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PREINFORCE: the Proper Care and Feeding of a Good Foreshadow -- by John Berkowitz


Okay, I'll admit I'm trying to up my cred as a children's author by inventing my own word. Spread it around.

PREINFORCE. It means foreshadowing. Only, the thing is, "foreshadow" isn't actually very descriptive or evocative of it's function. I just feel like, as writers, our own tools ought to embody our art, and not simply be flowery. Amiright?

So. Russian author Anton Chekov is famous for having said, "If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there." The point he was trying to illustrate is basically don't put anything in your story that does not eventually serve a purpose. This concept is known widely as "Chekov's Gun."

In broad strokes, this is an excellent rule.  But Chekov was talking about plays, not novels. In novels, writers often add a line of dialogue or a sentence of description simply to evoke a mood or to create a beat in the pacing.  There will inevitably be things mentioned in a novel that are never revisited.  Particularly in this age of writing in anticipation of the eventual sequel.

The other thing about this kind of thinking is that it occasionally leads a writer to make up a reason to justify something they really like earlier in their book, just so they can keep it. I'm not too proud to admit that this exact kind of thinking led to the villain in my and my daughter's WIP.

But this is not actually the same thing as foreshadowing. The art of foreshadowing requires a skill for thinking backwards every bit as much as thinking forward. In fact, to be really effective, the actually event you are foreshadowing should be fully established in all its glorious minutia before you go back and sprinkle in all of the supporting details. The process of adding in those details on a later pass is what I call "preinforcing." Like all good words, it means precisely what it sounds like -- you are reinforcing in advance. Burying clues along the way that do not look like clues.

That's the difference between foreshadowing and preinforcing. With foreshadowing, a writer puts something in their story in anticipation of a later event which has not yet been written. Or, as I've already talked about, they put in something that they later decide to expand upon. Preinforcing, on the other hand, is deliberately preparing your reader to properly experience an event you've already written.

How does one do this?  Well, the fact that all of the details are already in place makes it much easier to be subtle. Foreshadowing before you've written the later scene must necessarily be done in broad strokes. Whereas going back and seeding subtle details is really only possible when the tiny details have been established. Then, you can evoke a mood or a color or a scent early on which will fit in so smoothly that it never suggests it is planted to foreshadow some future event.

In our WIP, our main character discovers in chapter 15 that she is descended from trolls. One of the qualities of pure-blood trolls is that sunlight turns them to stone. Having established that, I went back and preinforced this by giving her a sunburn and flaky skin, which she is still experiencing when she puts 2 and 2 together. I preinforced that by having her forget to put on sunscreen and worrying about her skin in the previous scene. And I preinforced that by having her mother tell her not to forget sunscreen because she burns so easily, way back in chapter 1. In every one of these cases, those little bits of additional information fit perfectly into the tone, mood, and pacing of the moment. In the middle scene, she has decided on the spur of the moment to sneak out of the house, hop on her bike, and ride across town to confront her nemesis. On the way, she realizes that in her haste she forgot to put on sunscreen and on top of everything else she's going to have to deal with a sunburn. Later, when she is depressed because things did not go well, she sullenly scratches her sunburned arm and notices the flaky skin. So when she starts to pile up the evidence that she is troll-born, her sensitivity to sunlight has already been well and subtly established. It is not something that had been presented early in the story like a pistol displayed on the wall.

The best foreshadowing is the kind you never see coming. And to achieve that, you have to set it up carefully and deliberately. You can do it in advance, but to do it with finesse it is usually better to go back and add it.

Say it with me: "Preinforce." Spread the word.

Posted by John Berkowitz 13 Mar 2017 at 01:12
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Responses to this blog

Hijo 13 Mar 2017 at 21:47  
I didn't see that coming.
Jberkowitz 13 Mar 2017 at 22:34  
I see what you did, there.
Catesquire 14 Mar 2017 at 22:16  
Well of course. It all makes sense in retrospect.
Jberkowitz 14 Mar 2017 at 22:23  
I knew you were going to say that.
Paulpowell 17 Mar 2017 at 18:33  
Engaging and clear piece of writing. Enjoyable.

