Wednesday, May 18, 2011


Before I start, I've been worrying about this: If you’ve asked me a question on the blog and I’ve said that I put it on my list but I never seem to get to it, please remind me. I work on three computers and my fear is that I may fail to transfer a question to all the computers and then it may get overwritten. If this has happened to you, sorry!

On March 5, 2011, Piper wrote, ...I was wondering if you could write a post on how to write beginnings... I rewrite mine about a thousand times...
Piper, when I promised you a post, I forgot that I’d already written one on the subject. My post of November 3, 2010, is all about beginnings, and two chapters of Writing Magic are devoted to the subject. I suggest you look in both places. Then, if you have more specific questions, please post them.

However, I do want to respond to the rewriting part of your question. A thousand times is too many! A hundred times is too many. If you keep revising before going on to the rest of your story, you may be making extra work for yourself. You may not know what the beginning needs to be until you reach the end. If you do finish and go back and find yourself polishing and polishing and never feeling satisfied, put your story aside for a month - or a week, if you can’t bear to wait a month - and then see what you think. You may discover that your beginning works just fine.

Moving along to the next question, on March 6, 2011, Kitty wrote, ...I was wondering if you had any advice on foreshadowing? I feel like the slight hints that I drop are too obvious or so slight that no one picks up on them, but I'm not sure how to make them less obvious.

My beloved writing teacher, who taught a workshop that I took again and again, disliked foreshadowing, so I eschew it. If Bunny (my teacher) was against it, so was I.

However, to answer the question, I have to consider and reconsider.

First of all, as usual, if you can make foreshadowing work, go for it.

Second, many great books, especially old books, classics even, use foreshadowing. You might see something like, Dear Reader, if I had known in 1842 what I now know in 1862, I never would have entered the Tea Emporium on that fateful July day.
If you’re writing an old-fashioned story in an old-timey voice, foreshadowing may be perfect.

And foreshadowing can be funny if you want to be funny. Take the example above: Dear Reader, if I had known in 1842 what I now know in 1862, I never would have entered the Tea Emporium on that fateful July day. You can add: I would have been spared many sleepless nights and a right earlobe the size of a grapefruit. Sprinkle silly foreshadowing in at regular intervals and the reader will be looking for it and laughing in advance.

Where the problem comes in is when we foreshadow to prop up a dull part of our story. It’s tempting. Things are going slow right now, but I’m letting you know that the action is going to pick up. The main character is eating a PBJ sandwich. Ordinary, right? We don’t want the reader to get bored so we tell her that there will be dire consequences later. However, we want to keep the story interesting in the present moment, not through foreshadowing but through the ordinary devices of good storytelling: characters the reader cares about, tension between characters, a difficult goal, a terrible situation.

Also, foreshadowing takes the reader out of the immediate moment and makes her aware of the narrator. If the book is told by a first-person main character, foreshadowing reminds the reader that the narrator isn’t participating in events as they unfold but looking back on them. Sometimes this is okay, but sometimes the foreshadowing is an interruption.

There are many ways of suggesting future trouble without foreshadowing. In both Ella Enchanted and Fairest, gnomes can see into the future, although dimly, and in both books they prophesy for the main character. The prophesies make the reader worry about the future without interrupting the action. Dreams, too, can augur ill. If I remember right, dreams are used effectively in Gone With the Wind. It’s a bad sign when Scarlet O’Hara dreams of a child.

However, you don’t need portents or dreams to worry the reader. The most mundane events can do it. For example, Ron Banks-Butler is talking to Hallie Butler, his older cousin, who’s two grades ahead of him in high school. Hallie asks him who he has for History. Here’s the dialogue:
    Ron says, “Mr. Twillet. Is he good?”
    “Good? Twillet doesn’t know what good means, and he has it in for kids with two last names.”
    “What does he do to them?”
    “Ron, you don’t want to know. It will just give you nightmares.”

Uh oh.

Or Clara is boarding an airplane in winter. The pilot announces that they have to wait while the ground crew de-ices the wings. Finally the plane begins to taxi, but Clara sees out her window a slick patch on the wing. She’s sure it’s ice. When she points the patch out the patch to the flight attendant, he tells her everything is fine.

