Sunday 13 September 2009


Some novelists indulge a good deal in foreshadowing, that is, giving hints about what is to come in their stories before it actually happens. Others, including me, do not. I’ve been thinking about this device recently, after reading Barbara Vine’s The Birthday Present, in which there is a great deal of foreshadowing.

The first chapter of the book is told by the brother-in-law of the key character, a sleazy MP. It introduces quickly quite a large cast of characters and before anything has happened, within the first three pages there are lines such as these:

‘The chances are that if she hadn’t agreed to provide a certain alibi, none of this would have happened.’

‘I’m putting in Jane Atherton’s diary. Not just some of it but the whole thing as it was sent to Juliet. Ivor’s history and come to that Hebe Furnal’s wouldn’t be complete without it.’

‘The mystery of which girl was the intended victim was never publicly solved.’

(After a snippet of recalled dialogue): ‘There was more of this but I’ll come back to it.’

I have to say that I found all this a bit bewildering and irksome, and, if I hadn’t been such a Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine fan, I might have given up at that point. Luckily, I didn't, and I do want to emphasise that I’m really glad I persevered, because I enjoyed the book, despite some flaws.

But I do think that foreshadowing is a device to be used with caution. In days gone by, the ‘Had I But Known’ school of writing was mercilessly mocked by the critics and I can understand why. Others may disagree, but for me, The Birthday Present shows that, even in the hands of a writer of genius, foreshadowing is a risky technique that is as likely to alienate readers as it is to intrigue them. However, I'd be interested in other people's views.


Jilly said...

I must admit I find it irritating because the sentence lodges in your brain and you're constantly looking for something to happen which fits that sentence. Which means I often miss other things because I'm focussing on that. Foreshadowing can sometimes read as though the author doesn't think the reader will pick up the clues and can therefore be a little patronising.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Jilly. An interesting observation from such a keen reader. I guess one common aim of foreshadowing is to compensate for a quiet opening to a story by promising dramatic events to come - but it's a pretty high risk tactic, I think.

Uriah Robinson said...

I came across a case of "cover blurb foreshadowing" last year that spoilt an entire book. I was, as Jilly said, constantly wondering how on earth what was happening in the book was going to fit in with what it said "on the package".
It didn't and I think the publishers badly let the author down with the blurb. I found this book very slow and I suspect the publishers did as well and tried to spice it up with an interesting blurb.

Martin Edwards said...

Yes, there's quite an art to a good blurb. Perhaps a subject for a future post...

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

It's tricky. It brings the reader out of the story, I think, which is always dangerous. I like the device in small amounts, though.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Mike Gray said...

Equally disappointing can be the even rarer but also riskier flash forward.

In the film THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971), the fate of the world is very much in doubt, yet the viewer at one point is shown a scene in which characters discuss the crisis AFTER IT HAS BEEN RESOLVED; and, of course, there goes the suspense.

One wonders how often writers actually employ the flash forward, and of those who do, how successful they are with it.

—Mike Gray

Martin Edwards said...

Good question, Mike, and I wonder about other examples. I haven't seen The Andromeda Strain, but like any tricky narrative device, this one needs a lot of care.