Foreshadowing vs. Telegraphing
Today I thought I’d talk about an aspect of novel-crafting that I don’t see addressed very often, even though I deal with it all the time when editing novels. It’s the technique of foreshadowing and its black-sheep cousin, telegraphing.
Foreshadowing is when you purposely drop tiny hints about what’s going to happen later in the novel, to heighten the effect or the suspense. It might not even be a hint, but an image or idea that thematically relates to whatever’s going to happen later. It’s like subtle shading to plant tiny, even imperceptible, seeds in your reader’s mind.
Telegraphing is giving away too much, too soon, thereby ruining the suspense, or the impact of the event.
When you foreshadow, the reader usually doesn’t notice it when they initially read it. But later they might have an “aha” moment, remember it, and put two and two together. Often foreshadowing can’t even be detected until someone reads your novel for a second time. It’s that subtle.
But telegraphing works the opposite. The reader notices the telegraphing detail, groans, and predicts what’s going to happen. It takes the fun out of reading a novel. Envision the important event, or piece of information that your reader’s going to learn, like a balloon. Telegraphing is like letting some of the air out of the balloon ahead of time, so when the time comes for the “pop” you get a fizzle instead.
Often when I mark a manuscript with the note, “Delete – telegraphing” the writer will respond, “I was trying to foreshadow.” It can be tricky to know the difference between the two. If you’re trying to foreshadow, ask yourself if there’s any chance the reader could begin to guess what you’re hinting at. If so, then you’re probably telegraphing. Make it more subtle.
Better yet, always decide carefully whether foreshadowing is even necessary. Are you sure you need it to heighten the tension? It’s a device to use carefully.
As an example: I was working with a client recently on a novel in which the hero is eventually going to fall in love with the heroine. At the beginning of the novel, he has been corresponding long-distance with her, but he thinks she is an elderly lady. Part of the surprise the reader looks forward to is him finding out she’s his age, opening up the possibility of a relationship.
The author included an early scene in which the hero is having a conversation with his sister about the letters between him and the lady in question. The sister asks him how he can be so sure that she’s an old woman. He responds by listing all the evidence on which he has based his assumption. I told the writer to strike that whole conversation because it was telegraphing. I don’t want the hero to have any reason whatsoever to question his assumption, because that will ruin it when he finally finds out the truth. The author’s intent was to foreshadow, but in this case it was telegraphing. Further, foreshadowing wasn’t even needed. The situation has enough tension inherent in it—the reader is already looking forward to the hero discovering the truth about the heroine.
Remember, when you’re trying to foreshadow, do it carefully and make sure to avoid crossing the line into telegraphing.
I’ll try to answer questions about foreshadowing, but be aware this is one of those devices about which it’s difficult to generalize. I probably can’t answer questions about your manuscript or specific “what if” questions. But if you have a general question, throw it out there.
Photo from pixdaus.com.
Thanks for the good definition! I came here because I was accused to telegraphing by a friend who was reading a comedy piece of mine.You can exploit the trope though – I threw in a twist that subverted the telegraphed information with the best joke. Everything can be used for good!
[…] November 3, 2009: Agent Rachelle Gardner has an interesting post on foreshadowing on her blog […]
Hmm, it’s interesting that most people seem to like surprise endings. Kurt Vonnegut always advocated the opposite–telegraphing over foreshadowing so that the reader CAN predict the ending.
According to him, “Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.”
I read his book, Galapagos, in which he constantly telegraphs more and more of the ending, but he does it masterfully in a way that actually builds up the suspense. At first, it seems like just a bunch of normal people taking a boat ride to the Galapagos, but the ending that he foreshadows is so shockingly incongruous with any reader expectations that the reader is eager to see the seemingly random dots connected.
I guess it really depends on how telegraphing is used: in the hands of a novice, it can ruin the suspense of the story, but in the hands of a master, it actually builds suspense more effectively than foreshadowing because the reader is completely aware that something amazing or terrible is going to happen but has absolutely no idea how it’s going to happen, keeping him/her reading.
