Friday, March 24, 2006

Foreshadowing

There never was a night without a twilight; a morning without a dawn; a winter without an autumn; a summer without a spring first; they all foreshadow a coming event.

Lajos Egri, in his 1950's classic, The Art of Dramatic Writing.

Egri considered foreshadowing a type of conflict — foreshadowing conflict. Indeed, foreshadowing has the force of conflict, because it promises conflict.

He didn't distinguish between suspense and foreshadowing. (He didn't distinguish between suspense and tension either.) But current authorities usually do. Unlike Egri, they probably wouldn't say that a "guilty" verdict foreshadows sentencing. That's because the story question planted (What will the sentence be?) by the verdict is implicit in it. Instead, they reserve the term foreshadowing for ominous hints of what is to come. It's as though the story were a westward journey toward the sunset, and an approaching event casts its shadow ahead of itself, into the present.

Foreshadowing creates suspense by raising story questions. Here's an example:

That morning, on her way to work, Mary Anne took a gun from a cabinet in the garage, loaded it, and thrust it in her coat pocket.

That sentence foreshadows by raising the ominous story question What's the loaded gun for?

But you needn't startle the reader with information that jumps out at us like that gun. In other words, you needn't be so obvious. You can foreshadow with information that blends into the action. For example, consider Shakespeare's foreshadowing in the first thing Juliet says about Romeo after meeting him:

Go ask his name. If he be married,
My grave is like to be my wedding bed.


Consider also Ernest Hemingway's description of the old man's sail in the opening paragraph of The Old Man and the Sea:

The sail was patched with four sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.

The hint can be symbolic. For example, in the end of The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene foreshadows the Mexican priest's capture and execution through references to dark clouds gathering. He makes them omens by using diction that echoes scriptural descriptions of the sky on the day Jesus was crucified. Thus, foreshadowing raises the story question: Is the priest finally going to get captured?

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