Sell the Premise – Foreshadowing … by Terry Odell

2016_Terry OdellJohnny Carson said, "If they buy the premise, they'll buy the bit." Without foreshadowing, you’re left with deus ex machina and readers don’t like outside forces solving plot threads, or things conveniently appearing just when they’re needed.

You have to be a bit of a magician. Think sleight-of-hand, although in this case, it's more like "sleight-of-words." No waving red flags. If readers stop to say, "Oh, that's going to be important; I'd better remember it," you've pulled them out of the story.

Some Foreshadowing Techniques:

Show the skill, clue, or event early on, in a different context. These Setup Scenes can occur throughout the book. These don’t need to be high-action scenes. In fact, foreshadowing is best done in quiet, “mundane” scenes.

In the first book of my new Triple-D Ranch romantic suspense series, In Hot Water, important clues are discovered in a series of journal entries. The reader learns immediately that Sabrina, the heroine, is meticulous about recording her days in a journal. The opening of the book:

If it weren’t for the whole funeral thing, today would have scored an eight in Sabrina Barton’s journal entry. Maybe a nine.

Thus, it seems logical for her to keep the old journals she finds in her brother’s apartment after his death. To her, they have sentimental value. When the bad guys steal the journals, she’s more upset about losing hers than his, but showing readers both sets of journals before the bad guys steals them sets the stage, while obscuring the clue that her brother’s entries are the important ones. And, even better if you hide the clue “in plain sight” so it’s even less obvious. Some examples of setting this up:

Sabrina still had her doubts. During the two days she’d been in San Francisco before John’s funeral, she’d gone through her brother’s things, keeping a photo album with family pictures of them as kids. That and his journals, something their foster parents had insisted they keep.

2016_Odell_Hot WaterAnd later …

When she’d run, she hadn’t brought a lot with her, but what she’d brought, aside from clothes, was the important—at least to her—stuff. Her journals. Years of her life. Pictures, her recipes, a few family heirlooms. Aside from her recipes, the rest was valuable for the memories they encompassed, nothing more.

Another major plot thread in the book involves a threat of bioterrorism. But rather than spring the first fatal case on the reader, it’s set up to look like a character shows up on the ranch having an allergy attack.

KJ sniffed, sneezed, then blew his nose in a red bandana. Derek noted the red-rimmed, puffy eyes. KJ shoved the bandana into his rear jeans pocket. “Damn sage is blooming like crazy. Allergies.”

Even that, however, might be waving too many red flags, so before that character shows up, I have one of my primary players complaining about his own allergies over lunch.

“Except for the sage,” Frank said. “Aggravates my allergies.” He reached into a pocket for a pill and swallowed it with a drink of lemonade.

Now, it’s just “stage business” (sage business?) and not so obvious to the reader that it’s important.

More Setup: The hero and heroine are hiding and the villains are closing in. The hero is injured. He hands the heroine his gun and asks her if she can shoot. She says, "I'm a crack shot," and proceeds to blow the villains away (or worse, has never handled a gun before, but still takes out the bad guys, never missing a shot). She’s an expert in first aid and saves the hero's life. Plus, she's an accomplished trapper and can snare whatever creatures are out there. Or, maybe she has no trouble catching fish with dental floss and a paper clip. Plus, she can create a gourmet meal out of what she catches, all without disturbing her manicure or coiffure.

Believable? Not if this is the first time you've seen these traits. But what if, earlier in the book, the heroine is dusting off her shooting trophies, thinking about how she misses those days. Or she's cleaning up after a fishing trip. Maybe she has to move her rock climbing gear out of her closet to make room for her cookbooks. You don't want to include an entire scene whose only purpose is to show a skill she'll need later. Keep it subtle, but get it in there.

When you give your character a job, or a hobby, don't forget to look at all the skills they need to do it. Know those 'sub-skills' and work them into scenes. Those basic real-life skills your characters have can be used to foreshadow the kinds of things they'll be called upon to do later in the book.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

From childhood, Terry Odell wanted to "fix" stories so the characters would behave properly. Once she began writing, she found this wasn't always possible, as evidenced when the mystery she intended to write turned into a romance, despite the fact that she'd never read one. Odell prefers to think of her books as "Mysteries With Relationships." She writes the Blackthorne, Inc. series, the Pine Hills Police series, The Triple-D Ranch series, and the Mapleton Mystery series. You can find her high (that's altitude, of course—she lives at 9100 feet!) in the Colorado Rockies—or at her website.

You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and she’d love to see you at her blog, Terry’s Place. For sneak peeks and exclusive content, sign up for her more-or-less quarterly newsletter. You can also be notified of new releases at her Amazon page.

Become an RMFW Guest Blogger
at
Interested in submitting to the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Blog? Our blog's theme is Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, so we're interested in original, well-crafted and proofread blog posts on writing (all fiction genres) and the writing life, reports on RMFW events, interviews with agents/editors/published authors, humor, photo essays, and book reviews. Contact the editors at blog@rmfw.org for more information about available guest dates. CLICK HERE for additional submission guidelines.

6 thoughts on “Sell the Premise – Foreshadowing … by Terry Odell

  1. Nice post, Terry. The other side of that is when an author sets all kinds of foreshadowing and then takes you in a completely opposite direction. One book comes to mind where the hero has a heart condition, so when the crisis hits, you half expect him to have a heart attack, but no… something comes out of left field and takes you in a completely unexpected direction.

  2. So true, Karla … I was reading a thriller by Jeffery Deaver that started out just that way. All the hints said the character’s wife was going to die, but then it was him, not her. This was all done in chapter 1, so I think it worked well. You knew you were in for a surprise-filled ride.

  3. Great examples of positive foreshadowing, Terry. And Karla is so right, as readers we capture all the impressions the author provides and expect reasonable consequences and decisions based on what we have been shown. When something comes in from left field, we feel discombobulated.

    • So true, Jim. Surprises are one thing, and often welcome. We all love to have a reader say “I never saw that coming … but when I went back and looked, it was all there.” But cheating … leading them on one path, laying clues and red herrings, and then bringing in a whole new cast of characters, or having a bear show up where bears don’t live … nope. Not fair.

  4. This is a great reminder that even though we may know what’s coming, we don’t want to spill the beans too early or not give our reader the chance to figure out some things on their own. Good examples! Thanks.

    • It’s a balancing act. We have to make sure we provide all the requisite information, but not too early, not too late, not too much, not too little… Nobody said this gig was easy!

Leave a Reply