Human beings are strange creatures: they crave security but, as soon as they have it, they become bored. They get married, then have an affair. They buy your book, desperate for answers to their problems, and then put it down after five minutes.
Clever writers don’t try to change the nature of people; they change the way they write to take people’s weird ways into account. When we can, writers hook our readers with stories. Or we try to astonish them with data.
But how do we hook them between the stories and the amazing stats? We can use a simple and underrated business writing trick – or, in more erudite company, a literary device – called foreshadowing.
It’s like a written hint or clue about what is coming up next. It’s a promise that there is more excitement to come. In fact, great headlines make use of foreshadowing: they make a promise and heighten FOMO (fear of missing out). Foreshadowing adds tension to your book. Done well – and I will show you how to do it well – foreshadowing is another way of keeping your reader turning the pages of your book, and getting the benefit of all your wisdom.
Before we get to my power foreshadowing tips, let’s look at what not to do. I was a visual artist in my first career and I learned the idea of negative space at art school: an object is defined by the spaces around it. So, to perfect the dos lets first look at the don’ts.
- The Russian novelist, Anton Chekhov’s coined a principle that has come to be known as Checkov’s gun. “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” He’s telling us not to make promises we don’t deliver on. When you foreshadow, don’t forget to return to the point as promised in the future. Make a note when you foreshadow so you don’t forget.
- Don’t overpromise. I see a lot of this on the net, especially in headlines. It’s called clickbait. That is when a headline makes a big promise so we click, and then the story is a let-down.
- Don’t use hints that no-one notices. In fiction, foreshadowing can be subtle, or veiled. People behaving strangely around a particular object in a story, for example. This is beautifully executed In Jane Harper’s new novel, The Lost Man. In your business book, it’s better to be direct. We want your reader to be excited about what is coming up, not to have to work harder to notice your foreshadowing.
- Don’t overdo it. Foreshadowing is like chocolate; great in moderation. If you keep promising stuff is coming, your reader will get annoyed, not excited.
And now for the juicy stuff: how and when to use foreshadowing.
- When you need to dig yourself out of a writing “hole”, use foreshadowing. This is one of foreshadowing’s best gifts to the writer. Here’s a scenario: you are writing a chapter on Topic 1, but you find you have to refer to Topic 2. Instead of referring, however, you get sucked deep into Topic 2. Foreshadowing gets you out of jail free. When you notice you have gone too deep, pull yourself up and foreshadow. Just tell the reader you’ll come back to Topic 2 later. “More on that in Chapter X.”
- When you do your edit, add foreshadowing. In your first draft, you are concerned with clarity, accuracy and structure. But when you edit, you can add foreshadowing to build tension and excitement.
- Promises with precision. If I write, “In the next chapter, I am going to reveal the world’s best writing trick to keep your writer’s hooked: foreshadowing,” I might believe it sincerely, but you may not agree. When I write, “In the next chapter, I will reveal a simple, nifty trick to keep your readers hooked”, it’s a promise I know I can deliver. This addresses the issue of overpromising.
- If you make a promise, tell them where they can find the answer. Some people want to know what they are getting for Christmas. I don’t understand them, but such folks exist. In the final draft of your book, you can provide precise references when you foreshadow, such as, “I explain foreshadowing in more detail in Chapter 7, pages 154 – 156.
Foreshadowing is fun. It builds tension and, when used with stories and data, it hooks your readers’ attention. You don’t need to get it all right at the start; add more foreshadowing as you go through in your edit. And remember, only promise what you can deliver.
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