Foreshadowing is so important that Lajos Egri in The Art of Dramatic Writing makes it a type of conflict, along with "static," "jumping," and "slowly rising." Foreshadowing is not actually conflict, but rather the promise of conflict.

Here's an example of foreshadowing:

Joe got out of bed, ate breakfast, loaded his gun, and set out for town.

This is foreshadowing because the reader thinks, "What's the loaded gun for?" A story question has been raised. Foreshadowing is the art of raising story questions. If the story questions are slight, the reader is mildly interested. If the story questions are great, the reader is gripped. You can slip in foreshadowing artfully, as naturally as breathing. Here is an example:

Susie saw Eddie the first day of class and that night wrote in her diary, "If he doesn't take me to the prom, I'll throw myself off the water tower. "

Here's another example:

Joe stopped at the kennel the night after the fight with his neighbor, Emil, over the lawn-mower. He asked the kennel owner how much for a pit bull terrier. The kennel man said four hundred dollars. Joe said it might take him some time to raise that kind of money, but he could, if he put his mind to it. That night, full of Kentucky fried chicken and Tennessee sippin' whiskey, sitting on the back porch and listening to an owl hoot in the tree, he came to a decision . . .

You can also foreshadow in the narrative, apart from the actions of the characters:

When Pete got off from work that night, he had no idea any surprise awaited him in his car. In fact, he didn't hear the snake hiss as he started the engine.

Foreshadowing may also be used to get the reader through a particularly dull stretch of narrative. With the writer of genius perhaps there will never be a dull stretch in his story, but with most journeyman writers dull stretches seem inescapable. Say you're writing a novel. In it preparations are being made for a trip, say, and certain significant actions which occur during these preparations will play a large part later; the preparatory actions must be shown even though these actions are not in themselves dramatic. Say cheap rope is purchased and the cheap rope gets the heroes stuck on a ledge on Mount Awesome. The decision to buy the cheap rope is clearly an important one, but it only becomes important later in the story. To interest the reader in the buying of the rope scene, the later disaster may be foreshadowed. You could begin the scene like this:

When Rudolf went into the store to buy his supplies, he had no idea that he was about to make one of the biggest blunders of his life.

Such a line makes the reader perk up. What could the blunder be? A powerful question has been raised in the reader's mind, and, for the author's purposes, that's good.

A dull stretch may not last for just a scene; it may go on for a chapter or more. Say, as an example, one of your characters, Jeffrey, has a history of emotional problems and toward the end of the story is going to do some wild things, including trying to scalp his future father-in-law with a power mower. However, in the beginning Jeffrey is as sweet as sugar, and responds to trouble by withdrawing sullenly into a shell. You suspect that the sullen Jeffrey will put your readers to sleep. The way to wake them up is to let them in on your secret, that the sweet, seemingly deeply religious, if not out-and-out pious, Jeffrey is a potential homicidal maniac. Now then, how can you foreshadow the coming storm?

You could do it in the author's voice, in narrative, as was done in the previous illustration involving the purchase of the rope:

Jeffrey was on his way to church when he spotted the house where the little gray dog once lived. The dog he had killed one night in a rage. But that was then, and this was now. Now he kept his rages inside him, locked securely away where, he told himself, they would never get out again.

Another way to foreshadow is to have a character give a warning:

Julie didn't know the old woman standing on the porch when she came home from shopping. The old woman was wrinkled and hunched over, pale as death. Her eyes bulged in their sockets, the pupils opaque as the cold eyes of a dead fish. "Are you the one who is to marry Jeffrey?"

Julie nodded. "Yes. On Saturday."

"You should know that he has the madness in him. It is in the blood."

The old woman then turned to walk away.

"Wait!" Julie cried. "How do you know?"

The old woman stopped, cackled, and looked back over her shoulder. "I am kin, and I have the madness in me. That is how I know."

Use your minor characters to foreshadow the actions of the major characters.

You can also foreshadow actions of a major character through his own actions. What a character does under a little stress is very telling about what he might do under a lot of stress. Say he drowns a kitten that annoys him. Or say he digs his fingernails into the palm of his hand so that it bleeds and is momentarily fascinated by the flow of blood. Maybe he screams at someone for crossing in front of his car. That kind of thing.

