Monthly Archives: November 2014

A Novel Peek-Preview: Foreshadowing

Long ago movie makers learned that previews increase viewers’ anticipation of an upcoming film. Before long they began offering sneak-peeks which allowed some favored viewers to see the movie ahead of time. Again the goal was to heighten audience expectation.

A novelist uses foreshadowing in the same way—either to alert readers to what is coming or to increase tension by revealing the potential for disaster. Furthermore, foreshadowing can strengthen a story’s theme.

Foreshadowing can be subtle or overt, depending on what the author wants to accomplish.

Readers need to know what is coming to a certain extent. Some foreshadowing prepares them for what’s up ahead.

I’ll never forget this one novel–the characters were in a flight-or-die struggle. As they ran across the field, with the villains moments behind, they dove into the barn to hide. Uh, what barn? We were crossing a field, no mention of any structures.

The scene could easily have been set earlier with the mention of rickety outbuildings silhouetted by the setting sun. Readers would then not have been surprised when one of these rickety buildings cropped up at an appropriate time.

Foreshadowing can also create tension.

As the couple set of across the Atlantic, their sail snapped in a surprisingly brisk gale. No weather reports indicated trouble, and this was the most favorable time of the year for an ocean crossing, but there had been numerous reports of out-of season storms. In fact the store clerk who sold them their life vests mentioned a ship that was lost just last year about this time.

And the scene is set. Readers are now expecting something big blowing on that wind.

A third purpose for foreshadowing is to suggest the theme of the book. One of my favorite illustration of this is in Kathryn Fitzmaurice’s middle grade novel The Year The Swallows Came Early. In the story, Ms. Fitzmaurice used candy to symbolize the main character’s life. From the beginning, then, little Groovy makes the comparison that proves to be of utmost significance:

I told my best friend, Frankie, that it was hard to tell what something was like on the inside just by looking at the outside. And that our house was like one of those See’s candies with beautiful swirled chocolate on the outside, but sometimes hiding coconut flakes on the inside, all gritty and hard like undercooked white rice.

An author can create foreshadowing in a variety of ways.

The most obvious method of foreshadowing is by stating, through narrative or dialogue, what is about to happen. Gone with the Wind begins with Scarlet O’Hara preparing to attend an engagement party where she plans to profess her love to Ashley Wilkes, the man about to be engaged. No surprise, then, when this scene takes place.

No surprise, but plenty of suspense has now built up. Will he respond to Scarlet and dump the plain Melanie to be with this startling beauty that all the other men in the county would die for?

A second way to foreshadow is to create in miniature what will soon happen to a larger extent. The men entered the cave to look for treasure. A rock tumbles from the ceiling. Dust flies. “Don’t worry,” the main character says, “we don’t have much farther.” Ah, the reader says, you may not be worrying, but I am! And sure enough, within pages, the cave-in seals the entrance.

Another foreshadowing device is a character’s unreasoned emotion. If someone is obsessing about germs, chances are, there is a deadly disease that may well come into play. If a parent stresses over a teen driver fastening his seat belt, chances are an accident is brewing.

A fourth way to foreshadow is to show the reader an object, as if by happenstance. The main character steps into the garage for a moment and sees the tire iron that should be in the trunk. Or perhaps it’s the spare tire, but oh well, she’s in a hurry, and what are the chances of getting a flat tire?

The object could be anything that will later have significance–a shopping bag, the garage opener, a fishing pole. The object might even be one that’s supposed to be there but is missing. The car seat or a credit card or cell phone.

Lastly, foreshadowing can be created with symbols, as the illustration from The Year The Swallows Came Early showed. The symbol may be common and easily recognized–a bank of clouds, an albatross, a rose bud. Or it can be something the author infuses with meaning as Ms. Fitzmaurice did with the See’s candy.

Foreshadowing is a powerful tool. It prepares the way for events to take place, it creates suspense, and it may help reinforce a story’s theme.

