Writing Craft: Foreshadowing

I haven’t done a craft post in a while, so today I thought I’d talk about an aspect of novel-writing that I don’t see addressed very often, even though I deal with it all the time when editing novels. It’s the technique of foreshadowing and its black-sheep cousin, telegraphing.

Foreshadowing is when you purposely drop tiny hints about what’s going to happen later in the novel, to heighten the effect or the suspense. It might not even be a hint, but an image or idea that thematically relates to whatever’s going to happen later. It’s like subtle shading to plant tiny, even imperceptible, seeds in your reader’s mind.

Telegraphing is giving away too much, too soon, thereby ruining the suspense, or the impact of the event.

When you foreshadow, the reader usually doesn’t notice it when they initially read it. But later they might have an “aha” moment, remember it, and put two and two together. Often foreshadowing can’t even be detected until someone reads your novel for a second time. It’s that subtle.

But telegraphing works the opposite. The reader notices the telegraphing detail, groans, and predicts what’s going to happen. It takes the fun out of reading a novel. Envision the important event, or piece of information that your reader’s going to learn, like a balloon. Telegraphing is like letting some of the air out of the balloon ahead of time, so when the time comes for the “pop” you get a fizzle instead.

Often when I mark a manuscript with the note, “Delete – telegraphing” the writer will respond, “I was trying to foreshadow.” It can be tricky to know the difference between the two. If you’re trying to foreshadow, ask yourself if there’s any chance the reader could begin to guess what you’re hinting at. If so, then you’re probably telegraphing. Make it more subtle.

Better yet, always decide carefully whether foreshadowing is even necessary. Are you sure you need it to heighten the tension? It’s a device to use carefully.

As an example: I was working with a client recently on a novel in which the hero is eventually going to fall in love with the heroine. At the beginning of the novel, he has been corresponding long-distance with her, but he thinks she is an elderly lady. Part of the surprise the reader looks forward to is him finding out she is actually the same age as him, opening up the possibility of a relationship.

The author included an early scene in which the hero discusses the reasons he thinks his pen-pal is elderly. I asked the writer to strike the whole conversation because it was telegraphing. I don’t want the hero to have any reason to question his assumption about the heroine’s age, because that would ruin it when he finally finds out the truth. The author’s intent was to foreshadow, but in this case it was telegraphing. Further, foreshadowing wasn’t even needed. The situation has enough tension inherent in it—the reader is already looking forward to the hero discovering the truth about the heroine.

Remember, when you’re trying to foreshadow, do it carefully and make sure to avoid crossing the line into telegraphing.

Have you used foreshadowing as an intentional technique in your writing? Have you ever had trouble with the difference between foreshadowing and telegraphing?

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  • Jeanne

    You’re right, Rachelle. This topic isn’t addressed much, at least not on the blogs I’ve been reading. :) I appreciate your pointing out the difference between foreshadowing and its “black sheep cousin,” telegraphing. (Liked that reference)

    I haven’t consciously tried to use foreshadowing, but I have mentioned in the beginning of the story, that my hero has a secret. Is that foreshadowing? As the story unfolds, bits of the secret are revealed, until the big reveal later in the story.

    Now that you’ve addressed this, I’ll be looking for telegraphing in my story. Hopefully, I haven’t done it unconsciously. :) Thanks for this post.

  • http://www.facebook.com/KLHawker K.L. Hawker

    A great post–Thanks. I often encounter this with books that I read, and I’ve always vowed not to do that in my writing. It is tricky to find that balance, especially when you enjoy giving your readers that “aha!” moment. Thanks for the tips!

  • http://www.jamesscottbell.com James Scott Bell

    I will soon post something stunningly clever.

    • http://www.talesfromtheredhead.blogspot.com Jennifer Major @Jjumping

      I’m no mind reader, but…

    • http://danielfcase.com Daniel F. Case

      We will soon be unsurprised.

    • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

      E.F. Hutton is listening.

  • Debbie Moorhouse

    Hah, I love foreshadowing, but one time my beta pointed to a line I’d included and said, “Any reader of Fantasy is going to go AHA! at that point.” So I guess that was telegraphing :).

