merely about the transfer of information it is still about entertainment. Human beings are complex and deep thinking creatures who need to be intellectually stimulated. That is why as a writer you should use various techniques throughout your work to stimulate the mind. You should add seasoning to your dishes to give them flavor. One of these techniques is to add a little mystery to your creation. Because as a species, we love mysteries, riddles, crossword puzzles and episodes of “Lost.” The only thing we love more than solving mysteries is finding mysteries to solve.
So how do you add a little mystery to your story that is not a mystery? How do you add a little drama to your story that is not a drama? You use foreshadowing.
A shadow precedes you and announces your arrival. Similarly, the literary device of foreshadowing announces events before they happen. Sometimes right away, sometimes much later in the story. It drops hints of things to come. It is in effect teasing the reader. Why tease your readers? Because they want to fulfill that human need for stimulation. They want to solve the mystery, and to solve a mystery you need clues. That is what foreshadowing provides: Clues. Every bit of information an episode of foreshadowing provides brings them closer to finding the answer. They want to test their intellectual prowess and arrive at the answer before others do. As a writer, you want to keep the reader hooked and coming back for more, or better yet, not able to put your writing down in the first place.
Foreshadowing can come as a statement made by a character, it can be imagery, or it can be an entire scene that portends things to come.
Though everybody may like to have their curiosity piqued by a mystery, not everybody likes to be brutally teased. To use food seasoning again as analogy, not everyone likes the same amount of spice on their food. Too much foreshadowing may leave your story vague, ambiguous, and cluttered with seemingly meaningless information that only serves to confuse. Too little and you may as well be reading the back of a carton of milk for entertainment.
Therefore, there is a range involving the different types of foreshadowing that can be either explicit or implicit, direct or subtle. There is a form of foreshadowing for every palate.
Shakespeare was excellent at using foreshadowing that was straightforward, but nonetheless engaging. The title character in Macbeth states, “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes,” which is not very subtle, but we are still quoting that line to this day. Entire books and movies have been titled after it. Similarly, in Julius Caesar the soothsayer tells Caesar, “Beware the Ides of March!” Again, not very subtle, but memorable. Direct foreshadowing like this can be made even more interesting by wrapping it in layers of poetry. In The Old Testament the prophet Nathan plainly declares to King David, “Because you have sinned and have offended the Lord your God, the sword shall never leave your house.” Nathan straightforward tells David that from now on you will have a whole lot of family problems, but uses poetic imagery to do so.
To get the most out of foreshadowing, however, one should employ the full power of mystery. When a scene is subtle enough that it leaves you scratching your head, but then gives you that “ah-ha” or “light bulb” moment later on…that is magic. The Bible has plenty of these moments as well. After scourging Jesus, the centurions go to mock him by wrapping him in a purple robe and crowning him with thorns. Little do they know they are foreshadowing the eventual crowning glory of Jesus.
Take foreshadowing even deeper and the imagery and prophetic utterances become open to interpretation and even debate…which is itself entertaining. Well, stimulating in any case. The Book of Revelation is an entire work of foreshadowing that boggles the mind. In Lord of the Flies, a pig’s head is impaled on a stick which subsequently becomes covered with flies, leaving to discussion just what is implied. The very title of that literary classic foreshadows what lies within its pages.
There is no question you should add flavor to your writing. If you want to entertain, stimulate, or just plain tease your readers, spice your creation with foreshadowing. The only question is: How spicy do you like it?