Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Foreshadowing: The Art of Good Storytelling In A Song of Ice and Fire

FORESHADOWING is a plot device in which an author suggests certain plot developments that might come later in a story. As much as I pick on George R.R. Martin, the man is a brilliant writer to whom I can only aspire to be as great (don't let him know that...he already has a fat head). One of the reasons he's brilliant is because the man knows how to foreshadow.

The reason I wanted to talk about this topic today is due to a short conversation that I had with writer Tamara Paulin on Monday regarding the hatching of the dragons in the television series "A Game of Thrones" by HBO during the season finale. I had expected the eggs to hatch even before I started reading the books (which occurred mid-season...around episode five). She was totally taken by surprise and even "Squeeeee'd"... This is an interesting reaction to me. How many more of you out there pay absolutely no attention to foreshadowing?
One does not give dragon eggs in fantasy unless they are to hatch. Okay, exception...a writer does this if he or she is a bad writer. But if you're a good writer...they will hatch. Martin is a good writer. If you don't agree with this statement, then you're bad.

If you didn't expect this, then you need to clue into the technique, because it will make you a much stronger writer. I'm not saying this with any "writer" laurels. I don't have an agent, I'm not published, but I'm not stupid either. I'm saying this as a reader (and I happen to consider myself a damn good reader at that). So here's a reader telling you aspiring writers out there... you should use "foreshadowing".  Here are examples I have pulled from George R.R. Martin along with my predictions. Regarding some of these plot developments, I'd be willing to bet money on if you'd like (just to make it more interesting).  DISCLAIMER: None of these predictions have come to pass yet in the books so this is not a spoiler. This is simply my critical reading of the foreshadowing evident in the books/film adaptation.

1) The Wall. It's 800 feet tall and hundreds of miles long. PREDICTION: This thing is going to come down. He's already introduced a plot device that will accomplish this...a one of the books. The Wildlings refused to use it...but I don't care...the wall is coming down. You don't build something this big and then just have it stand and work.  Think of how dumb the conversation would be... "Hey, did that wall work?" Answer: " worked really well."  Next question: "Hey, so it's kinda boring cause it worked, right?" Answer: " worked." /end of books.
No one includes a wall like this in a fantasy series if you don't, indeed, intend for it to come tumbling down. Again, if Mr. Martin does this...he's a bad writer. He's not a bad writer...this baby is going to totally blow up in a most spectacular fashion.

2) The Eyrie. We've heard that it's "impregnable" over and over in the books. A fortress built on a mountain accessible by a goat path. Sansa would hate to be caught there in the winter. Oh how bleak and horrible a place it must be in the winter, etc. etc. PREDICTION: GUESS WHAT...this fortress is going to be used probably as the last stand of the Vale of Arryn when the white walkers invade. It's going to be epic. Plus, I predict that a dragon saves Sansa or someone of importance from the Moon Door. Why? Because dragons can fly and Sansa is terrified of the Moon Door. If this ends up coming true, I predict the Eyrie going up in towering flames that cause the mountain fortress to blaze in dragonfire that lights up like a miniature sun.  RULE: You don't include a frickin' fortress on a mountaintop in a fantasy series and say it is impregnable if you don't, in fact, intend to impregnate it!

3) Daenerys will turn into a dragon. We've already seen her survive intense fire and have dragons suckle from her teats (in the book). She's called the mother of dragons in the book and she declares, "I am the dragon!" over and over. She says she'll never have kids in her womb...well that's cause she's gonna become a fire-breathing reptile. To be honest...I'm not so certain of this prediction. However, it would be cool.
4) Bran will walk again. No one goes to the kinds of trouble Mr. Martin has gone to in having this kid be a cripple for so long without him not being cured of it in some miracle near the end. The kid wants to be a knight...he shall be one with one of his father's swords in his hand (reforged from ICE). 

