How to Use Foreshadowing to Jazz up Slow Scenes

Foreshadowing is the writer’s secret weapon. Hand in hand with the obvious benefit of using it to clue readers in on what’s yet to come (and thus keeping them from feeling betrayed by the big plot twist in the end) foreshadowing also offers the super-slick secret power of injecting unbearably awesome tension into even the slowest and most introspective of scenes.

In other words, with the proper use of foreshadowing, you can rivet readers to their seats even during a scene in which your character does nothing more than watch an ice cube melt.

Okay, well, maybe it’s not quite that powerful.

But consider Patrick Rothfuss’s The Wise Man’s Fear. This is a mammoth book, even within the fantasy genre, and many of its early chapters are concerned with nothing more than the protagonist’s relatively pedestrian adventures and misadventures as a university student. Despite the charms of the unusual setting and the author’s skill at both character building and humor, this section is pretty leisurely.

All in all, the level of conflict is low, and everything’s pretty good in the character’s life. In some books, this could be the kiss of death. A couple hundred leisurely pages of everything going pretty much the protagonist’s way could easily spell boredom for readers. But it doesn’t.

One of the chief reasons these chapters are anything but boring is the author’s adept use of foreshadowing. Rothfuss made sure readers knew early on that this relatively tranquil university life ain’t gonna last forever. Events are looming on the horizon—big, bad events that are going to turn the protagonist’s life upside down.

This foreshadowing is what keeps readers reading and allows Rothfuss to use these chapters to solidify his character and his readers’ loyalty to that character.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What other techniques can authors use to hook readers during slow scenes? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Your post came along at just the right time. Many thanks. I’m off to jazz up a slow scene in my WIP.

  2. Great post! I once read through 1/3 of a boring book to get to the events foreshadowed in the prologue. It was worth the wait! But I never would have read the first part, otherwise.

  3. Great post! I think this also lets writers work on scenes with a “slow burn” — tension that builds over time, rather than just cutting scenes because they aren’t full of action. Foreshadowing is a powerful tool for pacing and adding depth… and I’m sure I’m doing far too little of it. Back to the WIP!

  4. @Kittie: Yay! Stories – like life – are always better with a little jazz in them.

    @April: Now, granted, good foreshadowing is no excuse for giving readers half a boring book to wade through. But it can be just the ticket to invest a little extra buzz into slower-paced scenes.

  5. @David: Exactly. Nowadays, with all the emphasis on speed and action, it can be easy for authors to feel guilted into cutting any scene that doesn’t involve high adrenaline. But a proper use of foreshadowing can keep readers’ curiosity burning, while still allowing us to slow things down enough to explore character.

  6. I hadn’t thought of using this technique. Fantastic idea.

    I find internal character conflict works well in slower scenes.

  7. Foreshadowing can and should be used in concert with any and all other methods we can think up. The great thing about combining it with internal conflict is they often work beautifully in concert. The internal conflict can indicate foreshadowing, and the foreshadowing can cause the internal conflict.

  8. As far back as I can remember I have been a natural foreshadower. Foreshadowing is fun; I feel a since of glee at hinting at something then leading the reader to being surprised and saying, “I should have seen that coming. It was foreshadowed.”

    When foreshadowing, I feel as if I am building a Rube Goldberg machine, carefully adding each component, setting the hints just right to trigger a cascade of events, with anticipation increasing as each piece is placed, until the final moment when the machine is activated and we experience the climax. What fun!

    Regarding “The Wise Man’s Fear,” I read and enjoyed your review. I wanted you to know that I liked the Felurian bit, and I liked Felurian’s bits. In that sequence, a single line regarding a flower inspired two scenes in my current project.

  9. Achieving organic foreshadowing is one of the reasons I love outlining. When I know what’s yet to come in a story, adding in teasers and tidbits is much simpler.

  10. KM,
    Thanks for sharing your insights on foreshadowing. I used it in my first novel when I got hopeless stuck on how to begin the story. I decided to foreshadow the first dramatic event, which occurred more than 50 pages into the book. I couldn’t begin the book with that event because I had to lay some groundwork first, so I foreshadowed it and then wrote another foreshadowing scene with an increased level of tension. It made all the difference in the world. Thanks again.

  11. One author that I’ve seen use foreshadowing in the most obvious way is Kathy Reichs. It’s odd because I can identify exactly what she’s doing in nearly every book I’ve read by her (including the one I’m reading right now!) but even though I recognize the technique, she still captures me. Diane Mott Davidson has a slightly more subtle approach, but most of hers I notice it as well.

    Usually, their scenes end in a way that tells the reader that all is not what it seems. And, both their characters (Temerance Brennan for Ms. Reichs, and Goldy Schulz for Ms. Davidson) do it in such a way that it seems natural for how the character shares their stories.

  12. @cg: Taking the time to properly set up a story before hitting readers (and characters) with the first major plot point takes patience and maturity as a writer, but the story is almost always the better for it.

    @Liberty: Sometimes blatant foreshadowing is best. Sometimes you *want* readers to know exactly what’s going to happen. And sometimes subtle is better, since it eases readers into an awareness without giving anything away.

  13. Foreshadowing is a must. I saw a movie recently where a scene came out of left field. No foreshadowing, no hint the “thing” was going on, and no hint golden boy was really a bad boy. If a writer just dumps a sudden event on the reader or movie watcher, it’s like cruising down the highway, then suddenly slamming on the brakes and taking a dirt road. At best, the reader will hurl your book across the room. Or you might get a furious email in your Inbox. At worst, fans might show up on your front lawn with picks and axes.

  14. loved this first time i saw it (youtube) and enjoyed reading the transcript for it here, thank you 😉

    also, where does one get the script for that neat “send to kindle” button?

    thanks again 😉

  15. Need to work more on this.

  16. @Lorna: I saw something similar to that recently as well. A character I liked ended up suddenly being an antagonist. Needless to say, I wasn’t too happy with the switcheroo.

    @Adan: The Save to Kindle button comes courtesy of Readability.

    @Traci: A writer’s work is never done!

  17. I don’t outline massively, but I always have the ending and key plot points in my head. For example I have this massive twist for my WIP. When I first thought of it I tried writing it into chapter 3. Then I realised I could foreshadow it. I now know that the big reveal will come just before the big scene at the end.
    My question is how do you foreshadow something but still surprise the reader?

  18. It’s a tricky balance to be sure. Sometimes all we have to do is indicate mood. For example, if a character is doomed, we don’t have to actually indicate he’s going to die, since that would be giving away far too much. Rather, we just subtly use the character’s own mindset to indicate his situation can’t end happily.

  19. Wendy Greene says

    Thank you so much for this post! I’ve been struggling for weeks trying to come up with a good, reader-grabbing intro to one of my stories and trying to figure out how to “make something” of a relatively boring start. Thank you again! 😀

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