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Foreshadow Your Novel’s Theme

A noveling book that I have heard a lot about is called Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. Though I have not read it, I have attended several talks where the speaker discussed some of the techniques address in Snyder’s book. Snyder outlines a detailed method for pacing a script/novel, using a three act structure with “beats” to ensure that the reader is properly drawn into and interested in your plot. I won’t go into the details of his method in this post, but I wanted to share some of his advice for incorporating a theme into your novel.

Foreshadow Your Novel's Theme

In Act 1 (the first ¼ of your novel), Snyder recommends stating your theme, even before you fully develop the theme and take the theme to its conclusion. This act of foreshadowing helps pull the story together, making the theme consistent throughout the novel, and points the readers toward your conclusion without revealing it.

Often, novels and movies use dialogue between characters to foreshadow the theme. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf tells Frodo that even the smallest person can make a difference. Then in The Return of the King, the four ordinary hobbits change the fate of Middle Earth, completely the theme that Gandalf stated; (spoilers) Frodo destroys the one ring, Sam rescues Frodo, Merry slays the Witch King, and Pippin saves Faramir. (Spoilers over)

In Attack on Titan (my new obsession), Captain Levi tells Eren that he can either trust himself or trust his friends and should make the choice he would regret the least. Levi, then, ominously remarks that he still does not know what the right choice is. (Spoilers) After Eren chooses to trust his friends rather than his own strength, he soon comes to regret the decision and fight back with his own power. Even then Eren fails in his own strength, and Levi’s words underscore a complex theme that we, as human, don’t know what will happen in the future and choices are often harder than they appear. (Spoilers over)

I have found that using dialogue is one of the most common and blatant ways of foreshadowing a theme. However, depending on your cast of characters and your personal style, compelling a character to say something ethical and theme related can feel unnatural and forced.

So are there other ways than dialogue to foreshadow a theme?

The other day, my family was watching a movie, Mom’s Night Out. This movie had a strong theme presented throughout the narrative, and the writers foreshadowed the theme beautifully without using character dialogue.

In one of the first scene, the main character wakes up to find several of her children making a mess of the kitchen in an attempt to make her breakfast in bed and another child drawing pictures all over the wall. Initially the mom freaks out, sending her children off to go wash up. As she begins to clean up the mess, she starts painting over her child’s drawings. Pausing, the mother only covers some of the scribbles all over the wall and instead grabs some pictures frames to put around several of the drawings. The message is subtle, simple, and beautifully done. The theme is further developed through the movie, but it was the quiet foreshadowing in the first scenes that helps the reader understand and appreciate the message that our lives are not meant to be perfect, and we can find joy in the mess and chaos.

Using dialogue to blatantly foreshadow your theme is not bad writing, but sometimes a quieter type of foreshadowing can be more powerful. So perhaps consider some of these options for revealing the theme at the beginning of your novel:

  • Use a specific image to represent your theme (Example: In Mom’s Night Out, the drawings in the picture frames on the wall.)
  • Use a small incident or event that mirrors the overall theme of your novel (Example: Jill Pole, in one of the first chapters of the Silver Chair, pushes Eustace off a cliff because of her selfishness and lack of trust in him. Throughout the story, Jill then learn to think of others first and trust other people such as Eustace, Puddleglum, and Aslan.)
  • Introduce a minor character who is a living representation of the theme that the main character discovers (Example: In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the theme is changing and becoming a new person. The main character, Eustace, goes through this transformation, but a supporting character, Edmund Pevensie, who is a reformed traitor from an earlier book, provides a simple and dramatic example to highlight the theme of Eustace’s change.)
  • Use an allusion to a modern event or real book with a similar theme (Example: In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the creature, who was abandoned by his creator and falls into evil and rebellion, reads Paradise Lost.)
  • Give your characters a physical symbol of the theme (Example: In Till We Have Faces—wow, I am stuck on C. S. Lewis right now—Orual wears a vail, covering her face and hiding her ugliness, from early on. The image of hiding your face appears throughout the novel, until Orual finally realizes that she has not been honest with herself, seeing her “face” as it truly is.)

