Authorial Foreshadowing

A guest post by Lou Berger.

As Emily Godhand’s post Friday discussed, writers are, in the course of their tutelage, exhorted to show their story, not tell it. As you read this post, however, you‘ll learn a specialized form of how to break this rule and do it well.

See what I did there? I gave you some insight about what’s to come! If you were paying attention, Gentle Reader, you’ll be able to guess the rule I’m about to teach you how to break. And that’s exactly the point.

Authors, including Stephen King and Jane Austen, make frequent use of the literary device known as authorial foreshadowing. Thing are bopping along, you’re getting great dialogue, great scene descriptions and a general, friendly backstory of the folks you’re about to spend time with in the story you are reading. Then, ruining your day, the author intrudes on all this happiness and beauty with a huge revelation.

“Little did Jimmy know that this was his last morning of sunshine. A late-model Buick with fishhooks welded to the grill barreled down the interstate, driven by an unshaven man hunching forward to peer through the cloudy windshield.”

Gives you shivers, don’t it? And the unshaven man probably won’t, prior to his smashing into poor little Jimmy and his friends at the bus stop, pull over and shave or, God forbid,  clean the damn windshield.

The author has interrupted the story to tell you that something dire is approaching. Now you can’t see Jimmy in quite the same way, can you? You’re already discounting what he says and does because he’s gonna die. Oh, it will be a splendid death, for sure, with young bodies cartwheeling through the air, perhaps a mangling or two, maybe even a severed head bouncing through the school zone, coming to rest against the curb, eyes clouding over as the mouth works soundlessly.

But I digress. That’s coming up. Right now, Jimmy and his cohorts are sniggering about something the teacher said. “The beauty of art,” she announced, but the boys can only parse that she said “The beauty, uh, fart.”

Boys, right?

Authors foreshadow to build tension, to keep you engaged in the story.

Also, if they know that something unbelievable is about to happen, a good author will break the “show, don’t tell” rule with authorial foreshadowing to get your mind working on what is about to take place. Call it, if you are so inclined, a way to get you thinking about something improbable way ahead of time, so that when it comes up, you were expecting it and you’re not so unwilling to believe that it is possible.

“When Georgette woke up that morning and stretched in the early Kansas sunshine, she had no idea that she’d be barreling toward Pluto in a stolen alien spacecraft by mid-afternoon.”

See? Now she can munch Wheaties, dress for school in a smock and Mary Janes, then skip her way to the bus stop where Janice is waiting with the latest dirt on the new boy that moved into the Johnson house. WE know that aliens are a’comin’.  So we mentally prepare for that and anxiously await learning how the author will make it happen.

Georgette, on the other hand, is clueless.

And we turn the pages rapidly, racing toward the abduction . . .

There. I told you you’d learn something!


About Lou Berger:Lou Berger small

Lou Berger is a Denver-based writer. He’s published several short stories in magazines and anthologies, and is a member of SFWA.  He’s currently working on a middle-grade novel set in 1978’s Franklin, North Carolina.  His website is


3 responses on “Authorial Foreshadowing

  1. Francis James Franklin

    Isn’t this conflating two separate devices?

    Foretelling is blatant and artificial non-linearity of plot (‘Little did Jimmy know that this was his last morning of sunshine.’) that almost invariably annoys me – I’m not alone – and I have often stopped reading a book out of sheer disgust for the writing.

    Foreshadowing is a much subtler thing which relies on inference. (‘A late-model Buick with fishhooks welded to the grill barreled down the interstate, driven by an unshaven man hunching forward to peer through the cloudy windshield.’)

  2. Michael

    I have to agree with Francis here. When I see a “little did Jimmy know this was…” line, it tells me as a reader that whatever happens next is unimportant (Wheaties and Mary Janes aside) and just filler, whereas the simple showing of the aliens barreling down on Georgette actually does ramp up the tension. I mostly consider it poor writing and move on. The opening of the article, on the other hand, is an excellent example of the journalistic approach to writing a non-fiction article (tell the reader what you’re going to tell them, tell them the facts, and then tell them what you told them). Journalistic style versus fiction writing. Apples and oranges.

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