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Historical Fiction: Ten Editing Tools. No 5 – Foreshadowing

Peter Graham – Wandering Shadows

As a historical fiction writer, I often want to include major events in history, and usually these are the ‘real’ history that inspired the book. By ‘major’, I don’t necessarily mean big battles, (though the Battle of Worcester forms at least one set piece for me) but they are usually pivotal points of changes in history or changes in character, or preferably both. One of the main pivots in my book Pleasing Mr Pepys is when Mrs Pepys discovers her husband in flagrante with her own lady’s maid, Deb Willet, on his knee. The foreshadowing in this case took the form of Mrs Pepys’s suspicions – her careful examining of her husband’s clothes for Deb’s hairs, and her bribing of the kitchenmaid to spy on Deb’s chamber.

So when editing, one of the things I do is to look for the big scenes, particularly the real events of history, and see if I can foreshadow them more. What I’m aiming for is a build of tension that will lead the reader, as if up a mountain slope, to the pinnacle of tension – by which time, the scene istelf arrives and is all the more satisfying for its release. I usually have about eight pivotal scenes in my books, but only the later few will be deeply foreshadowed, because the early ones are at the beginning of the character’s transformation and so don’t need as much development.

If you have a character that needs to show particular bravery in a late scene in your novel, you can foreshadow by making your character cowardly earlier on. This sets up tension, as the reader wonders whether the character will crumble under pressure. Opposites are a great way of stretching the character arc. For example it is much better to start with an overbearing character and make them humble by the end, than to start with a self-effacing person and make them humble by the end. The bigger the psychological distance travelled by your protagonist, the more impact it will have. Fear in the reader is a good thing, but you must then have at least one scene where the change is foreshadowed – where the character steels him/herself to be more courageous. Often this can be done with an object – ‘he looked at his father’s medals, glinting in the drawer, and knew he could not let him down’. (More on this in my next post).

Avoiding Blatant Premonitions

Every now and then I read books with sentences like, ‘Little did she know, all that was about to change,’ or ‘What I didn’t know then, was that it was the biggest mistake of my life’. These sentences always make me wince.  Especially the ‘little did she know’. They are so blatantly manipulative and only really work well in books which are supposed to be funny, or tongue-in-cheek.

Premonitions and dreams are another obvious form of foreshadowing. Actually, I have used both, but with extreme caution! (in Pepys’s Diary he reports that Mrs Pepys and Deb go to a fortune teller, so I couldn’t resist using it.) But – bear in mind the character’s intelligence and personality. Would they really take notice of the premonition, or would they dismiss it? Deb and Mrs Pepys have really different reactions to what they are told. Describe the premonition in an interesting way – hairs standing up at the back of the neck, tingling spine and clenching of stomachs are all clichés.

Foreshadowing is often a question of mood. This is something else I look for as I’m editing. A sense of instability can be conveyed through setting, rickety houses, a blur of rain, slippery cobbles that make it hard to stand upright. Weather has long been used for this purpose, but beware of making it stormy in angry scenes, rainy at funerals etc. The still millpond could be a better backdrop for an angry scene and reflect back the deeper things unsaid.

Do let me know books you think use foreshadowing really well, so I can pass them on as recommendations to my students.

You might also like in this series:

No 1 Light  No 2 Truth  No 3 Sound  No 4 Threads

More on foreshadowing? Read this great post from NowNovel here

Picture from Wiki Commons

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7 replies on “Historical Fiction: Ten Editing Tools. No 5 – Foreshadowing”

Love what you say here, Deborah: ‘So when editing, one of the things I do is to look for the big scenes, particularly the real events of history, and see if I can foreshadow them more. ‘ That tension really does bring a historical narrative alive. Thanks for including a post from Now Novel!

With you completely on authors who give the game away. As much as I like Jean Plaidy’s historical works, many times she makes it blatantly obvious what’s going to happen later on with premonitions, which destroys all suspense.

Other authors are as guilty. Really liked Mathew Lewis’s “The Monk”, but he reveals the fate of a lead character early on through a scene with a fortune teller, so it’s no shock when she dies.

Every book I’ve read that uses a premonition, no matter what the genre, has gone on to fulfil that premonition. An imaginative writer would defy this with a twist in the tail to trick fate. Therefore, whenever a character hears of a premonition, I know it’ll come true. The suspense has died.

Think the authors that do this sort of thing consider their actions to be along these lines: “Ah, when it comes true by the end, my audience will remember the premonition from earlier, and will think how cleverly l’ve linked this theme together.”

Off the top of my head, I can’t recall a historical fiction writer who’s done an expert job of foreshadowing, though doubtless I’ve read a number of them. But one author of literary fiction immediately come to mind: Thomas Hardy. He was a master at foreshadowing in his novels and short stories.

So interesting to hear your opinion, Phil. I’m currently editing Pleasing Mr Pepys with a fortune-telling scene (which is in Pepys’s Diary).
I think if you can see the foreshadowing as a reader too obviously then it comes over as manipulative. I’ve tried to skirt the problem you mention by making the premonition a matter of interpretation, with several possible outcomes for the reader at the juncture where it occurs. I’m still not sure I’ve avoided the problem completely. These scenes are quite tricky to get right – I’m still working on it. As you know, I take ages with my books!
Thomas Hardy – yes, I became a fan when I had to study Far From the Madding Crowd at school. I loved it and went on to Tess of the D’Urbervilles and the rest. I haven’t read Lewis’s ‘The Monk’ – I’ll go and look it up.

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