Please note that foreshadowing your theme isn’t simply giving your theme a symbol, but putting that symbolism, hint, and indication near the beginning of the novel before you really begin to dig deep into the theme.

So have you thought about foreshadowing your theme near the beginning of your novel? How did you do it? Did you characters cooperate, and you used a secondary character to state the theme, or did you try something else? I’d love to hear about your theme in the comments!

Have a wonderful, productive week. God bless,

Gabrielle

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7 thoughts on “Foreshadow Your Novel’s Theme”

  1. Hi Gigi – I just finished reading your latest post on “foreshadowing” and found it fascinating! Writing you directly here lets me be your grandmother and gush a bit because I loved it and found it helpful, interesting, and a sound example of sort of “setting up” your novel. Do I understand it right? In fact, foreshadowing is something I plan to do to pave the way for our July 23rd prayer retreat, Warriors not Worriers. Thanks for the ideas!

    Enjoy your new novel and let me know how you liked it! You looked pretty happy in that photoJ.

    Are you still in high gear with nanny-ing every day, scholarship app’s, chores? Still working well with the kids? They must love you, Gigi, because you’re so fun and interesting and involved with them. A great fit for you!

    Just a few more weeks and you’ll be here for the Fourth – it’ll be great to get together again – I’ve kinda gotten used to our regular time together this year. Anything special you want to do while here? Just let me know …

    Love you lots,

    Grama

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  2. This is one of my favorite things to think about, thank you Gabrielle! I actually do this unconsciously, even my first story, which I wrote with my dolls as the characters, had the theme symbolized through a necklace in the second scene. But I would like to give a word of warning to those who, like me, can’t resist a symbol. Sometimes you can overdo it. I have learned this by hard experience. The symbol must be integral to the story, if your symbol is changing your story in ways which are unrealistic or unbelievable, it is probably the wrong symbol. For instance, last year I wrote a story in which two characters got married in order to complete a symbolic theme, but when my friends read it the story made no sense to them because the characters never fell in love with each other.
    In my opinion Lewis’s Till We Have Faces is a perfect example of a symbolic theme done right. First: the veil fits Orual’s character, you will know what I mean if you have read the book, if you haven’t, go read it. If your symbol is something you character does or wears, this is vitally important. And second: The veil moves the story forward by showing how different people react to Orual depending on what they know about her, compare Trunia’s teasing to Tarin’s impertinence.
    There! That was rather long, and I daresay incomplete, for I still struggle with this.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for the tips! Till We Have Faces is really a wonderful example of many literary techniques. It is actually my favorite novel of all time 🙂 I am glad to hear that you love the book, too!
      Good luck with your themes!

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  3. Wow. This was super helpful. I love it when stories have rich themes. I’m currently refurbishing mine, so I’ll use this post as a reference. Thanks!

    Also, I was so excited to see you mentioned Attack on Titan in this post. I love that anime. =) I’m patiently waiting for Season 2. Okay, maybe not that patiently. What is taking them so long?! Gah.

    Anyway, awesome post!

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    1. Thanks! I am glad it was helpful.
      I am definitely hooked on the show. I accidentally found major spoilers for Season 2 when I went to look up a list of characters (I had a hard time catching all of their names the first time around.) And that is so frustrating. So now, I am reading the manga, so I can read the spoilers for myself 😛 So far, my favorite characters (in order) are Levi, Armin, Jean, and Mikasa, but Hanji and Erwin are hard not to love, too. What about you?

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  4. Wow! I have never thought about this. Now it makes me want to go back and look to see if I identified my theme and how I identified my theme in my novel. Thanks for shedding the light on this. I am thinking that the theme is touched on by the main character and a supporting power in the first two chapters, but then is identified further by a secondary character in the third chapter. What about you?

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  5. Wow, this was super helpful! I have never thought about foreshadowing the theme in the beginning. But now that you’ve mentioned it, I realize how many books I’ve read that have done this!

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