I think that foreshadowing for the most part is too ambitious for most beginning writers and is something that only experienced ones can truly use. There are many reasons for this: 1) You don't know if your book is ever going to be published so you can't employ a technique (unless extremely weak that can be developed later) that will come to fruition in later books. 2) You're limited in your word count. There's only so much you can do in 80,000 words once you've worked in your love triangle, described the characters, and then given them something to do while you have the love triangle play its way out. Sorry, but that's why romance tends to suck...there's no room for any other fantastic writing tools in so little a space. And romance is almost required for a book to be published these days because it means $$$. 3) Foreshadowing requires plotting and most writers these days seem content to do this "pantsing" thing which seems like lazy writing to me (I've no idea why people do it other than they are so excited over a character that the just want to get writing--no idea why this happens either). Don't get me wrong...pantsing will get you agents and book contracts and $$$ but I seriously doubt if it will ever win you critical acclaim for your book. All that matters though is making money...who cares if high-brow people think you suck as a writer, right?


  1. Surely if it's really obvious what's going to happen then it isn't good writing. It's foreshadowing, not forefuckssakethatsblatant.

    Moody Writing

  2. I'm a little funny with my foreshadowing. I LOVE it, but I try not to engage at the moment of the foreshadow--instead I like the delight of remembering BACK when the payoff happens. My reason is I really love a surprise. I am like that with holiday gifts, too--I don't want to know until the time. So I don't try to predict. For that reason, heavy handed foreshawowing really bothers me--I get impatient and irritated that it doesn't just happen already, but the subtle stuff that I can see after the fact, I ADORE. These sound like some good ones, though.

  3. I think I get this concept. sometimes you can attempt to do something without knowing what it's called. I might have done this already but I honestly can't say. But you're right, when done correctly it's a brilliant stylistic way of execution. Very interesting.

  4. How long doth Chekov's gun shadow cast?

    Sorry, my attempt at old English speak failed miserably.

  5. Teehee, my ears are burning.

    I think it's bad writing on TV that tricked me into ignoring the foreshadowing. We saw the scary things in the pilot prologue and then nothing supernatural for many episodes. TV has become the boy who cries wolf. (I'm looking at you, LOST.)

    I thought the dragon eggs were there to yank my interest around for another 3 or 4 seasons. I forgot all about how people say Martin is a great writer.

    Speaking of shows: last night I couldn't stop thinking about your scathing review of 9 Lives of Miss Richy Rich. Have you seen "Misfits"? It's British and there are 2 (short) seasons.

    I hope you have not, so that you can now experience it for the first time! It is, point for point, the exact opposite of 9 Lives. Now YOU'RE going to squee!

  6. I so enjoy using foreshadowing in my stories. Some writers are afraid it will give too much away and make their stories predictable, but no, foreshadowing gets readers to anticipate problems and to speculate on them. I want my readers to do that. Foreshadowing even helps twists make more sense.

  7. I think a lot of new writers - less confident writers - mistake foreshadowing for the need to "tell" the reader what will happen later. Making sure the reader doesn't miss the important plot event when it happens.

    I'm with Hart. I like foreshadowing to be written in unobtrusive ways so I am either surprised, but associate the foreshadowing when the big thing is revealed (ie palm/face for not connecting the dots); or vindicated, like your example of the imprenable fortress or the dragon egg hatching at the most inappropriate time.

    I do use foreshadowing in my writing, and I only make it obvious when absolutely necessary (like the example in the HG Wells quote), then ignore it. Plant the seed and see if it bears fruit at the moment of greatest impact.

    I'm with you that the technique is almost a requirement to make a good fantasy work. I also think it is essential with mystery writing. But it can be an integral part of any genre's plot.

    I disagree, however, that "panstsers" mismanage foreshadowing more than plotters. While plotters may have every nuance of "the details" plotted out, we pantsters are willing to expand on or delete concepts in order to fit what has already been written; while plotters get stumped easily if a detail doesn't play out exactly as planned in the brainstorming notes.

    This has been an interesting and thought provoking topic Michael. But you'll have to excuse me, cuz I've been distracted consistently by the "How To Write A Steamy, Hot, Mind-Blowing Sex Secen" staring at me since I opened the comments, and I simply must go read . .


  8. I disagree with some of your examples of foreshadowing. Of course, I'm saying this without having read the books.
    However, the inclusion of an object is not in itself an example of foreshadowing, even if the object is a wall. Or a fortress.
    Now, the horn could be a foreshadowing device, but the wall itself is not.
    The example about the girl does sound like foreshadowing. Unless, of course, she never turns into a dragon. Then, it's just weird.