  • http://danielfcase.com Daniel F. Case

    Great post, Rachelle. I HATE it when I come across telegraphing in a novel. Sometimes it spoils the whole ride!

    I think a good rule of thumb is to NEVER foreshadow in your first draft. Maybe not even in the second. Sublety like that needs to be closer to the final polish or it loses its finesse–at least that’s how it works for me

    Thanks for the craft post!


    • http://marisabecker.wordpress.com Marisa Becker, Writing Coach

      I think that’s a good point about the first draft. If foreshadowing is only picked up by the reader on a second read, then it would follow that the best time to make an intentional effort at foreshadowing is in the second (or further) draft.

    • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

      Good tip on holding it off on the first draft. Thanks.

  • http://www.talesfromtheredhead.blogspot.com Jennifer Major @Jjumping

    I’ll turf a book to the ick pile if I get a flaming telegraph. I hate those. So, I tried really hard not to do that, because it’s like reading Charlie Brown’s teacher voice and killing the buzz before someone even gets to the party.

    I purposefully included some itty bitty foreshadowing in my MS because I needed to inject the thought that the heroine would loathe the hero simply by associating him with a negative racial stereotype. And then by her reaction to a certain trauma, we see her desire to never associate with any man, ever.
    Then the double whammy!

    • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

      That was a good element to your book, Jennifer. It added depth to your main.

      • http://www.talesfromtheredhead.blogspot.com Jennifer Major @Jjumping

        Thanks, Jim. I appreciate that.

  • http://blessed-are-the-pure-of-heart.blogspot.com Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

    I use foreshadowing – but only find it after the fact. I’m not clever enough to use it consciously.

    I’ve tried. It was like an elephant doing a polka upstairs.

    Funny, but kinda obvious.

    • http://www.talesfromtheredhead.blogspot.com Jennifer Major @Jjumping

      I’ve seen that kind of dancing. I call it “Dancing With My Husband”. At least he’s cute and can do our taxes.

      I don’t know, Andrew. The most recent thing of yours that I read did have some foreshadowing, it it was spine chilling. Don’t count yourself out just yet.

    • Jeanne

      Love this, Andrew. :)

    • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

      I’ve been told I dance elephantly. That’s why I play guitar. It covers my hips when I move.

  • http://lynnehartke.com Lynne Hartke

    I one time wrote this fantastic scene that my writing professor had me delete – too heavy handed, he wrote in the margin. I was attempting to do some foreshadowing that went with my theme.

  • http://myquirkycity.wordpress.com Heather

    Thanks for clarifying which is which. I think I’m guilty of telegraphing, among other things, and am probably a bit heavy-handed at it. The aha moment should come later, not when they read the snips. Thanks!

  • http://www.rachel-muller.blogspot.com Rachel Muller

    I think Tricia Goyer and Mike Yorkey displayed a fine example of foreshadowing in their novel, The Swiss Courier. I was completely thrown off by the ‘unmasking’ at the end, leaving my mouth hanging wide open- that does not usually happen!
    Great post! Your explanation of both was clear and precise…I like that :)

    • http://erinbartels.com Erin Bartels

      Yes, Goyer and Yorkey did do an excellent job on that story, and on a related one called Chasing Mona Lisa. You should check it out if you liked The Swiss Courier.

      • http://www.rachel-muller.blogspot.com Rachel Muller

        @ Erin: It’s on my TBR pile!!

  • https://www.facebook.com/pages/Ruth-A-Taylor/112941348748036 Ruth Taylor

    In the first draft of my first novel, I used telegraphing in the first chapter (3 firsts!). I later realized I was giving away something huge, so I scratched it.

    Lesson learned. I think. ;-)

  • http://erinbartels.com Erin Bartels

    I read a lot of romantic suspense and historical romance for my “real job” and I am forever sighing at telegraphing (though I don’t think I knew it had a name!) and wishing authors could be more subtle. There’s almost no point in reading much of those genres because you ALWAYS know what will happen in the end.

  • http://doubtingwriter.blogspot.com/ jeffo

    And then there’s the Stephen King approach, where he flat-out tells you a character is going to die, and there ain’t a darn thing you can do about it. That can be surprisingly effective.

