Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

18.34: Seventeen Years of Foreshadowing

What can Normal Gossip teach us about foreshadowing and artful storytelling? 

Thinking about the 20 books that make up Howard Tayler’s Schlock Mercenary, our hosts discuss foreshadowing—our favorite examples, and our go-to tricks for structuring our own work. What does foreshadowing actually do for our work? Do we even need it? Well, yeah… it’s like invisible narrative scaffolding. But it’s also like a red herring. It’s so many things! Listen to us discuss the best ways to use it in your own work, in a way that sounds true to your own writerly voice and vision. 


Take a throwaway gag from one of your favorite things and outline a story or scene in which the throwaway turns out to have been foreshadowing. 

Thing of the Week: 

Babel by R. F. Kuang 

Liner Notes: 

Game of Thrones, Fonda LeeFermi paradoxNormal Gossip

Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. It was produced by Emma Reynolds, recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: How can you take what you’re writing and lay good foreshadowing in it, how can you look back and edit to put good foreshadowing in, or how can you make what you’ve already written work? What are the foreshadowing tools? Use stuff that’s already on the table. Take what you’re already doing and make it intentional. Use both plot foreshadowing and emotional foreshadowing. Foreshadowing can be for red herrings, too!  Use alpha readers to find out what needs more emphasis, where to hang a lantern. Foreshadowing leads to a reveal, so make sure the pieces are in place to justify the reveal. Do you have to put foreshadowing in your work? What does foreshadowing do for us? No, not necessarily deliberately. But character drives plot, which is a form of foreshadowing. Plot, worldbuilding, character, theme, it all can contain foreshadowing, so the story makes sense. When you explain a story you are writing to someone, you stop and say, I need to explain X. That’s something to foreshadow in your writing! Genre, telling a story, plot beats, they all are kinds of foreshadowing. Plant Chekhov’s gun on plenty of mantles, and fire them as needed.

[Season 18, Episode 34]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses, Seventeen Years of Foreshadowing.

[DongWon] 15 minutes long.

[Erin] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[DongWon] I’m DongWon.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Howard] Seventeen Years of Foreshadowing. In the previous episode, we talked about me ramping up to the finale of Schlock Mercenary, and the… I think it was Mary Robinette asked the question, “When did you know what the ending was going to be? When did you know you were going to have a big ending?” There’s 17 years of foreshadowing going into the final three years of Schlock Mercenary. Because, even though I didn’t know where I was going at the very beginning, I managed to make the early stuff work. That’s part of what we want to talk about today is how to take what you’re writing and lay good foreshadowing at the very beginning, how to look back at what you’ve done and edit so that there’s good foreshadowing in it, and, when, like perhaps a web cartoonist, you don’t have the luxury to go back and edit and put in the foreshadowing, you can make what you’ve already written work. So, I’m going to pose this to our august body of…


[Howard] Of hosts. What are your favorite foreshadowing tools? How do you like to do it?

[Mary Robinette] My favorite stuff is actually using things that are already on the table. I very rarely will be writing and think, “Um. I need to put this in because I’m going to use it later. Let me foreshadow this plan that I’m going to do.” I’m much more likely to hit a point where I need to use something and then look back at stuff that I’ve already laid down, grab one of those things, and then go back and tighten it or tweak it and maybe put it in one additional place. The closest I’ve come to really… It’s probably not true, but the closest that I can think of that I’ve come to doing additional… I mean, intentional foreshadowing in the Glamorous Histories, I was like, “And then Jane uses…” And I said bracket. I was like, “And then Jane,” and I said bracket, “uses a technique of glamour that is going to become very important and plot specific later…”


[Mary Robinette] Then when I got to that point where I knew what that thing was, I came back and dropped it.

[Erin] I’d say I’m a pretty, like, instinctive whatever you call that type of writer these days, pantser or gardener or what have you. So, for me, a lot of times it’s figuring out what have I… What’s my subconscious already done, similarly, and then make it conscious. Take the things that I’m doing unintentionally and make them intentional. There’s a story that I’m working on now that involves rhyming in it, which I promise is better than it sounds, and I realized that the rhymes were happening at random times in the story. I thought, “Well, what if they happened at moments… At specific types of emotional moments?” So I wanted to have these rhymes in the story, but could they be doing more? Then, that way, when you see the rhyme, the fifth or sixth time, even if you don’t notice it on some level, you’re going to see like that means that there’s been a ramp up of emotion. So it’s less the plot foreshadowing than an emotional one, but it’s because I’m like, okay, if I’m going to do this thing, I might as well do it on purpose.

