Telegraphing Versus Foreshadowing

MorseschreiberFirst, as an editor, it makes me a little squirmy to write blog posts about “how” to write. Beyond basic grammar and clarity, the rules of writing, especially in fiction, are a kind of flexible armature and differ according to the author, the genre, and the situation. However, I’ve been seeing something in fiction lately that makes me want to slam my head against the keyboard: telling readers in quite unsubtle terms that the plot is about to take a shocking turn. The device is commonly called telegraphing.

There are few different flavors of telegraphing. For this blog, I’m going to focus on the one that irritates me the most. You’ve read examples of this, I’m sure. Everything is going along swimmingly for the characters. Life is lovely, everyone is happy. Suzie just got her big promotion and that hunky guy is finally paying attention to her…and then an omniscient narrator warns us that, oh horrors, everything is about to go sideways in a big, bad way. IU minion Lynne Cantwell has called this the “little did they know” effect. Little did they know that a monster is about to rise up from the depths of the ocean…that the evil scientist is planning to swarm the entire planet with killer bees…that we are about to run out of coffee in the Death Star cantina.

Don’t quote me on this, but I think the device has its roots in old-fashioned serials, mainly the ones where the woman is left tied up on the train tracks, and radio dramas and soap operas where the writers depended on projecting an ominous situation so the viewers would tune back in to find out what horrible fate would befall their favorite characters and how on earth they would ever get out of it alive.

Used in a novel, this kind of telegraphing can do your writing a disservice and separate you from your readers. Here’s what I’m thinking when I read one of these:

  1. It’s melodramatic and makes me groan a little. Most of the work you’ve done in creating a suspension of disbelief for your readers has just been spoiled. Now I’m less likely to buy into your premise and more likely to look for something else to read.
  2. It’s a clumsy device and interrupts an otherwise smooth narrative.
  3. It screams “new writer.” I adore new writers, really I do, because we all have to start somewhere. But in the back of my head I’m thinking of seven different ways you could have been more artful about the flow of your story, and I hope that you will discover them.
  4. You’ve just killed your tension by telling me something awful is about to happen instead of showing me as it happens. So much for surprising me with your plot twist.
  5. You’ve lost an opportunity to draw me deeper into the story by letting me experience the awful thing along with the characters.

So how is telegraphing different from foreshadowing? Foreshadowing is subtle. Foreshadowing is a small, ominous reminder a reader tucks into the back of his or her brain that something wicked this way comes, without telling what that thing is and when it will come along. It’s often symbolic; some authors use changes in weather, evil omens, dangerous animals or weapons. One of my favorite bits of foreshadowing is from the beginning of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms: “The leaves fell early that year.” It’s quiet; it doesn’t scream, “someone’s gonna die!” But it does sneak into your head, owing to that early death symbolism of falling leaves.

Another way authors sometimes foreshadow is to show a minor incident or exchange of dialogue that can quietly let us know something larger will happen later in the story…without giving away the store. Like in the beginning of the film version of The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy calls Mrs. Gulch a wicked old witch. Or the bit from Fatal Attraction when Glenn Close tells Michael Douglas that she’s “great with animals and loves to cook.” Poor bunny. Employing a device like this “seeds” events that happen later. They let readers feel smart and engaged, instead of spoon-fed. Foreshadowing is a fine brush, whereas telegraphing can be a sledgehammer. And you don’t want to hit your readers with a sledgehammer, do you? Because that really leaves a mark.

Author: Laurie Boris

Laurie Boris is a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, and former graphic designer. She has been writing fiction for over twenty-five years and is the award-winning author of four novels. She lives in New York’s lovely Hudson Valley. Learn more about Laurie at her website and her Amazon author page.

25 thoughts on “Telegraphing Versus Foreshadowing”

  1. You’ve described the two literary scenarios well, Laurie. “Foreshadowing” actually explains itself, if one thinks of the image the word presents–a shadow of what is to come. A shadow is just a faint impression of darkness, and that “darkness” is some complication that will block the main character’s advancement.

