Writing Well: Foreshadow and Withhold

Writing resources often talk about foreshadowing and withholding. When we write fiction or memoir, what we tell our readers is as important as when we tell them. But how do you use these tools?

Writing Tip for Today: Let’s discuss foreshadowing and withholding in fiction or memoir.

Plant for Later

Foreshadowing is sometimes referred to as planting. The writer deliberately plants information early in a story which will be revealed later. Why foreshadow? To build tension as the story unfolds. Readers get a glimpse of something that will occur later. Foreshadowed things might not make sense to readers at the place where they read it, but later on you will reveal why you inserted the foreshadowed info.

By foreshadowing, you create a more cohesive reader experience. Although readers may not be aware of it, they are always seeking out patterns and logical reasons for why a story unfolds as it does. One classic way of foreshadowing is to set up a character(s) you won’t need until the last act of your story. Readers often dislike having new characters introduced late in the story, after they already know the cast.

By planting the character early if only briefly, readers can feel satisfied when the same character pops up late in the story. Another obvious use for foreshadowing is with mystery and thriller stories, where readers enjoy piecing together clues to guess the story outcome.

Save the Good Stuff

Withholding is foreshadowing’s opposite. When events occur in your story, you can build tension and curiosity by leaving out information which is key to the story. Withholding isn’t the same thing as lying—it’s simply delaying crucial information to keep readers searching for that clue by reading on.

If you give away important info too soon, you’ll telescope your “payoff” and risk readers disappointment. They may stop reading if a story problem feels resolved too soon. Withholding gives you the important advantage of saving the best for last.

Be careful, though. If you withhold the wrong info, readers will simply become confused. Look for the info or “payoff” of your story and work backwards. Find the “aha!” moment and save the best bit for story’s climax or end.

Plant or withhold vital info to keep readers reading.

Rate of Revelation

Both foreshadowing and withholding are tools to enhance your story’s rate of revelation. How quickly and in what circumstances you plant or withhold vital information can determine your story’s pace. Pace is directly related to how anxious your readers are to get the next bit of info.

On the surface, pace is brisk for mystery or thriller stories and less hurried in character-driven or literary stories. By foreshadowing and withholding, you regulate this pace for readers, always leading them to the edge of their seats.

Most stories require that you draft much of the story before you see where foreshadowing and withholding will best serve their purpose. Go ahead and write out your draft, then find good spots to “plant” info or remove (withhold) info that will be key to the story’s resolution.

Good writing often is accomplished in layers, and foreshadowing and withholding information are tools to employ after you see where your story is headed. Take a look at your current WIP. Are there places you need some plants or foreshadows? And can you spot areas that might benefit from withholding? These advanced writing tools could mean the difference between a so-so story and a story that readers devour.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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