Foreshadowing: Layers of Writing, Layers of Consciousness

foreshadowing cloister-102491_640So if you remember my post about cultivating inspiration, you’ll know that I’ve been re-reading all my favorite books and using them to launch myself whole-heartedly into my own WIP. I’m now reading my favorite book on the planet, A Prayer for Owen Meany, which I’ve read at least twenty times. You’d think by now I’d have the entire book memorized, yet every time I read it, I see something I never saw before. This time, I’ve been acutely aware of foreshadowing.

If you’re not familiar, foreshadowing is a literary device authors can use to hint at some action or meaning to come later in the book. It can be handled in many ways, from a subtle allusion to a 2×4 upside the head. Earlier this year, our own Laurie Boris wrote a post about the most ham-handed way to foreshadow, aka telegraphing. As I’ve been reading Owen Meany, however, I’ve been struck by the more ingenious ways to foreshadow, ways that — had I not already read the book twenty times — I would probably completely miss.

It got me to thinking: why do we foreshadow? Why is it attractive for the author? Why, when it’s well done, is it gratifying for the reader?

There is something inherently satisfying about having a thread that underscores a story, even if that thread goes underground at times and is beyond the reader’s consciousness. In a mystery, for example, that foreshadowing can be seen as a trail of breadcrumbs, tossed down so haphazardly here and there that there might be no appreciable pattern, yet when the reader gets to the final reveal, they can look back and say, “Ah ha!” at all the small details they either caught or missed. In a non-mystery like Owen Meany, the reader might be more engrossed in the way the story unfolds rather than actively trying to solve a crime, but the foreshadowing supplies that same cohesiveness in the end. Looking back, the reader understands that Owen’s removal of the front claws from the stuffed armadillo, the armless totem of Watahantowet, and even the dressmaker’s dummy all point toward the final climax and resolution of the book. The foreshadowing provides a foundation at the beginning, even if it’s not immediately recognized as such, and it provides a symmetry at the end. It brings the story full circle.

What I’ve found interesting in my latest re-read is that some of the foreshadowing has been so subtle that it’s been invisible to me until now. I love this book — I’ve loved it from the first time I read it — but every time I re-read it, I seem to gather more meaning from it. It makes me wonder, why did I love it from the start, even when I didn’t really “get” all the cues and all the hints? Was I getting it all on a subconscious level before I got it on the conscious level? There’s no question that getting it on the conscious level is supremely gratifying, but now I wonder if getting it on a subconscious level might not be as much so, at least enough to draw me back to the book again and again. There’s so much about the makeup and operation of the subconscious that we don’t understand, but there’s no question about the strength of it and the way it leads us unerringly wherever we need to go, even if we don’t yet realize our destination.

And the best part? All this reading and thinking is giving me great ideas for foreshadowing in my WIP. I hadn’t really planned on doing much of it before, but the ideas are definitely making themselves known to me now. And they’re the kind of ideas that just seem to pop up as I’m writing, that just seem to leap onto the page on their own, as if my subconscious has taken over the keyboard. That’s when I know there might be more to the story than I realize. That’s when I know I’m not just laying down a single path, but that there are layers in the matrix that even I might not yet be aware of. That’s when I know I’ve got texture and depth in my story. That’s hitting the mother lode.

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is an eclectic, award-winning author who writes in a variety of fiction and non-fiction genres. She has been both traditionally and independently published and lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

12 thoughts on “Foreshadowing: Layers of Writing, Layers of Consciousness”

  1. In the new TV Science series The Automatic Mind they speak of the amazing abilities of the subconscious to recognize and act on stimuli long before the conscious mind becomes aware of them. I suspect those subtle hints were registered by you even if you were not consciously aware of them. I suspect that, even as writers, we inject those at times without ourselves being aware that we do so – that is aside from those we do insert consciously. The mind is such a fascinating thing.

    1. Agreed, Yvonne. I’ve found I’ve been able to do that from time to time in certain books, and it’s always a huge, very satisfying surprise. Love it when the subconscious is working 100 pages ahead of me!

  2. Great post, Melissa. I’m so happy you chose A Prayer For Owen Meany to illustrate foreshadowing because I share your love of that extraordinary book. Talk about layers of writing and layers of consciousness! You and Yvonne are talking about the phenomenon of finding some seemingly insignificant detail many pages back in your manuscript that “magically” foreshadowed just what the story needs now, at the page you’re working on, except you weren’t consciously aware of it at the time. Wouldn’t it be fabulous to hear every detail of whether and where that happened to John Irving while writing Owen Meany?

    I can’t remember where I read about theme words, but it’s similar to foreshadowing. The technique is to sprinkle words that evoke the theme of your story here and there to tickle the unconscious of the reader. Of course, you wouldn’t want to overdo it.

    Your WIP certainly sounds intriguing!

    1. Candace, I can’t imagine anything more fun than sitting down and having a conversation with John Irving. Every time I read this book, it just floors me all over again. I have no idea how he does what he does.
      And I really like that idea of sprinkling. Very interesting mechanism. I’ll have to think on that one. Thanks!

  3. I read “A Prayer for Owen Meany” right after it came out, and loved it. But about all I can remember about it now is when they parked the car on the school roof. 😀 Looks like I need to read it again…

    And I’m with Candace. I wonder how much of that was Irving seeding his narrative with these Easter-egg-like details (mixed metaphor — sorry!), and how much was his subconscious going with the theme.

    1. Easter eggs–good metaphor. I like it. And, yes, the part about the poor Volkswagon on the stage of the auditorium is hands down the funniest part of the book. I laugh so much I end up crying. Hearing the headmaster swearing a blue streak and destroying his back in the process gets me every time.

  4. I’m not a John Irving fan…but apparently, I missed an important aspect of his writing. I think I’ll try reading Owen Meany again. After all, it’s been decades. I might develop a new appreciation for the author’s novels.

    In regard to foreshadowing, I can’t imagine writing a story without employing the technique. Like Candace and Lynn, I suspect that the subconscious does most of the underlying work.

    Thanks for the post, Melissa. Now, off to find Owen Meany!

  5. I know that feeling of hitting the ‘motherlode’, Melissa, and I’m envious of the fact you’re getting it now. It is being in the ‘zone’, and it is the reason we become addicted to writing. Congratulations! Wish I were there. Oh and foreshadowing? Often the best part of any story. 🙂

    1. Thanks, A.C. After my last incomplete WIP, it’s fun and amazing to have the words flow so effortlessly, and it’s fun to figure out how much to tease with and how much to hold back. I have a feeling I’ll have to reorder some of it, but for now, I just want to get it all down as quickly as I can.

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