>Just to throw out something random – and I loved this posting by the way – I'm struggling with revealing the main event of my book in a pitch as I feel like its telegraphing before an agent/publisher has even had a chance to read it and get hooked in to find out the big secret and its resolution!
P.S my comments might be getting a bit messy now with this kitten on my lap nuzzling away. Sorry 🙂
>I think you have ESP and are able to get into my mind! So often you post about something I am struggling with that very day or week.
Thanks for this. I was not familiar with those terms and was struggling because I thought I had to drop red herrings. I was confused.
I know readers sometimes get mad when they are totally caught off guard and thought I had to leave little hints. I see now that those need to be doled out very carefully. I'll be more subtle. Off to edit.
>Hi from Turkey, Rachelle. (That's the country, not a nickname for myself. 😉 This article reminded me of the old Tom Hanks movie You've Got Mail. If the screenwriter had given Meg Ryan any reason to suspect that the mysterious email friend with whom she had fallen in love was also her #1 business competitor, then the ending would have fallen flat. Stories are much more satisfying when the elements of wonder and surprise are maintained rather than spoiling the conclusion via unnecessary tips.
Another problem concerning overcommunication is unnecessary explanations. Not every little association requires explanation to make sure the reader "gets it." Readers can figure out a lot of connections on their own, and actually prefer doing so rather than being spoon-fed too much information.
>GAH!! I hate it when things are SO obvious I can figure it all out. Didn't know it had a name, but still know it's not a good thing.
Thanks for the explanation. I have something planted in the beginning of my WIP that I think *may* be a little on the telegraphing side. I'll have to revisit it.
>Excellent information, Rachelle. I find that my foreshadowing happens unintentionally. I know that sounds crazy, but I look back over my work and go, "Oh, I had no idea I put that there." But, then again, my stories always surprise me. Seems my subconcious knows more than my brain does!
>Thank you for this entry.
I've struggled with the telegraph vs. foreshadow thing, but I didn't have the word "telegraph" (which is exactly the right word for it!) to help me distinguish between the two. But it's the perfect word! I knew exactly what you meant when you used it, even though I had been fuzzy on "when is foreshadowing not the right thing to do" originally.
>Typo – should be crucifix. Sorry 🙂
>Good point about overdoing the foreshadowing. I wouldn't have thought that this conversation would be too much as it only raises questions. But I guess it does dilute the surprise of that satisfying outcome.
Foreshadowing is important and can be tricky. I've got a sticky point in a children's novel where I want to not introduce a Christian topic until a conversation right at the end. I thought of having the girl attend a Catholic school and wearing a crucific on a gold chain to sort of build minor hints along the way. But the novel is a fantasy involving the merfolk so not sure if I've succeeded here.
>I think the thing with prophecies in books is that the suspense comes from the way they come true–and it isn't usually in the way you'd expect. I can remember Gillian Bradshaw using one as a brilliant subtext for The Beacon at Alexandria.
>Talking about prophecy: does anyone know of anybody whose predictions always come true in our world today? What does Timothy Fish think?
>Talking about prophecy: does anyone know of anybody whose predictions always come true in our world today? What does Timothy Fish think?
>SO helpful, esp for us mystery/suspense writers. Speaking of, can you describe the differences between a cozy, soft-boiled and hard-boiled mystery and thriller in a future post? Which genre do most publishers prefer (i.e. What's hot/selling now?)?
Also maybe in the future you can talk about the use or over-use of similies and metaphors…and the right way and time to add them. Thanks for all the great advice!
You may be right. Half the fun of a prophecy is trying to guess the quibble. But then that raises a question about telegraphing in general. Is the issue that we are letting the readers know what’s going to happen too soon, or is the issue that we are developing an adequate twist?
Suppose we began our story with the very blatant telegraphing statement, “This is the story of how I died.” (As I recall, Dr. Who began an episode like that.) If all we do is tell the story of a dying man, that would be boring, but the reader knows better than to expect that. Instead, the reader expects and demands that we provide a significant twist. If we turn it around, so that death isn’t death or some such thing, then the reader leaves us satisfied.
>Oh, the subtle hints I've crossed out! Good post. I'm about as subtle in real life as a… well, I'm also very bad with similes.