  • http://www.TheSolomonPress.com Samuel

    It’s a fine line between subtlety and full-on obscurity.

  • http://neuroticworkaholic.blogspot.com Neurotic Workaholic

    I haven’t done a lot of foreshadowing in my own work, but I have seen telegraphing in other people’s stories. It is kind of annoying when I can already figure out what’s going to happen. Part of the point of reading a new story is being surprised.

  • http://KlockKhronicles Tim Klock

    That’s some more great “food for thought.” I haven’t attempted foreshadowing yet, but I recall it in several novels that I’ve read. I’m glad you pointed out the difference. That would stink to know the ending before you got there! I’ll have to consider some foreshadowing in the future.

  • Terri Weldon

    Excellent topic! The first time I attempted this I did such a poor job I ended up changing who my bad guy was. I like to think I have learned little since then.

  • Elissa

    I sometimes use genre tropes to telegraph falsehoods.

    I try to make it subtle, but critters tell me they know what’s coming. And later they say, “Oh, wow. You really had me fooled there.”

    No one has complained, but I worry that if I don’t do it right, readers will feel tricked rather than surprised. That, I think, would be bad. So mostly I try to avoid any sort of foreshadowing.

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  • Melanie Schulz

    I love what you said about the reader not realizing it was foreshadowing until re-reading the book. That’s what I’m hoping for the Ahhh… moment the second time around.

  • http://www.heatherdaygilbert.blogspot.com Heather Day Gilbert

    I’m wondering if the opening scene in REBECCA by Daphne du Maurier would be foreshadowing, telegraphing, or just a massive flash-forward of sorts?

    And I just read a book (foul language– not CBA, so beware) called THE POISON TREE, in which you knew someone died right from the very start. The rest of the book, she’s alive, and you’re on the edge of your seat trying to determine what happened to her and why. That was a VERY effective hook, I thought. She kept dropping just enough information to reveal one thing while concealing another.

  • http://www.christianreads.blogspot.com Iola

    I like you explanation of the difference between foreshadowing and telegraphing. To me, foreshadowing is when I get to the end and think ‘oh, so that’s why such-and-such said that’, and I think that’s very clever.

    There’s another side to telegraphing that I don’t like as a reader, which is when the author emphasises something that turns out to be irrelevant, almost a red herring. Unless it’s a mystery, stick to the main plot.

  • http://kristinlaughtin.blogspot.com Kristin Laughtin

    Foreshadowing is a delicate trick to learn. Usually in first drafts, I come closer to telegraphing, either by making my hints too obvious or dropping them way too frequently. One has to learn to identify when one is doing this, then make things subtle subtle subtle in the revisions.

  • http://philipheckmanwriter.com Philip Heckman

    Aw, your first paragraph gave away which technique you were going to recommend ;-)

  • http://chiarasbalancingact.blogspot.com/ SolariC

    Very interesting post! I’d never heard the term ‘telegraphing’ before, but I’m glad I have now. I’ll have to keep an eye out for it as I edit from now on.

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  • http://laussieswritingblog.blogspot.com Denise Covey

    I love foreshadowing in the classics. Maybe it’s best left to them then. I thought I was foreshadowing in my latest story but I see I’m telegraphing, a new term for me. Thank you for this helpful post.

  • http://anotherwindyday.wordpress.com Debbi Sullivan

    …and then there are those of us who write paranormal. And have a character who is psychic. Understanding the line between telegraphing and foreshadowing is tough enough without having to teach your characters about it, too!

  • http://www.gabrielle-meyer.blogspot.com Gabrielle Meyer

    I recently had a Beta Reader call me after she read the big twist towards the end of my MS and she said: “At the moment I learned Joshua’s secret, two other scenes popped into my head from the beginning and middle of the book and I suddenly realized why they were so powerful.” When something is revealed, and you’ve done your foreshadowing correctly, the other scenes all click together in a reader’s mind and the twist has more impact.

  • http://www.feministmormonhousewives.org Natalie Kelly

    Great point!

    What are people’s thoughts about prologues? Prologues that show a dark mysterious villain, or that take place in the future, and the main character has some kind of deformity, or that are a reflection on the past (a la Moulin Rouge).

