Foreshadowing and Misdirection: Use Them Together to Empower Your Fiction

Foreshadowing and Misdirection: Use Them Together to Empower Your Fiction

This week’s video shows you how to balance foreshadowing and misdirection in your fiction to create resonance without giving away your story’s ending.

Video Transcript:

Foreshadowing and misdirection: two words you don’t often hear together. Because aren’t they dichotomous?

Foreshadowing is about planting clues to prepare readers for coming events. It’s important because it puts readers in the right frame of mind, and also because it makes your book seamless: the beginning hints at the end; the end fulfills the beginning.

Misdirection, on the other hand, is all about preventing readers from seeing what’s coming. After all, we don’t want them to guess the ending, right?

Both foreshadowing and misdirection are important tools, but how can you possibly use them together in the same story?

William Wyler’s classic World War II drama Mrs. Miniver is a beautiful example. (For those of you who haven’t yet managed to see this movie sometime in the last seventy-five years, be warned: I am about to spoil the ending.)

This is a movie that foreshadows death in every possible way. It’s a war movie, right? That, in itself, is practically watertight foreshadowing that somebody is going to die.

The movie very subtly leads viewers to believe the doomed party is Mrs. Miniver’s RAF pilot son. He’s the only soldier in the movie, so he’s the obvious choice. This is reinforced through the fear of the son’s young wife, who dreads him going off to battle.

Mrs Miniver Teresa Wright

That’s the foreshadowing, which is fulfilled when someone does indeed die.

Now, ready for the misdirection?

It isn’t the son who dies. Rather, it’s his wife, who is shot during an air raid.

It’s important to note it’s the subtlety—the non-specificity, as it were—of the foreshadowing that allows this to work without its being a gimmick. (In contrast, to the heavy-handed foreshadowing and resultant awkward misdirection in Avengers: Age of Ultron, which I discuss here.)

Quicksilver-You-Didnt-See-That-Coming

(Catching the irony in this line of dialogue, right?)

The only thing the foreshadowing actually promises is that death is imminent. It never tells us who’s going to die. It merely lets us draw our own conclusions—and then neatly pulls the rug from under us.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What is one way you could combine foreshadowing and misdirection in your work-in-progress? Tell me in the comments!

Foreshadowing and Misdirection: Use Them Together to Empower Your Fiction

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Good points. I did use a lot of foreshadowing in my last book but only one case of misdirection. I might use the latter a bit more next time.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Misdirection is a fabulous tool–and so much fun to use! As long as we’re not using to *fool* readers just for the sake of fooling them, it has the potential to bring a lot to the table, including irony as Lyn said below.

  2. Quite aside from the subtlety of that foreshadowing, it’s the quietness and the utter irony of her death which struck me hard between the eyes. I think this is part of the strength of the movie, that it shows the horrendous, blind tragedy of war. In that specific war there were probably as many civilian deaths as military.
    The film could be regarded today as over-sentimental – as were most movies of the time – but the message was both subtle and obvious, an extremely difficult balance to achieve in writing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It is sentimental, and it is straight out of the era’s propaganda mill, but it’s still a wonderful movie. And I agree: it’s largely that irony that makes the whole thing work. It keeps all that sentiment from being too on the nose.

  3. J. K. Rowling uses both to good effect throughout her Harry Potter series. By the third novel, we’re on to her and know for certain that whatever guesses Harry and Hermione and Ron make about Snape are wrong, but we still don’t know why. It isn’t until the very end when Harry looks in the Pensieve at Snape’s memories that we see the whole story and all the misdirection pays off.

    She pulls this off to such a good extent that after Book 6, we weren’t sure if Snape had really killed Dumbledore because he was evil or if there were some essential facts we didn’t know. We had been stung so often by misdirection that we were now unable to trust whether we were being misdirected by the plot or by our own second-guessing of the plot.

  4. I’m currently reading Lady Maybe by Julie Klassen, and she’s done a masterful job with both foreshadowing and misdirection. It creates fantastic reader engagement and enhances that “can’t put it down” quality.