[Howard] I love that kind of micro-structuring. Absolutely love it. In the mixed mediums, cartooning is words plus pictures, there’s even more of it available. The fact that you can cant the camera a little bit to the left or a little bit to the right, and, if when a particular speaker is on, you always skew the camera just a little bit in one direction… It doesn’t have to be much, five or 6 degrees is enough. The reader probably won’t notice, but the reader’s subconscious is going to be on board with there is something about this character that weird, that’s tilted. The rhyming, a purely prose version, that’s neat.

[Mary Robinette] The other thing that I will sometimes do… I said that I rarely do foreshadowing intentionally, is that sometimes I will, when I’m writing my story stuff, I will foreshadow as a way of laying down a red herring. Because I want the reader to spot it and go, “Oh, oop. She’s foreshadowing something that’s coming up.” Then I don’t use it. Like, it’s deliberately putting the gun on the mantle with no intention of using it. So I will do that sometimes. Because I… When I am reading and I spot something where the author has put something in, and it’s very clearly foreshadowing, it can often make me frustrated, because I can… It reminds me that I’m reading in some ways.

[Howard] It can knock you out of the story because you see… You start seeing the narrative scaffolding and… You’re not supposed to see the scaffolding, you’re supposed to live in the house.

[Erin] One thing I find really interesting about foreshadowing is to me it’s a received action. So, someone has to take up what you are putting down. So, like, sometimes you think you have put so much scaffolding, you’re like, “How could anyone not notice it?” People read it and be like, “I did not notice that that one, there was doing all the work that you thought it was doing, because you understand the entire story.” So one thing that I find really fun to do about foreshadowing is to do it, and then give the story to someone and say, like, “What did you actually get?” Then adjust from there. I find personally that I read more into things like as a reader, I tend to take the tiniest things and think that they’re foreshadowing. So I write that way. It turns out that sometimes I actually need to hit a point harder than I think I needed to. So sometimes what I do is just go back and take a moment that I’m like this was the teeniest bit of foreshadowing and then like shine more of a light on it. Because, to me, it was big, but to the other people it was small. It sort of feels like when you have a crush on someone and everything they do, you think is really momentous, but they’re not noticing because it’s all in your head. It’s the writing version of that.

[DongWon] I’ve been having this problem a lot, not necessarily the crush part, but I’ve been having this problem a lot in general, which is, I’ve been doing a lot of [TDRBG?] GMing. So I’ve been running [garbled] campaigns and things like that, and I keep doing this thing where when you’re starting a campaign, all you’re doing is foreshadowing, you’re laying out a huge buffet of plot hooks really, which will be foreshadowing things later. Then my players keep looking at me and being like, “We don’t know what we’re supposed to do now.” So I think I’m having that thing of sometimes you really need to hang a lantern in a way that feels very obvious to you, the writer, that won’t necessarily feel as obvious to the reader, because he’ll be presented with so much information. Right? So putting your finger on the scale to make sure that this thing is highlighted in a certain way is such a challenge to sort of put yourself in the audiences shoes so they’re set up to receive that.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I think it’s… It is that making sure that they notice it, but walking the line between not noticing it and being predictable.

[DongWon] Yup. Exactly.

[Mary Robinette] I think one of the things that happens to the creator is… The reason it’s… Like, but it’s so obvious, is because you know the end. You know all of the intentionality behind it. The reader does not.

[DongWon] Well, this is where you can hook into pattern recognition in your readers in a really useful way. This is kind of what Erin was talking about a little bit in just… You can set up these rhyming structures, because we’ve seen heist movies before. So we know when you’re going to show the vault in a certain way, we have certain expectations of where that story’s going to go. You can leverage these story beats, these tropes, whatever you want to call them, in a way that helps you emphasize the foreshadowing that you want, and then you can either subvert our expectations in terms of the red herring that Mary Robinette was talking about or you can fulfill them in satisfying ways, and then that’ll feel, when the reader gets there, they’ll be like, “Oh. They were telling me about this 50 pages ago. That’s so satisfying.” Right? So I think a lot of when you’re starting a story, when you’re in those early stages, and maybe you do or don’t know where you want to go, but a lot of what you want to start doing is start laying out these early parts of different story patterns, and then figure out which ones you want to conclude, and pick up on, and which ones you want to like close the doors on as you go. Right? So, for me, sometimes thinking about those like little micro arcs, of like a character arc or a plot arc, can be really helpful in setting reader expectations and sort of priming the pump for them to get interested in what the eventual foreshadowing is going to result in.

[Howard] Well, the foreshadowing has to lead to a reveal. We will get to that reveal after our thing of the week.