    I’m torturing myself over my prologue right now, so I’d love to hear some thoughts!

  • http://www.fcmalby.com fiona

    This is a great post, Rachelle. Thank you. Foreshadowing is really helpful in some, but not all books. I think it can be over-used or, as you say, turned into telegraphing. There is a fine line and if the writer crosses over from subtle suspense into explanation, it kills a story in my view.

  • Le’sleigh

    Is the following an example of foreshadowing or telegraphing?

    The year is 1949. A young teenager from a small town in Vernon Michigan is wooed off her feet by a man ten years her elder. He is handsome, reputable, and financially stable. They begin to date. He said he loved her and they will marry someday. And then it happened. When she tells him, he reveals he is a married man. What is she going to do now? She feels betrayed. How could she be so naïve and stupid, to say the least? She cannot tell her parents. She will not be able to finish high school. She will be shunned and labeled a whore and home wrecker. The only thing she can do is move far, far away, where no one knows her.
    Nebraska… she thought; that is far enough away… She could live with Aunt Opie. No one would know her there. Yes, Nebraska would be the place to go. Then she could decide what to do about her predicament.

    Respectfully submitted,

    • Susan

      I am puzzled – where is the foreshadowing? It seems like you are just telling the story. I must be misunderstanding something.

      • Le’sleigh

        So in reply to your post… neither foreshadowing or telegraphing apply here?
        Respectfully submitted,

    • http://www.feministmormonhousewives.org Natalie Kelly

      She’s pregnant. That’s “what happened”, right?

      • Le’sleigh

        yes, her predicament… she is pregnant…
        Respectfully submitted,

  • http://angelaffoster.com Angela Foster

    Thank you for this post! I had never heard of the phrase telegraphing before. It’s perfect! Love the craft posts. Thanks for sharing this great information.

  • Susan

    I have a situation in my novel in which the main character meets a man from her past. In the chapter before, she hears her friends talking about a guy named Steve but doesn’t realize he is the same person. I debated about whether or not to put that, because of course the reader will guess, but I decided to because I thought it would make the reader want to keep reading to find out. That’s not really foreshadowing because it’s so obvious, maybe telegraphing? But I think in that case it works.

  • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

    I don’t mind a telegraph if it’s from Red Herring. Some of his sendings are the bomb.

  • http://infinitecharacters.com/ Connie Almony

    This is definitely a delicate balance. I have a story where one of my crit partners guessed the secret right away and another was blown away when it was finally revealed. The one blown away wanted me to drop MORE hints feeling it would make my character more relatable. Sigh! What to do??? My happy medium was to make the possible secret more possible, but to add other clues that could divert the reader into believing something else was possible as well.
    I’ve read one novel where the reader knew the secret from the beginning, given it was on the back cover and the prologue made it obvious. However, in the POV of the character with the secret he never reveals it. I found myself hooked wondering not just how and when it would be revealed, but did the author have a twist up her sleeve. She didn’t, but the suspense of my over-active imagination made it work.

  • http://annbracken.weebly.com Ann Bracken

    It’s really rare that I’m surprised by a plot twist. I think most writers aren’t nearly as subtle as they think they are, myself included. I had someone in my critique group guess what was going to happen by the end of chapter two (thankfully, she’s the only one of five people, and the others were shocked, but that’s still 20%!). Time to revise!

  • http://www.chasingthebigpinks.blogspot.com Christy Distler

    How ironic that I’m reading this today. I recently removed part of a scene in my WIP because, in editing, I felt it might give away the ending. And the funny thing is that at the time I wrote that scene, I didn’t know it would later correlate with the ending because I ended up completely changing the ending of the story. Even better, now I know how to use this technique in the future.

  • http://www.xanga.com/wondering04 Heather Marsten

    Good point. I’m not sure if my first line in my memoir is foreshadowing or telegraphing. I state, “I hate boys’ games.” Then describe a game of neighborhood children with the boys being cavemen. Next scene is the game of my father playing hide the soap in the bathtub. Then the memoir details the incest. Perhaps it isn’t entirely accurate because my mom also played games of knowing but pretending she didn’t. Geesh, it is a hard question. I’m going to have to see if what I’m doing is telegraphing. Have a glessed day.