Final paragraph needs to be broken up into chunks though. It's a wall o' text. I wish it was the same 'size' as the preceding ones.

Onward: the concept introduced by the writer is 'sturdy' enough as far as it goes. No quibble with it. Decent topic for a blog posting.

I might only say this: foreshadowing in itself is something most beginning writers don't recognize the true importance of; and they often write a lot of their initial projects without it. When they finally do grasp foreshadowing, it's easy to be daunted by it. They handle it nervously, tentatively.

So I'd worry that they continue to struggle with this fundamental more than I would worry about them learning a new wrinkle. Is there a way to teach foreshadowing? I don't know of any. The way it was brought home to me was accidentally, via a random book on stagecraft wherein the author happened to harp on it. Word-of-mouth recommendation. And I needed to read the entire primer before I felt I grasped it. Now I see it as my #2 or #3 priority in practically every scene. What would today's creative writing landscape look like if everyone was as familiar with foreshadowing as they were with spelling?

Just my impressions here, of course. Ruminating aloud, as it were.

Paul Powell, Pool Player

Joelong 20 Mar 2017 at 23:39  
I occasionally go back to add details such as this, but I prefer to outline enough so that I know what's coming.

My outline starts with the major points and gets more granular as I get closer to writing it, but I have all the major plot points and most of the scenes worked out ahead of time. Each event is on a logical thread - there are things that must precede it, and there are things that happen later because of it. When I imagine an event I like to work out the whole thread. Even if I'm not to a particular scene yet, if the characters decide to start acting it out in my head I'll write at least a rough draft and save it for later.

When I start writing a scene, even when I already know what's supposed to happen, I take a little time to rethink what the scenes means - how will it be important to the story. I know the future story arc. I know how the characters will be changing for better or worse. I know the secrets that lie beneath the text. Therefor I have lists of things that need to be touched on.

This approach works best with a good outline. Folks who pants it won't have as much knowledge of upcoming events and will have to spend more time going back to edit what's already been written. I've found it easier to plan ahead than to rewrite the past.

For example - I'm doing a coming of age teen romance. She's the only girl on her high school cross country team. Her mom and the protagonist come to her first home meet. There's another guy on the team who's gawking at her. It's the first time he's mentioned, and he will feature prominently in chapter nearly two months in the future. This is the point where I have to start developing his character. Originally I had the mother notice him and have a negative reaction, which her daughter concurred with. Later I thought it would be better for Mom to think he's good looking and suggest him to her daughter.

“He's kind'a cute.”

Hannah shivered. “He's a dork. That's all he does is look. Creeps me out.”

“Sounds like he's shy. Maybe you should just go talk to him sometime.”

“No, mom!"

There's a little more, but it was hard. All the original actions and dialogue were woven together that each would logically lead into one another. Changing mom's reaction from negative to positive upset the balance that had been crafted - but I worked it out. I wanted to change it to allow me to later have the daughter say, "I can't believe my mom is encouraging him. She's even gone over and talked to him." which better sets up the climax of that thread in the way it develops the conflict.

Lliddiard 10 Apr 2017 at 10:33  
I needed this. I'm writing a novel in which "Preinforce" is such an important part of the story that if I don't do it right, the whole story is shot. I had to step away from it because I was hitting a brick wall. I see now I need to write that last scene where the secret is revealed and then go back and leave little crumbs of information preinforcing that scene. Excellent article.
Trevose 8 May 2017 at 02:11  
Good blog. I find that in editing my WIP I spend as much time on this as I do anything else. Though your examples is a good one, I think we can take it one step further by ensuring many of the "preinforced" realizations hit at the same time for the biggest impact. It is analogous to what is known in the military as a "Time on Target" mission. That is, different weapon systems with different delivery times are initiated at different times so that they all arrive on target at the same instance to have the biggest effect. Wikipedia has a simple but effective graphic. That is one tactic I try in my storytelling on occassion. It takes a lot of thought, though, to keep the pace up and not seem to ramble while placing all the landmines...all the preinforcing.

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