  5. spacechampion says:

    I’m planning a story series that tells a thousand years of history over the course of several books, but it’s all out of order, not chronological. I guess I’m going to be using hindsight instead of foreshadowing… Perhaps in each sequence backstory can be used like old family secrets talked about in ways that heighten expectations and misdirect the reader about what is going on.

    Katie, do you have any article on using backstory and hindsight to misdirect and function the way foreshadowing does? If not, any quick tips?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hindsight can totally work as foreshadowing. Non-chronological stories are tricky, but awesome when they work. Basically, the hindsight works in exactly the same way as the foreshadowing. It’s like when a character has a secret in his backstory that you’re hinting at. It’s there and everyone knows it’s there, but you’re teasing it, instead of telling it outright.

  6. K.W… my protagonist is obsessed with finding the perfect grave for his dying wife… except that the grave begins to look more and more like it may serve him, not her. Indeed, she outlives him in the end. And he reincarnates as her new “adopted” child.. but that’s another story. Actually, that is foreshadowed as well. What fun!

  7. Hannah Killian says:

    How about one of my babies gets shot and people think he’s gonna die but he survives and the one who dies is his bestie?

  8. One may think that Jack is going to die at the end of the story. You may think that Renee is going to get her wish to get involved with Jack. You may even believe that the first group of people Jack acquires to help him in his endeavors stays with him til the victory. But does all this actually happen?

    The book comes out next year.

  9. thomas h cullen says:

    Midway through Scream, the configuration of Randy Meeks, Billy Loomis and Stu Macher in the rental store is wonderful foreshadowing – relative to how Sidney Prescott gets situated, in the kitchen at the movie’s climax.

    But is it misdirection? All that I would say further, is that the sight of Billy and Stu handicapping Sidney isn’t just narrative fiction at its “most visual” (justifiably so – I don’t think that there’s a beauty more potent, than Neve Campbell’s appearance in that sequence), but in fact its most forceful.

    But, if it makes so much sense, then why the force.. Because of the movie’s genre!
    The same principle applies to Mariel, and her story within Croyan’s story; once the ulterior setting of planets, and the ulterior theme of satirising the United States comes into play, that story’s foreshadowing becomes all so much more potent.

  10. Oh, cool and totally right! Not being too specific with the foreshadowing can certainly accomplish this 🙂
    Sometimes it´s really hard to foreshadow something enough without giving it all away and you can´t be unfair and not foreshadow at all :/
    Going to keep this in mind. Thanks!
    M.

  11. An excellent example. The first time I watched “Mrs. Miniver”, I spent the entire movie preparing myself for the son to die. The whole group I was watching the movie with were. We kept whispering to each other: “He’s going to die. This is so sad.” And then, when Theresa Wright’s character, the wife, died we were stunned. We literally sat there for a few minutes in silence trying to register what had just happened. I watched the movie again last year and I’m still blown away. It is definitely one of the finest examples of good foreshadowing and misdirection out there.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It *is* stunning. I remember–as a child–thinking, This can’t be right. She can’t really be dead. It’s stuck with me all these years.

      • I think perhaps, in addition to the irony, one thing that made Teresa Wright’s character’s death (why can’t we remember her name?) so shocking was how very quiet it was. A bit of shrapnel, and gone without a sound, without a whimper. Just gone.
        Readers expect fictional death to be painful. Dramatic. They expect a SCENE. They don’t expect death to happen in a flash, out of the camera angle, then this absolute immobility.
        It was a great scene.

  12. NotRickman says:

    He was a good guy in Galaxy Quest!

Trackbacks

  1. […] 3. Proper foreshadowing and misdirection can take an average story and make it a great one. This article from K. M. Weiland has some great advice on that very topic: Foreshadowing and Misdirection: Use Them Together to Empower Your Fiction. […]

  2. […] Foreshadowing and Misdirection: Use Them Together to Empower Your Fiction […]

  3. […] for the hat trick: Foreshadowing and misdirection. Two sides of the same writerly skill best used in concert. Find out how in Katie’s Friday […]

  4. […] Specifics add to the immersive quality of your writing. Ellen Mulholland shows 5 ways to add details to your writing. Sometimes, though, being too specific can cause you to lose a powerful moment. K.M. Weiland explains how to use foreshadowing and misdirection together to empower your fiction. […]

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