    • http://www.feministmormonhousewives.org Natalie Kelly

      Heather, I don’t think that is telegraphing at all. It’s a poetic way to reflect on tragedy.

      • http://www.xanga.com/wondering04 Heather Marsten

        Natalie, thanks for that encouragement.

  • http://www.xanga.com/wondering04 Heather Marsten

    Sorry, meant have a blessed day.

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  • http://www.chanakeefer.com Chana Keefer

    I had an editor ask me to foreshadow a turn of events a bit just so it would not be so jarring when my hero falls for a certain unlikely lady. I liked having it come as a surprise because the hero was doing a good job of deluding himself. He doesn’t see the danger, therefore it’s a shock. I pleased the editor by adding a couple scenes where we see the relationship deepen but there aren’t necessarily romantic overtones. Seemed to work.

    Thank you so much for this discussion. After all, it’s the polish and the subtleties that craft a beautiful story.

  • http://www.sharonalavy.com Sharon A Lavy

    This post is a keeper. Thanks Rachelle.

  • http://www.josephjpote.com Joe Pote

    So, how about telegraphing misdirection?

    The murder mystery I’m currently reading has definitely telegraphed an obvious answer, very early in the book.

    I am, at this point, assuming it is misdirection, will lead to a certain individual being suspected, and they will, in the end, be cleared at the discovery it is somebody else.

    If I’m correct, in my assumption, all is well.

    If I’m wrong, and the correct answer was telegraphed early, then I’ll be highly irritated…

  • http://www.rasavary.com R.A.Savary

    Sometimes telegraphing can be used to steer readers in one direction so you can electrify them later with a series of unexpected events, or an outcome beyond the comfortable sense of involvement that they fell into.

  • http://www.rasavary.com R.A.Savary

    Another thing to remember; the black sheep cousin is still family.

  • http://www.kisawhipkey.com Kisa Whipkey

    This was perfect timing! I’m actually working on an editing project for a client right now who suffers from telegraphing. And I was second-guessing my choices as the editor in suggesting he delete massive sections for that very reason. Thank you for bolstering my confidence! It’s nice to know I’m doing my job well and that it’s common for editors to flag this. :)

  • http://ceceliadowdy.com/blog Cecelia Dowdy

    I hate to say this, but, I’ve never heard of telegraphing until I read this blog post. Thanks so much for this helpful information.

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  • KimGreenAtlanta

    How do you feel about a subtle “tease” to keep the reader curious? Foreshadowing can be used for this purpose. Based on what I have read in your blog and the comments, I guess this is bad.

    This is an excellent post that gives me a lot to think about. You have great comments that foreshadowing shouldn’t be noticed when you read it, but will be remembered when you reach the “aha” moment.

  • http://stacythowe.net Stacy L. Thowe

    Foreshadowing is such an incredible tool to use in your writing. I love it when I am reading a piece and the “Oh Yeah” comes to mind. The art of crafting a story that has successful foreshadowing is truly unique. I have to say when I do it sometimes it is unintentional and sometimes it ends up being “telegraphed,” thanks for that term by the way. I appreciate the update on foreshadowing. Your article made it a lot clearer.

  • Suzie Quint

    In my experience, telegraphing works well in certain genres. Stephen King uses it and it works well because the reader needs time to build up the dread for what’s coming. Of course, there’s usually a twist, but horror wouldn’t work nearly as well without telegraphing because the thrill of fear needs time to get under a reader’s skin.

  • http://www.peterdehaan.com/ Peter DeHaan

    I wonder if there’s times when one person’s foreshadowing is another person’s telegraphing.

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  • http://www.amberargyle.blogspot.com Amber Argyle, author

    I have a alpha reader who’s fantastic with telegraphing. He always knows just how much and when. LOVE my readers.

    • http://www.amberargyle.blogspot.com Amber Argyle, author

      Sorry, I meant foreshadowing. Sheesh.

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  • http://www.example.com Conrad Secore

    What’s up, I read your blogs on a regular basis. Your humoristic style is awesome, keep doing what you’re doing!|

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