Uh oh.

If you are a devoted foreshadower and are having withdrawal symptoms even thinking about changing your method, stick with what you’re doing. But when you’ve finished your first draft, try deleting the foreshadowing as you revise. If the story is better with it, put it back in. Otherwise, leave it out.

Kitty, I’d stay away from the obvious hints and, if you’re going to foreshadow at all, be subtle. Trust your reader. She’ll catch more than you expect, and even if she misses your hint she’ll understand as events unfold.


∙    Ron is eating that PBJ sandwich. By the time he goes to bed at night a vampire will have sucked the life out of his great uncle who is right now asleep in the den. Without foreshadowing, convey to the reader that disaster lurks.

∙    Clara is on her way to school. It’s an ordinary day. She likes the school, has friends, has studied for her French quiz. Using a different method from the prompt above, show the reader that this will not be an ordinary day, but don’t foreshadow. After you’ve done that, find yet another way to suggest future problems.

∙    Write the first page of a story about a child who lives in a quiet house deep in the countryside. Use foreshadowing to achieve an old-fashioned voice.

∙    Hallie’s cousin has just died in a harrowing way. The death is the start of Hallie’s troubles. Use foreshadowing to make the tragedies funny. Pile dire prediction on dire prediction.

Have fun, and save what you write!


  1. I got A Tale Of Two Castles in the mail today! I am so excited to read it. It looks awesome! :)

    I just recently read a book (historical fiction) that had loads of great foreshadowing. It was called The River Between Us by Richard Peck, and it was set during the Civil War. I honestly didn't pick up the foreshadowing at the time, but after I read your post I realize what I'd missed.
    I don't use a lot of foreshadowing, because of the voice of my books. It's not that I'm against it so much as it doesn't work. I use more memorie and backstories to add a little suspense. I love suspense and drama. It's so much fun.

    I have a problem with wanting to please all my readers. I'm often afraid I'm going to offend one person by writing this, or bother someone else if I add this character or this scene. It doesn't matter if what I'm writing is essential to the story or not. I'm worried about bothering somebody if I leave it in, even if the person it might offend is just a potential reader. 

  2. I like the last prompt, it reminded me of Professor Trelawny from the Harry Potter series who predicts death and catastrophe so much when death and catastrophe actually do happen, everyone is surprised. :)
    I've added a bit of foreshadowing in my most recent project and everyone in my critique group seems to like it so I guess I'll keep it in :)

    @ Jenna Royal I've struggled with this as well, but when you think about it- sure we writers write for the reader,but when it comes down to it, don't we write mostly for ourselves? You're never going to be able to please everyone in the world- there are too many people in it. Just tell the story how it needs to be told, or how YOU want to tell it. Some readers could easily be offended by your main character saying she hates the color pink, that's unavoidable. But as long as you don't put anything purposefully offensive in your story, I think you have nothing to worry about. Don't worry, there will be twenty fans of your story to every critic :)Hope this helps.

    Thanks for the post, Ms. Levine! :)

  3. I love The River Between Us! Yes, I remember that foreshadowing is very strong in that one, in part because the main body of the story is a flashback. I am a fan of foreshadowing myself, but then I'm a historical fiction writing type, so I may be biased in that way.

    Jenna Royal: I agree with Grace. I've sometimes had problems with this as well, especially when I try to get into the heads of characters who aren't especially like me. Also, you may never know what may be offensive until you let others read it. It may be that they will actually show you what offends them, and maybe help you treat the topic with more sensitivity as called for.

    Great post!

  4. I read Tale of Two Castles and it is amazing! I love Elodie and already can't wait for the sequel!

  5. Quick comment- more tomorrow
    I got my copy of the book on the 12th! I LOVED it!!! Thank you!!
    Um I think I did ask a question (in Feb or early March)that hasn't been answered yet.

  6. Caitlin Flowers and welliewalks--Glad you enjoyed A TALE OF TWO CASTLES!

    welliewalks--Your March question is still in the queue. Coming up!