Foreshadowing, remember, is a promise. If the promise is made and not fulfilled you are cheating the reader.


A symbol is a thing that has meaning to someone in addition to the meaning of the thing in itself. If you're describing a cowboy riding along chewing beef jerky, the jerky has meaning in itself. It means food. But jerky is not a symbol because it does not have any additional meaning.

Now, say, ten years later, the same cowboy is a successful oil man. He comes across a piece of beef jerky in a swanky restaurant on the day he is about to swindle his best friend out of his last million. He fondly reminisces about the beef jerky. He would no longer eat the stuff, but the beef jerky is a symbol to him of the past uncomplicated life when he was an honest working man. The beef jerky has been raised to the level of a symbol. It stands for something more than food. It is now a physical representation of simplicity, honesty, hard work. Let's call it a "life" symbol, because it has meaning in the "life" of the character. Here are some other examples of life symbols:

• In Moby-Dick:, Melville raises the White Whale to the level of a life symbol. It becomes much more than just a whale; it is the living embodiment of evil.

• The "A" worn by the adulterous heroine of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter is a life symbol.

• The catching of the fish in The Old Man and the Sea is a symbol of manhood to the old fisherman. That is a life symbol.

• The lump of coal which he denies Bob Cratchit is a symbol of Scrooge's miserliness; when he is transformed at the end of the story, the full coal scupper Scrooge gives to the clerk is a symbol of his generosity. The lump of coal is a life symbol.

These life symbols are symbols not only to the reader, but to the characters as well. They are naturally occurring, in a sense. From the author's point of view they are "found" symbols. The writer, in the course of telling the story, finds symbols to help the reader focus on the conflicts and the issues. You'll find such symbols in all literature from every country of the world since the beginning of time.

Symbols have unfortunately been greatly abused of late, largely due to a school of literary criticism called "the imagists." The imagists are the progeny of the infamous "new critics" of the forties and fifties, those villains who preached that the reader, not the writer, was the author of the work.

To the imagists, a symbol can be more than a life symbol; it can be a "literary symbol. " A literary symbol, unlike a life symbol, is not a thing that comes to have meaning to the character in the natural course of the story. A literary symbol has meaning only to the reader, not to the characters. Say that in a story whenever villainous characters are described, the author points out their shiny shoes. The shoes are symbols of evil. But to whom are they symbolic? Not to the characters, certainly. The author is making a game of his symbols. He's saying to the reader, let's see if you can find the hidden meaning in these shoes. Good writing uses devices that elucidate character.

Here's another trick of the imagists. An imagist will write a story that goes something like this: there's a red flag over the door where Henry and Henrietta are staying. There's a red rug in their room. She cuts herselfaccidentallyand bleeds red blood. Later, they fight; he spits red blood. Henry leaves in a red taxi wearing a red necktie. None of the characters in the story connects red to the events of the story. The writer is using red to "tie the story together" by its images. The image does not have to be a color, of course. It could be a potted plant, a 747, a moon of Jupiter, a pair of scissors, a cat, a pair of dirty socks. Anything. Such images are sometimes called "controlling metaphors." Using a device such as a controlling metaphor does not produce art, only artifice.

If you ever hear a writer say, "I've finished my story and now I'm putting in the symbols," you have found a writer who is under the perverse influence of the imagist school.

Imagist writers are also prone to use special symbols called "classical allusions"—veiled references to gods from Greek mythology or to the Bible. An imagist writer might name a character Bob Pantheon. His name is supposed to be a clue that he is godlike, because the pantheon was the whole gamut of the Greek gods. If you wish to write a damn good novel don't waste your time trying to find classical allusions. Character, conflict, and a slow rise to a climax are what count.

The appropriate use of symbol is this: if a character has a quest or a goal, it should be symbolized. If a character wants to escape loneliness, say, there should be a symbol of the escape—something the character sees and wants but can't get. Admittance to a certain club, perhaps, or a ticket for the Love Boat. If a character wants status, perhaps the symbol might be a pair of alligator shoes or a pink Cadillac Eldorado. Abstract wishes and desires are okay in real life, but they don't play well in fiction. An apt life symbol will focus the reader on the conflicts. That is the legitimate use and value of symbols.

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