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A Quick Look at Literary Devices: Foreshadowing and Red Herrings

As a writer, foreshadowing is one of the most powerful tools in your arsenal. You can use it to reward savvy readers, make promises to your readers, and lead them astray.

Spoiler warnings for "Mistborn" by Brandon Sanderson, and "Game of Thrones" the T.V. series adaptation of George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire."

Almost every novel has some form of foreshadowing that hints at what is to come. Sometimes these hints are apparent. Other times, you won't recognize a certain passage foreshadowed an event until after finishing a novel, or on your second read-through. This is another component of foreshadowing that makes it an effective tool: It adds re-readability to a book and makes the author look more clever than they really are. What do I mean?

Once a draft is complete, and the author has the whole story in front of them, they enter into the editing phase. This is when big and small changes are made and mistakes are fixed. It's also a great time to add foreshadowing to earlier chapters in the book. Or, if you want to keep readers guessing, add red herrings (false hints that lead readers astray.)

A famous example of foreshadowing (spoiler warning!) is:

Vin's earring in the novel "Mistborn" by Brandon Sanderson. Her little stud of a bronze earring is mentioned multiple times throughout the trilogy's narrative. It's mentioned so often, and so off-handedly, that it blends into the character of Vin. It's just her earring. No, no it's not! It's actually a magical connection between her and the main antagonist of the story who has slowly been manipulating the world and leading the characters along by their noses--through metallic magic. The beauty of Sanderson's foreshadowing is that, sometimes, you don't even realize it is foreshadowing until your second read-through. I won't say more than that because it is probably my favorite instance of foreshadowing in a story, and the novels are well worth a read.

Why kill all the mystery?

A famous example of red herrings is:

Red Herring from the show "Scooby Doo." No, really. The character is a living, breathing, illustration of the literary device he's named after. Now, the joke is obvious and, usually, only Fred and the gang actually think Red had anything to do with a crime, but the point of the character is to misdirect. My knowledge of Scooby doo is limited, but I'm sure there were episodes where Red Herring was the real villain all along. As a writer, it seems like too good of an opportunity to pass up.

Why not add a dash of suspense?

A final example of both foreshadowing and red herrings is:

The Azor Ahai prophecy from "Game of Thrones." Throughout the story, several characters display the qualities of the prophesized savior. Not only does this foreshadow the coming of said savior, but it provides the opportunity to hide that savior within a group of red herrings and keep the audience guessing. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the writers for the t.v. adaptation, leveraged the prophecy in order to keep their audience wondering, who is the chosen one? Is there a chosen one? This kept their audience engaged--it kept them talking. Part of the global phenomenon that was Game of Thrones is the fact that people couldn't shut up about it! There are groups of people who regularly convened for the sole purpose of discussing their Game of Thrones theories. And there are many. The Azor Ahai prophecy is just the tip of the Game of Thrones iceberg. The author of the novels, George R.R. Martin, sowed seeds throughout the narrative in order to keep people turning page after page of his behemoth-sized tomes.

I hope you enjoyed my look at foreshadowing and red herrings. Learning how to use them will help you keep your readers engaged, and keep them guessing. It's another powerful tool to add to your repertoire as a writer. One that we should all be utilizing.

Good luck with your projects!

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