>Wow! Rachelle that is really some good information. I'm new to writing and enjoy writing. I went back to a novel that I'm writing to see if I am foreshadowing. To my surprise that is what I am doing in parts of my novel.
Thanks for all your info and insight to writing.
>Rachelle, thanks for this discussion.
I'm wondering, is it possible to differentiate between foreshadowing and telegraphing, at least in part, based on what the readers don't or do already know?
In the example you gave, it sounded as if the readers already knew the to-be love interest was the same age as the protag; only he did not know. It seems to me "foreshadowing" her age when readers already know it would be redundant.
I just finished a historical, though, which had a key plot point I saw coming well in advance, and I don't know what tipped me off. Because I saw it coming, some earlier tension was less so, and the big reveal was only mildly satisfying since I'd seen the event coming.
Wish I understood what gave it away.
>Thank you! Telegraphing is a good word for it. And you're right…hardly anyone addresses foreshadowing.
Re: prophecies, I don't think it's the same thing. Prophecies create a totally different kind of suspense that foreshadowing — usually due to the character(s) (and readers) not wanting it to come true and/or it coming true in a way no one expects.
>Good afternoon Rachelle,
Telegraphing is also a flaw in ice skating performances. Regardless of the venue in which it happens, the results are that other people know in advance what will happen and that knowledge is not what the performer desires. I wonder what we "telegraph" in our personal lives?
>Cranky Old Cat Lady–I apologize if you somehow got the impression in my post that I was focused on writers knowing editorial terms. I was trying to focus on helping you learn how to be the best writer you can. Sorry if I was unclear.
Knowing the terms isn't the most important thing. But that doesn't mean it's completely unimportant. This post grew out of an interaction with a client whose manuscript I edited. I asked her to strike a passage because it was telegraphing. She didn't know what telegraphing was, and I explained it to her in the same way I did in this post. With that new knowledge, she can move forward understanding that she has a tendency to telegraph, and to watch for it in her writing. And now she has a name for it. It wasn't a big deal that she didn't know it, but now that she does, she can be more aware of it.
I think if you want to be a published author, your life is going to be much easier if you actually understand what your editor is talking about. What I'm trying to do here is, day by day, little by little, give you the tools to be the most informed and effective writer you can. Being able to converse intelligently with editors is part of that.
Timothy Fish–You can feel free to comment in any way you please. I've already been to kickboxing class today and am no longer feeling particularly combative.
You're right. These aren't topics that are addressed very often.
>Excellent post Rachelle,
I have never seen the distinction between the two explained so clearly.
I've been enjoying your blog for some time now and this is my first comment.
Sarah had asked for examples of effective forshadowing.
I've just been reading the classic novel Jane Eyre by Charolette Bronte. I was not familiar with the story before and did not guess the plot twists.
It is the first time in a long time that, even though I knew there was a mystery, I wasn't being told too much.
However, it could be that I was concentrating so much on discerning the language that I missed it.
Thanks for your helpful instruction and ideas.
>I'd never actually thought about this before, so thanks.
>Helpful comments. In my WIP, the main character has changed professions because he was suspended from his first job. I'm toying with the idea of not revealing the earlier job until a third of the way through the story, but foreshadowing it along the way. Looks like it could be a tricky process.
>Thanks so much Rachelle! This is incredibly relevant for me and very practically useful. It's so helpful having clear guidelines like this. Thank you for taking the time to blog these kinds of things! God bless
>Thanks for posting on this topic, Rachelle. It looks like a number of us had not heard this term before. Excellent advice!
Timothy – ever had a conversation with a teenage girl? Good luck on getting a summary statement first followed by details. And asking for the main point any time before the climax or even what genre a story it is.
Cranky – you may want to know what the term means if your critique group or your editor tells you you're doing it. Better yet to know what it is and avoid it. And hey, what writer isn't up for broadening their vocabulary?
>What I'm curious to know is – does it matter if I know what the "technical term" for it is? Or is it enough that I know, instinctively or by another name, that I shouldn't do it?