[Mary Robinette] I want to tell you about Babel by R. F. Kuang. This book just blew me away. One of the… I listened to it in audio. I highly recommend the audio edition, which is narrated by Chris Lew Kum Hoi and Billie Fulford-Brown. It is a story of a group of young students in Victorian Oxford who are translation students. It’s a story about colonialism. It’s a story about patriarchy. It’s a story about friendship and found family. The magic system is so exciting, because the power of magic comes in the tension between words that cannot be translated into another language… Or, they can be translated, but that the process of translating, you lose some essential meaning of that. It’s just really, really delicious. One of the reasons I wanted to highlight it for you is that she does this beautiful thing where it’s this group of friends in the way they interact and behave with each other in the beginning when everything is going well foreshadows the way they are going to interact and behave with each other when things go poorly at the end. It’s just… It’s lovely because it sets up an inevitability and also is not predictable. Because you are hoping that things will go a different way. It’s a beautiful book. One of the reasons I recommend the narration, the audiobook, in particular, is because you get… There are footnotes which are part of the structure of the book. But the footnotes are read by native speakers of the languages, so you can hear how the words are actually intended to be said. So that’s Babel by R. F. Kuang.

[Howard] When I was 10 years old, I found a mystery novel and I started reading it, and immediately realized there was highlighting and handwriting all over these pages. I asked my dad what was going on. He said, “Oh, that’s one of the books that grandpa read.” Like, why did he write in the book? “Well, your grandfather loved reading these mystery novels, and every time he saw something that was a clue, he would write notes about it. He would highlight it. Because he wanted to be able to solve the mystery before the detective did.” So he was putting in this conscious effort. I want to go on the record right now and say that is not how my foreshadowing works.


[Howard] I write to the reveal. I don’t write to you figuring out the reveal. I write to the reveal. So that when a thing happens, you look at it and you say, “Oh, of course that’s what happens because there was this bit of foreshadowing.” But, to use a silly example, if the camera has panned across gasoline dripping from the bottom of an automobile, then, well, there’s going to be an explosion, and when you get the explosion, you’re like, “Oh. Because there was gasoline and whatever.” But there could also be no explosion because someone grabbed the fire extinguisher. It’s… Whatever the reveal is, I want to have the pieces in place so that it feels justified. One of the only places I can remember consciously planning ahead for a big foreshadow was, and I think it was in book 15 or book 16, I had one of the characters talking about Fermi’s Paradox. In a galactic society, where there’s… The aliens have been around us for a thousand years, what does Fermi’s Paradox even mean? Why is it even important? The answer is, well, um, galactic society should be a lot older. This galactic society is only about 40 or 50,000 years old. We are there other ones? What is happening? What is going on here? Having one character puzzling over that, and other people brushing it off, made for good comedy, but it also let me come around to, towards the end of Schlock Mercenary, coming up with my answer to Fermi’s Paradox as a way to help drive the end of the story.

[DongWon] So you could have a plot load bearing academic concepts?

[Howard] Exactly. Exactly.

[Mary Robinette] As you were talking, as we’ve all been talking, it’s actually occurred to me that we may be having some listeners out there going, “Oh, I’m not doing any of this.” So, let me ask the question, do you have to put foreshadowing in? In your work? Then that leads to the follow-up question of what does foreshadowing actually do for us?

[DongWon] I want to say that, no, you don’t have to do it in a conscious and deliberate way. But there is one aspect of this I want to touch on, and we haven’t talked about much up until this point, which is one of my favorite modes of storytelling is what I think of as character as destiny. Where, I mean, this is… Game of Thrones is very famous for this, Fonda Lee’s books do this incredibly well. There’s a mode of storytelling that’s very much about the plot is going to derive from these foibles or characteristics or essential aspects of who your characters are, and then how they’re going to interact with each other. Right? Circe wants… Loves her children, loves her family, and therefore will do anything to defend them past the point of reason. Right? We know this fact about her. So that is a form of foreshadowing in certain ways for later events when she becomes completely unhinged. Right? Over the… Spoilers, I guess… Deaths of her children. Right? Those little things that character is destiny can operate as a form of foreshadowing. So I guess my answer to your question is, no, you don’t have to have it explicitly in there in the way that we’ve been talking about in terms of like certain plot hooks, setting up certain plot beats later, but it will always kind of be there if you’ve written your characters well. Because your people… Your characters will make decisions that should make sense to the reader. Therefore, we will always have a certain satisfaction when they make choices that are true to the characters that we’ve met so far. That is, in itself, its own form of foreshadowing.