    I remember in an Ingmar Bergman movie, a car is traveling down a road to an upcoming collision that is foreshadowed by the silhouette of a tree branch that frames the shot, the branch shaped like a grasping claw.

  2. Oh no. Whose turn was it to buy the coffee? 😉

    And yes, a thumbscrew is always more effective in building suspense than a sledgehammer. 😀 Great post, Laurie.

  3. I hope this is not an impertinent question, but could you give us an example of “telegraphing?” I think of the many, many (dare I say too many?) Lemony Snicket novels when the reader is told, “If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book…” That’s the first line of the first book in the series. Is that what you mean? Thank you.

    1. Not impertinent at all, Annette, thanks for asking. I think the Lemony Snicket line is used to draw kids in; I think that works because of the genre, the market, and his style. There are a few different types of telegraphing: some could involve pointing out an object or person with so much detail that a reader can’t possibly miss that it will be important later. The type I referred to in my post could be one like: “She woke up feeling so happy, but little did she know that it was going to become the worst day of her life.” (Because if we’re in her point of view, how can she know the future unless that omniscient narrator steps in?) Or (walking home from first date), “Their first date was wonderful, but if she’d known what he was going to next, she would have killed herself.”

  4. Great post, Laurie.

    Another telegraph: “It was the last time she would ever see him.” This is also a tell taboo. The writer should show this as the story progresses.

      1. Me too.

        I notice that IU has removed the capability to subscribe to comments, opting for a site subscription. 🙁 There’s no way now to keep track when someone replies to you.

        1. Hi Kathy, actually, we had to remove the comment subscription a couple of months ago because we were exceeding the 500 email per hour SPAM rules. Unfortunately, that was the only way not to get blacklisted.

  5. Excellent reminder, Laurie. Subtly is so difficult to achieve effectively, so easy to overdo. Telegraphing is the dun dun DUN of writing. Foreshadowing is the single cloud across the face of the sun, eliciting a chill, then moving on to be forgotten–until later. Definitely a case of less being better than more.

  6. I liked this. The difference was pointed out to me years ago by Hugh McCracken. At the end of two chapters, in different novels, I had committed the unspeakable “little did he know that later that week” sin. It was painless taking the offending bits out.

  7. Rule of thumb: Never step outside of your character. If you do, it’s “author intrusion.” I’m not a fan of omniscience in any form, including “head hopping” between characters in the same scene. When writing a story from multiple viewpoints, it’s preferable to be in one character’s mind at a time.

    Beware also the “disembodied voice.” The giveaway is when an author switches from simple past to present tense and writes a narrative block, generally descriptive, that is detached from the character’s perspective.

    I see a lot of author intrusion in modern fiction, even from seasoned writers. Therefore, new writers should not feel bad.

    Thanks for the elucidating post, Laurie! Sharing everywhere…

    1. Thank you, Linda. I’ve read little omniscient pops that have worked awfully well in fiction. To me, it comes down to the answer to almost every writing dilemma, which is “it depends.” But it’s so easy to go overboard and requires a steady hand and a good reason. Another good rule of thumb is to keep the reader in mind. Does this add to the story or detract from it?

  8. Oops! I’d better go free my heroine from those train tracks….

    Seriously, though, as I was reading your examples I had a sudden flash to something I wrote just recently – ‘something something something. It was not to last.’

    -face palm-

    In my own defense, it was only first draft material but still… Thanks, Laurie. This reminder was very timely. 😀

  9. Good article, Laurie. That’s funny ’cause I’m reading a book at the moment that does just that. ‘She didn’t know that he blah, blah, blah’. I’d actually never come across this before and I thought it strange. Better to have a scene from that person’s POV I t’ink.

  10. No! For all our sakes, don’t let the Death Star cantina run out of coffee! That would mean the whole thing going to rat-sh*t as the Evil One’s Ewoks tried to boil up dried dandelion roots to make a substitute, and nothing could ever provide a true substitute for the cutting edge analysis we’ve all become accustomed to!

    That said, what a helpful post. I’ve just started the first edit of my second novel, si this comes as a timely reminder to look at how I have built up the tension. I’ll keep a look out and remove any telegraphs I find. Thanks for the prompt.

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