Telegraphing vs. Foreshadowing
One of the most common mistakes inexperienced writers make when they write is telegraphing. Telegraphing occurs when the author reveals what is going to happen before it actually happens. It kills the suspense you have worked so hard to create.
You have spent countless hours crafting your plot, creating hazards and traps for your protagonist and putting them in seemingly inescapable situations. Don’t let telegraphing happen to you.
Here’s an example of telegraphing in a story I recently reviewed for a new author (The names have been changed to protect the innocent):
John is a detective who has discovered the serial killer’s identity, who his next victim will be and where it will occur. He is about to race to the scene of the next attack and announces it to his superior and the readers. This creates suspense and tension because the reader now knows a victim is in danger. They want to keep reading. But John then says, “He will strike in an hour. We are only ten minutes away! We can get there early and take him down! Let’s go!”
This is a poor plotting technique. The author of this story should have made getting to the potential crime scene less certain. By not having enough time to get there, more tension is added to the plot. By having John say they have plenty of time, the author has killed the suspense. He’s already answered the question, “Will he get there in time?”
Not only has the author telegraphed what will happen, he has made it too easy for the hero. The author should have had the protagonist analyze the evidence and come to realize what will happen. His superior asks what’s going on, he could respond by saying, “I know where he’s going to strike next! We only have fifteen minutes. We need to hurry!”
Telegraphing should be avoided.
Foreshadowing on the other hand is an effective tool for tying your plot together and motivating your characters. When used correctly, foreshadowing spices up your story and makes it easy for your readers to make the leap as to why a scene or a plotting technique works. Foreshadowing is a clue placed in the story early on that will help the reader understand why characters are acting the way they do or why certain elements are vital to the story.
Here are two examples of foreshadowing from the movie industry:
In the movie A Few Good Men, Tom Cruise plays a Navy lawyer tasked with defending two Marines accused of murder. We meet Cruise’s character as he is playing softball. Throughout the movie, he is constantly handling or holding a baseball bat. He uses it like a security blanket because it helps him think and reason. On several occasions, we see him with the television on and tuned to a baseball game.
In all these instances, the screenwriter establishes that Cruise’s character is obsessed with baseball and the baseball bat. Later in the story, Cruise’s character asks where his bat is, “I think better with my bat.” One of the other attorneys played by Demi Moore says that she was tripping on it so moved it into the closet. Cruise goes to the closet, finds the bat and sees his uniforms hanging neatly on hangars. This inspires him to realize a crucial fact in the case that will lead to the climactic scene with the antagonist played by Jack Nicholson.
The writers used the baseball bat to foreshadow Cruise’s need to go into the closet in order to remember something he saw earlier in the story.
Another example occurs in Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the first scene, Indiana Jones, played by Harrison Ford, barely escapes being crushed by a gigantic rolling boulder in the Peruvian jungle. Jones jumps into a float plane piloted by a colleague. In the rear seat of the plane, Jones finds a large snake. He yells, “I hate snakes!”
This sets up a crucial scene later in the movie when they uncover the hiding place of the Ark of the Covenant. Jones, with help, unseals the tomb and his Egyptian friend says, “The floor is moving.” Jones drops a torch into the pit and we see that the place is covered in snakes.
Jones rolls over and states, “Snakes! Why did it have to be snakes?”
The screenwriter established in the first scene that our hero despises snakes and foreshadowed their importance later in the movie. This allows the viewer to empathize even more deeply with our hero when he must face that which frightens him the most.
When you are reading a novel, look for foreshadowing. You can also look for them in movies or television shows. The best way to do this is to re-visit your favorites.
One of my favorite things to do is re-watch my favorite movies or re-read my favorite books. My family thinks I’m crazy. But, in fact, there’s a method to that madness. By re-watching movies or re-reading novels, you pick up on subtle clues you may have missed the first, second or fifteenth time. I have watched The American President starring Annette Bening and Michael Douglas, at least twenty times. Each time I uncover a small nugget of information missed in previous viewings.
Identifying different foreshadowing techniques used by authors or screenwriters allows me to better coordinate my stories and plots. An added, though non-essential benefit, is that I am able to quote the movie word-for-word as I watch with my family. It drives everyone crazy! And that’s something I cherish!
There are many reasons why good stories suck us in. Effective foreshadowing is one of the many tools upon which the author can draw to make that happen.
If you need help with your stories or publishing, e-mail me here.
©Copyright David Perry 2015