[Erin] Yeah, I think a lot of times we think of foreshadowing as such a plot…


[Erin] Specific thing. Like… It’s like a plot thing you need to do. But I actually think that all… I agree, like… Foreshadowing is kind of sense making. You help people make sense of the story. Sometimes you do that in a plot way and sometimes you do that in a worldbuilding way. Like, there is worldbuilding foreshadowing where in order for a thing to exist in your world at the end, it’s probably good for people to understand that it is like… That there is something of that in the world earlier on. Otherwise, it feels like a deus ex machina, where it’s like, “And then there were spaceships.” You’re like, “I thought we were in Lord of the Rings, so that was surprising to me.” You need to somehow… Maybe there’s wreckage of mechanics that people find along the way, and that’s a foreshadowing of its own. But I really think that foreshadowing can be… Can, I think, lead people sometimes to put too much of it into the plot, and not enough in other places. Because one of the things I sometimes I find myself doing in stories is like I figured out how to make the plot make sense, but now the characters don’t feel like they’re in that plot.

[DongWon] Right.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Erin] The characters are just being dragged along by it. They’re doing things to foreshadow the action, but their behavior hasn’t been foreshadowed, so it doesn’t seem true to the character. So I would sort of challenge folks to look for ways in which your story makes sense on every level, character, theme, world, as you move along, and not just think of foreshadowing as something that needs to move the action.

[Howard] For the discovery writer, it’s useful to point out that at some level, foreshadowing is the inevitable outcome of the syntax of a narrative. If you have a narrative in which things happen one after the other, you can look at the things that happened earlier and they are foreshadowing for the things that happened later. At some level, that’s all foreshadowing is. The larger foreshadowing, the example I gave of Fermi’s Paradox, that’s the case where I’m now working to an outline and I want to have something big happened. I wanted to be big and satisfying, so I have to do some advance planning. But if you’re discovery writing, you can probably read back through your manuscript and find foreshadowing everywhere. Because it’s a natural growth of the syntax of the narrative.

[Erin] I actually think humans are natural foreshadowers. But we do it in asides. When you’re telling a friend a story about something that’s happened to you, you will often pause midway through the story and go, “Okay, but to understand why I hate my boss, you’ve really got to think about like that time she broke the copier on purpose and I’ve never forgiven her.” Do you know what I mean? We naturally foreshadow, we just don’t do it in a very like artful way…


[Erin] Because we just stop and go like, “Now you need to know this thing.” So, sometimes I find that if you actually talk about your storytelling to other people, you will find yourself explaining the story that you’ve been writing, and then you’ll stop, and you’ll be like, “Oh, wait, the thing I didn’t explain is X.” That’s the thing that is really important to foreshadow. So, by doing it like artless Lee like to a friend over a drink, over coffee, you can actually figure out what you need to do more artfully on the page.

[DongWon] I would argue that one of the best storytelling podcast that’s out there right now, it’s a podcast that’s very popular called Normal Gossip, which is people telling gossip stories to each other about normal people. It’s not gossip about celebrities, it’s gossip about somebody you know. It’s the single most funny thing I’ve ever listened to in my life. But also, it’s so useful because it’s exactly the stuff that you’re talking about. Where each story has to be so beautifully structured and crafted to get the right feeling and rhythm of storytelling out. I love this idea of that’s… If we are always naturally foreshadowing because you want to communicate to the person that you’re talking to what kind of story are we in? Is this funny? Is this sad? How is this character relevant? What kind… So often, it’s like, well, I know that person’s going to make some chaotic choices, because you’re telling me a story about them. Right? Otherwise, this isn’t going to resolve in an ordinary, normal way. We all know it’s going to get crazy from here. So I think that’s part of the joy of a certain kind of storytelling. So, just by the fact that you are telling a story, you are foreshadowing a certain kind of elements, a certain kind of plot beats. So, in some ways when we talk about foreshadowing as an official technique, it really is just turning the dial up a little bit on some of those features. It’s intentionally ratcheting up what are already natural storytelling patterns that we all have, and that you’re already doing if you’re writing anything.

[Howard] When the next door neighbor’s gas grill explodes, and somebody says, “Y’a know, this reminds me of a story,” we are all paying attention. Because contextually, you’ve just foreshadowed something that I’m on board for. I want to start this last little bit by saying we’re probably familiar with Chekhov’s gun. I had people accuse me of using Chekhov’s gun. “Howard, in Schlock Mercenary, there are so many mantles, and so many guns, and so many… We just expect there to be gunfire all over throughout the ending.” Yeah, for my own part, I had lots and lots and lots of throwaway gags that I knew I could return to if I needed them in order to make something feel like it was inevitable.

[Howard] I have homework for you. Last week’s homework, take one of your favorite things and write a new ending. Homework this week, take a throwaway gag from one of your favorite things. Something that was only a plot point in one episode or in one book or in one scene. Right… Outline a scene in which that turns out to have been foreshadowing for something of huge dramatic import.

[Mary Robinette] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.

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