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Show me the Story!

Updated: Nov 15, 2020

Tips on how to show and not tell your reader the plot, aka foreshadowing made simple-er

You may have had a few lessons on how to "show and not tell" within a scene, but today I want to talk about showing not telling on a larger, plot size scale.

This element of writing came to my attention several summers ago. I had proofread some stories for several friends, written the first draft of a novel, listened to two audio books and started on a third. And everywhere I went, this element kept showing up.

Foreshadowing is something we often think of as a way to: build suspense, interest in a story, movement and continuity of story line. But Foreshadowing is also a crucial step in how to “show not tell”.

An author and writing mentor named K.M. Weiland said:

“The point of foreshadowing is to prepare readers for what happens later in the story. Not tell them, just prepare them.

Usually, the earlier you can foreshadow an event, the stronger and more cohesive an effect you will create. The bigger the event, the more important it is to foreshadow it early.

As Editor Jeff Gerke puts it:

“Basically, you need to let us in on the rules. If the climax of your book is going to consist of getting into a time machine and jumping away to safety, we had better have known in the first fifty pages that time travel is possible in the world of your story.”

Case(s) in Point

In one of the books I proof read that summer, I came to a part in the story where the love interest had gotten the protagonist a very specific gift, and the protagonist started to cry when she saw it. I could tell this was meant to be a very emotionally impactful moment, but as the reader I was totally in the dark.

Then, in the middle of the moment, the author stopped to explain that when the protagonist was younger, that very same gift had been given to the protagonist to console her.

Having the narrator explain that back story was necessary to deliver the impact of the gift. However, stopping mid moment to explain this, completely pulled the reader out of the emotional experience. If there had previously been reference to her past gift, the moment with the secondary gift would not only have been self-explanatory, but would've kept its potency.

That moment you realize you just made the same mistake as the last guy

Shortly after, I was working on my own story, when I stumbled into making the same mistake.

I had just written an emotionally profound moment for my character, then right after that scene, wrote a flashback, trying to show why that moment hurt my protagonist so deeply.

Once I was done, I realized that while I loved the flashback , if I cut it into small segments and sprinkled it throughout the beginning of the story (like clues to a mystery), then, when I delivered the big reveal, it would need no explanation. This would allow the reader to experience the moment as raw as it was happening for the protagonist without me getting in the way.

It is a normal part of first drafting (especially with discovery writing) to have the story unfold for the author this way. And as the author, during a first draft DO NOT try to fix it right then! Just let the words flow!!!

BUT as you polish your draft (hopefully many, many times), make sure you go back and rework it into the build up and set up of the story.

Look for ways to foreshadow your emotionally impactful moments. Make sure that when they hit, you've already shown the reader why this would impact your characters and you will not need to stop and tell the reader why.

A really good example of this principle was in one of the books I listened to that summer:

Michel Vey

The Prisoner of Cell 25

The protagonist, Michael, has a friend named Ausitn. Whenever Austin is featured, he is always eating, snacking or hones in on something with food. When a climactic moment arrives and Austin says,

“No, Micheal, this is more important than food.”

It hits like a bucket of ice water to the face, saying to both the reader and Michael; Listen up! Whatever he's about to say is world changing important!!!


How do you Foreshadow effectively?

At a conference I attended, Annette Lyon spoke about Macro (big picture) showing. She said that is where Characters are revealed by what they consistently:



-React to (and how they react to it)

-Value (what are their motivations?)

K.M. Weiland said:

“When you insert a hint of what’s to come, look at it critically and decide whether it’s something the reader will glide right by but remember later with an Aha! That’s foreshadowing. If instead the reader groans and guesses what’s coming, you’ve-telegraphed.”

Also Remember that if you plant hints at something, they always need to have a pay off, and if not, then they need to have a clear “red herring” moment where the reader sees they were misled. You can’t just forget about your set up or the “plant”.

A site called AuthorsCraft gave a Self Check. Ask yourself these questions to recognize and understand foreshadowing:

  • Are there phrases about the future?

  • Is there a change happening in the weather, the setting, or the mood?

  • Are there objects or scenic elements that suggest something happy, sad, dangerous, exciting, etc.?

  • Do characters or the narrator observe something in the background that might be a hint about something to come later?

On a site called SparkNotes, it talks about how deliberate/obvious withholding of information can also be a form of foreshadowing. It can build suspense or interest because it causes the reader to remember the lack of certain details, it leaves a question in their mind.


If you’ve foreshadowed and set it up well, when the time comes you won’t need to remind the reader of the set up, they will remember it.

It's far more powerful and satisfying to let the reader put the pieces together themselves. Your job is to hand your reader the puzzle pieces so discreetly and seamless, they don't even realize you're doing it.

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