What are your thoughts? Is foreshadowing mostly invisible to you? Do you realize after the fact what the author has done? Do you have any examples of great foreshadowing or stories that needed a good dose of foreshadowing to make a plot point work?

See Harvey Chapman‘s “Five Examples of Foreshadowing in Fiction” for further illustrations.

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This article first appeared here in July 2012.

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Problems With Participles

participial phrasesParticiples are verb forms created by adding -ing, -ed, or changing the verb in an irregular way. They can be either present or past.

Participles should not be confused with the main verb in the sentence. Rather, they may work alone as describers, or in combination with a group of words as participial phrases

Present participle used as an adjective to describe a noun:

  • Because of the lopsided score, the officials decided to use running time in the second half.

Past participle used as an adjective to describe a noun:

  • Sweetened coffee turned her stomach.

Present participle introducing a phrase:

  • Remembering his commitment to his wife, the tech assistant left work a few minutes early.

Past participle introducing a phrase:

  • Handcuffed by the officer, the suspect climbed into the patrol car.

Participle problems are threefold. They can be improperly constructed, misplaced, or chronologically impossible.

Improperly Constructed
Present participles regularly add -ing to the verb stem, though there are occasional spelling changes such as changing an ending -ie to -y before adding the suffix:

    tie, tying; die, dying; lie, lying.

Past participles generally add -ed to the verb stem, but some two hundred verbs require an irregular form instead. This form is one used with helping verbs such as have. Some common irregular forms include the following:

    go, (have) gone; write, (have) written; come, (have) come

The improper construction problems, then, are wrong spellings of present participles and the use of incorrect irregular past forms for past participles.


  • The one lieing lying on the bed is dirty.
  • Water rang rung from the rag splattered the floor.

Misplaced Participles or Participial Phrases
The noun or pronoun that the participle or participial phrase describes must follow it immediately. When another noun is substituted, the “dangling modifier” can sometimes create humorous sentences.

Examples of Dangling Modifiers

  • Surfing in Hawaii, the waves were bigger than any he’d seen. (Waves don’t surf).
  • Hiked frequently by tourists, the park rangers removed rocks from the trail. (Tourists hike the trails, not the rangers.)

These problems can be changed in a variety of ways.
1) Rearrange the main clause so that the noun which the participial phrase describes is the subject.

    Surfing in Hawaii, he faced bigger waves than he’d seen before.

2) Reword the sentence without the participial phrase, creating instead a compound or complex sentence.

    The park rangers removed rocks from the trail because tourists hiked them frequently.

3) Introduce the participial phrase with a subordinate conjunction such as after or before.

    Before surfing in Hawaii, he’d never seen such big waves.

Chronologically Impossible
Present participles indicate simultaneous action. Consequently, a participial phrase must only contain action that can occur at the same time as the action of the main clause.

Examples Of Problematic Sentences

    Running to catch the train, he bought his ticket at the booth. (He can’t be running to the train at the same time he is at the booth).
    Turning on the oven, she mixed all her ingredients at the kitchen table. (She can’t be turning on the oven at the same time she is at the kitchen table.)
    The quarterback threw a touchdown, celebrating with his own special dance. (The quarterback can’t be celebrating at the same time he is throwing the TD pass).

Primarily authors who use participial phrases in chronologically impossible ways intend to create a sequence of events. One way to correct the problem is to turn the phrase into a dependent clause.

    Before the passenger ran for the train, he stopped at the booth to buy his ticket.

A second possibility is to create a compound verb.

    She turned on the oven, then mixed all her ingredients at the kitchen table.

Finally, the sentence can be converted into a two sentences.

    The quarterback threw a touchdown. He celebrated using his own special dance.

Authors can eliminate participle problems first by learning the proper spelling of present participles and the correct forms of irregular past participles, then by asking two questions: (1) Is the participle or participial phrase right next to the noun it’s describing; (2) Can the action in the participial phrase occur at the same time as the action of the main part of the sentence?

Chances are, once you start seeing participle problems, you’ll chuckle at the impossible things you’ve written, then you’ll happily edit them out.

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