Sometimes I feel a bit peeved that writers are expected not only to be fantastic writers but also completely down with the lingo of the business/craft. Not everyone has an MFA degree, but they can still be excellent writers.
>This really hit home to me. I've been guilty of telegraphing, but I never knew it had that name. And yes, I thought I was foreshadowing, too.
>Great post! IMHO, I think it's better not to try to foreshadow at all. A writer's natural foreknowledge of what lies ahead in the plot of her novel will lead to certain subtle types of foreshadowing, such as symbolism and setting details. For example, at one point early in the manuscript I just finished, I describe how bare trees stretch out their arms like beggars. This detail is linked to what will later happen in a different setting, but it's not exactly foreshadowing. Deliberate foreshadowing almost always slides into telegraphing.
Even symbolic foreshadowing can become comical, such as the dramatic discovery of a dead bird on one's doorstep in a murder mystery. 😉 We can't underestimate the intelligence of our readers.
>Very useful to keep in mind, Rachelle. Thanks!
I find that my first drafts have lots of telegraphing (or, as I call it, beating the reader over the head with it). In second and third drafts one of my jobs is to yank that stuff out or tone it way down.
>Thanks, Rachelle, I've never heard this topic addressed like this before. Very helpful information to keep in mind!
>This may get me strung up by my toes, but to argue the other side, in light of M@’s comment, it isn’t always a bad thing to provide a summary paragraph and then follow that with an explanation of the details. We often tell stories like that. We come home with the steering wheel in our hands and we say, “I totaled the car.” The other person then asks, “What happened?” Only then do we provide the details of how as we were driving downtown we turned a corner and off in the distance we say an old man holding a balloon, etc., etc., etc. It’s an effective storytelling method because it gives the listener or reader a reason to listen. It’s a method that God uses in the Bible. Open your Bible to page one and you’ll find the words, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.”  It is after that when we get the details. But then he does it again. He tells about creating man in chapter one, but it isn’t until chapter two when we get the details.
While it will certainly kill suspense, it is often a good idea to give the reader a reason to read the book or a section of the book before we jump right into the story. Few readers will read a book if they don’t have an idea of what the book is about. So, I would argue that leading with the payoff for a chapter can be a good thing.
>M@ — Yes, you're right. Actually the "soon her family would be dead and her world changed forever" approach used to be fashionable in early suspense and mystery novels, maybe 40 years ago or so. A lot of writers still use it to try and grab the reader's attention and heighten the suspense. In my opinion it's a shortcut and it's lazy.
But as we all know, it doesn't matter what "writing tips" are given, we can all find hundreds of examples of published books that don't follow them. We can also find plenty of examples of published books that don't fit our definition of good writing. Oh well.
>Foreshadowing is truly an art form. Although, I have read novels where I knew of plot spoilers from the back jacket and waited impatiently for the characters to get into gear. What do you think of too much info on the jacket blurb? Does the writer have control over that?
>:) Granted — but that was only meant as an obvious example. The approach itself has somehow become fashionable with beginning writers, as far as I've seen, and I don't know why. (I'm wondering if a popular book or series is at fault, but if so I don't know which one.)
>M@ — "Little did she know" is not just telegraphing, it's Really Bad Writing worthy of a serious groan and possibly even a toss across the room.
@Rachelle: “Little did she know” is actually used extensively by Vonnegut in Galápagos. At least several dozen times. But Vonnegut manages to pull it off so that instead of making the novel boring, it actually makes it more suspenseful and believable. After reading the novel, I realized that it was actually necessary because the ending is so extraordinary and inconceivable that without revealing these things in advance, the reader would fall into a state of shock at the apparent ridiculousness of the ending. However, since the narrator is telling the story from the point of a “ghost” existing a million years into the future, so he sees the big picture and significance of the events of 1986.
>Your post brings home the necessity of enlisting new readers for my WIP. A critique group is great, but writers who are readers tend to notice even the most subtle foreshadowing.
I know that after several years of working on my craft, the business of reading has changed for me. Unless a writer is particularly skilled, I tend to guess where the plot is going, which tarnishes the experience.
