Thursday, November 13, 2008

Why I Hate Foreshadowing

Okay, so that's a bit misleading. I don't hate foreshadowing as a literary technique; what I hate is our forced dependence (as English teachers) on certain terms to the exclusion of others that, IMO, are more descriptive of what we actually SEE in stories.

Part of this is that it's hard to define some of the traditional literary terms. For instance, a character saying "I've got a bad feeling about this" is foreshadowing, but a character saying "I'm going to stop by the grocery store on the way home from work" isn't, nor is it when a character says "That's interesting." There is this nebulous gray area of Three Bears-ish 'too clear/too unclear/just right' when it comes to defining just what constitutes a "hint."

What got me thinking about this was Portia's suicide in Julius Caesar. Looking back, we can see that there is some kind of similarity between that action and when she stabs herself in an attempt to get Brutus to open up to her. The same cause leads to both actions, but I don't think you can say that it's foreshadowing.

A better option might be setup and payoff. It's a broader set of terms, encompassing the creation of both clear, conscious expectations from the audience, as well as subconscious expectations that aren't realized until the payoff is delivered, neglected, or compromised.

Another example is simile; its definition feels awkward and arbitrary. Take a look at the following figures of speech:

It was dark, like a cave at midnight.
It was as dark as a cave at midnight.
It was darker than a cave at midnight.

Now if we were to play the one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other game, MY pick would be the first one! But, no, the first two are similes, and the third one is not. Why? Because it doesn't use "like" or "as."

Wot. Evar.

Image thanks to


Melissa B. said...

I think a lot of English teachers favor easy-peasy literary terms, like foreshadowing, simile, personification and the like, because they're easy to explain. I agree with you-there should be a broader universe. A lot of these terms are old-fashioned and arbitrary. But there's nothing old-fashioned about Sx3...I've got a great snap today, come a long and play!

Dr Pezz said...

I love the idea of "setup" and "payoff." That's brilliant! I've been trying to articulate this as well, and you nailed it.

With my more advanced students I use the following definition from my college days: "A common figure of speech that makes an explicit comparison between two things by using words such as like, as, than, appears, and seems." Since it includes the extra terms, sometimes that forces the inclusion of more comparisons.

Clix said...

I think foreshadowing and personification are incredibly difficult to explain - at least, I have trouble getting students to understand them! With foreshadowing, you're looking at incredibly subjective concepts like how the storyteller manipulates the audience's expectations.

And no matter how many times I explain the difference between personification and anthropomorphism, students refuse to let go of examples like "the computer turned itself on."

It annoys me to no end that we can't just talk about the story and how the author accomplishes certain effects, and THEN give names for those techniques. I'm not allowed to (or not supposed to) use texts that students enjoy; I have texts that have been prescribed by the district.

Another example: when is the 'climax' in Romeo and Juliet? Is it Mercutio's death? Or is it the deaths of Romeo and Juliet? I've seen it PUBLISHED both ways.

Lightly Seasoned said...

The Portia thing is just characterization. Tragic figures are consistent from beginning to end. She's starts emo and ends emo.

As for personification and simile, they're forms of metaphor and I teach them that way (along with several other types). All three of your examples are metaphors, and the first two are similes, which is a specialized type of metaphor. My kids don't seem to have much trouble with it. Now, synechdoche vs. metonymy... that takes a couple rounds.

I don't understand what is wrong with having a vocabulary that belongs to our discipline. Are we asking the algebra teachers to come up with a new name for slope, or physics teachers to call force "pushy pully"?

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