Foreshadowing vs. Telegraphing

Earlier today, while working on my WIP (work in progress for you non-writers out there), I got to thinking about the difference between foreshadowing and telegraphing. Although they’re both writing devices in which an author sets up something that will be fulfilled later, foreshadowing is a much more subtle use of this device. Telegraphing, to me, is more like the writer jumping up and down and pointing to the Important Thing to be sure the reader sees it.

What started me thinking about foreshadowing was when I wrote the following paragraph:

Adja sat placidly enough wedged between Austin and Noah. If she got it into her head to take off while we were joined, I wasn’t sure if we’d notice. The doors were locked again. Hopefully that would be enough to stop her.

Without going into the plot of my WIP, suffice it to say it would be very bad if the character, Adja, left while the other characters were otherwise occupied. The reader already knows that at this point in the book. But these two sentences:

If she got it into her head to take off while we were joined, I wasn’t sure if we’d notice. The doors were locked again. Hopefully that would be enough to stop her

are me announcing to the reader that Adja is going to leave and dire things will ensue. Totally on the nose, subtext free. No subtlety at all. This, to me, is telegraphing, not foreshadowing. Which left me with two choices.

1) Leave it as is, but Adja stays. The reader will be relieved (although faintly disappointed). Then wham, I hit the reader with something far more terrible that’s a consequence of Adja staying.

2) Adja does leave, but delete the second and third sentence.

When I wrote that paragraph, I hadn’t planned whether Adja would leave or stay, so I left it there and continued on. But as I continued to write the scene, I realized that Adja should leave. So I went with option (2). I rewrote it this way:

We all piled into the Caddy, me behind the wheel, Tariq next to me, Lisette by the window. Emily, Austin and Noah sat in the back seat, the boys flanking Adja. She sat placidly enough wedged between them.

It’s kind of “housekeeping” paragraph that describes where the characters are all arranged in the car. A little mundane, but it reminds the reader that Adja is in the car with the other characters.

But this mention of Adja also foreshadows. By now the reader knows the other characters won’t be able to keep track of Adja while they’re “joining.” When reminded of Adja, the reader will start worrying that she might leave and the other characters won’t notice until it’s too late. Foreshadowing gets me to the same goal–setting up Adja’s departure–as telegraphing would. But the more subtle foreshadowing accomplishes a more important goal–it raises the reader’s anxiety level, which will hopefully keep her turning pages.

Of course, this is a first draft, so it’s hard to say if the paragraph will survive unedited. But even if it doesn’t, it was a very nice aha moment for me. Often, the lighter (and more subtle) the hand, the more compelling the result.

About karensandler

Lover of chocolate. A couple felines short of full-fledged Cat Lady. Author of the YA Tankborn Trilogy (TANKBORN, AWAKENING, and REBELLION), from Tu Books. Founding team member of We Need Diverse Books. Opinions expressed here are my own.
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2 Responses to Foreshadowing vs. Telegraphing

  1. Audrey says:

    I am curious to know what this joining is! And thanks for writing this little post. I’ve been worrying about telegraphing v. foreshadowing while I write, and it’s good to know that other people worry about it too. I liked how you changed the paragraph. I think that since I’m still working on my first draft of my book that that’s something I’ll worry about afterwards. I’ll just need to put it on my checklist of things to look out for in the revision.

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