For my YA novel, I'm enlisting the help of a middle-school English teacher to form a reading group to give me feedback. Having readers who have never been exposed to the storyline should enable me to see where my manuscript needs tightening.
>Another work-shop grade keeper. I've caught myself hinting with a capital Duhhh more than once. Thanks.
>Rachelle, I'm preparing to write my first novel, after two children's books and a memoir. Your last two posts have really helped in my pre-writing thoughts. And I feel suddenly green, but I've never heard of telegraphing. It's so good to be aware of these negative elements that sometimes slip into our work, unintentionally or not.
>Can I take this opportunity to rant a little about a blatant form of telegraphing that I've seen a lot of writers do lately? It's the little narrator statements, like this:
Little did she know, soon her family would be dead and her world changed forever.
Perplexingly, these things are usually thrown out in the early parts of a book, before the action really begins — completely sabotaging the piece and annoying the reader (well, me) to no end.
I'm not sure where this comes from but I keep seeing it. Now I have a name for it and a post to send people to that will explain why they shouldn't do it. Thanks!
>Rachelle, you're right. I've never read anything that addressed this so specifically. I tell my basketball team not to telegraph their passes so I'm familiar with the concept, but had never heard it used in contrast with foreshadowing. Thanks for the insight.
>Thanks for this explanation, Rachelle. I'd never heard the term telegraphing before. It seems similar to the concept of resisting the urge to explain. They're both about trusting the reader, and that can be hard for us writers who want to spell out our brilliant ideas. 🙂
>Thanks, Rachelle. I was just struggling with this idea in my first draft, so this is incredibly helpful information.
>Here's a general foreshadowing question:
Who are some authors that you think use foreshadowing well? Any specific example?
>Thanks, Rachelle. This is excellent advice with good examples to show us exactly what you mean. This is a topic I often wonder about as I am writing…so that makes it very timely and helpful for me.
>I think that's the single hardest thing about writing for me, although I haven't had the word "telegraphing" for the dark side of foreshadowing, so thank you for that! When you know what you're going to write next, *everything* feels like telegraphing and foreshadowing slides as easily into radio silence as telegraph. I'd LOVE any tips you have on how authors might spot the right gradient in their own work. I've basically given up trying to police it myself and rely on my critique partner, which seems a little unfair.
>Very much enjoyed this writing lesson and the example. Thanks.
Richard, loved the "bread crumbs."
>Great post and much-needed reminder. I'm scurrying off to my WIP to see if I've foreshadowed, telegraphed, or just dropped a trail of bread crumbs.
>Great stuff here. I hadn't heard of that yet. Make sense.
>I'm totally aware of this but, wow, I think sometimes as an author it's difficult to know for sure which one it is, because we're so intimately close to the book.
I'm thinking specifically to a few times I used it in my books, once with a stalker, but whereas I kinda figured the reader might guess who it is, I hoped to keep just a wee bit of doubt in their mind until the black moment happened.
Hmmm, things to think about!
>Wow, Rachelle! I've actually never heard the term "telegraphing." But as a reader, I sure know when I'm on the receiving end! Thanks for this great and practical post. I can apply it, starting today….
>Loved today's lesson. Thanks.
>So, what do you think of prophecy? Foreshadowing it one thing, but prophecies always come true. They would seem to be an example of telegraphing, but whole stories have been built around prophecies or what is seen as the destiny of the characters.
>This is a really helpful post. I'm not sure I've heard anything on telegraphing before. Very interesting, and now it makes me want to run and check my wip. LOL
>Great topic, Rachelle, and very timely for me. Thanks.
>This is great information! I literally just got done writing some dialogue that I'm going to go back tomorrow and adjust.
I hate it whenever I pick up clues in a book that basically spoil the ending. It really does ruin the book. I like when the author tricks me. I'm trying to master the art of subtle red herrings.
>Thanks that's great. I'm gonna link to this from my blog! I have to confess if you had said "don't telegraph" to me I would have replied "What the?" I'd never heard these terms before, though of course I recognize the ideas. Great post!
>This is really helpful! Thanks – great topic I don't see addressed much – I like your points here alot.