  7. I know this is a really weird question but...
    Is it possible to say a name too many times? One of my biggest pet Peeves is when writers use the same word too many times, so I am really conscientious about it when I am writing. I was just now writing and realized I was using one of the character's names a lot to avoid using the pronoun too many times. How can I avoid this?

    Oh and Ms Levine, I was so excited when my mom brought home from the convention A Tale of Two Castles and a new copy of Ella Enchanted (since my old one is literally falling apart) Thank you so much for signing them! I wish I could have been there to get them signed myself!

  8. I really like humorous foreshadowing. A Series of Unfortunate Events is one example.

    Still waiting on my copy of Two Castles. Can't wait to get it! Long waits for mail is one negative thing about living overseas. ;)

  9. I'm a bit confused about the definition of foreshadowing. I thought foreshadowing meant any type of hint that clues you in a future event. So wouldn't predictions of the future and dreams all be foreshadowing? Or do you have to know that such-and-such sentence is mentioning something of the future in that moment you read it for it to be foreshadowing?

    By the way, nice post. My favorite prompt is the first.

  10. Oh I have issues with forshadowing- I am not too great at writing them and I am afraid of putting them in the wrong places. However, I don't have issues with it as I usually don't feel the need to foreshadow. I agree with bluekiwii. Foreshadowing seems to mean different things sometimes.
    Jenna Royal: I stuggle with this too but write the story for yourself first. I've noticed that in a sense, I am just another reader who happens to be the writer. Write for yourself first and the reader second.

  11. bluekiwii--Oops! You are probably right, and I was writing about the sort of foreshadowing that comes straight from the narrator. Thanks for bringing this up.

    Jill--I'm adding your question to my list. And I was very happy to meet your mom.

  12. I totally agree about the main character narrator not foreshadowing because I read a book once about a kidnapping, and the main character (who was kidnapped) would say things like, "My mom told me later that..." So you didn't get quite as much suspense since you knew she was going to get out all right.

  13. That's a great point, welliewalks, because when I write I often think "Now, what made so and so book so popular?" I try to echo other authors too much based on their success, and in doing so, I lose my own unique voice.

  14. thanks, Ms. Levine! That makes more sense. So in the prompts, when you say "use no foreshadowing" you were trying to say to avoid the main character mentioning something is going to happen in the future? Does this mean we could focus on other more indirect ways of foreshadowing like dreams, prophecies, and descriptions of setting?

  15. @ Jill
    I read somewhere that words such as "she", "he", or "I" tend to be invisible--which means that when readers read them they don't tend to notice them. I normally use names when using the pronouns would be too confusing (like when two women are having a conversation). Does this help? It had never occurred to me that saying a name too many times would be annoying to read, but, on reflection, I agree. It will also be a useful device to use on a specific character to make him appear obnoxious.

  16. @Jill
    I found a website that might be helpful to you.

  17. I finished A Tale of Two Castles today - it was awesome! I can't wait for tue next book to come out. :)

    I definitely have a problem with using he, she and it. I know they become invisible to the reader, but as the writer they really bother me. I find myself iSight the words "the girl" or "the boy" or "the woman" a lot, which I don't really like either. It's not the right voice for my stories, and it's kind of jarring. I guess I will just have to get brave and use the pronouns. :)

    Are dreams and prophecies foreshadowing? I'm not sure I understand - if you hint that something is amiss, but the narrator doesn't outright say so, would it still be considdered foreshadowing?

  18. I just ordered A Tale of Two Castles. Can't wait to read it!

    When my mom read my story, she said that there were too many characters--she couldn't keep track of them all. How can I fix this?


  19. Six in our Crew--You might try combining characters. For example, if four friends are talking, maybe they could be slimmed down to two, giving the extra dialogue to the remaining speakers.

  20. Thank you Mrs. Levine! I'll definitely try it.

  21. On the subject of foreshadowing, do you count something like, for example, as Ron eats his PBJ sandwich he glances idly at the newspaper his dad left folded on the table and notices the headline is about a dangerous vampire having just escaped the high security paranormal prison on the other side of the city? Or is that plot point rather than foreshadowing? What do you consider to be the difference?