3 Fiction Writing Terms: Foreshadow, MacGuffin, Red Herring

The writing business is one of the deepest oceans to navigate. Besides mastering book distribution, marketing, and promotion, writers must also learn a unique set of terms and techniques before deciding what to apply to their own work. When I began treading the writing waters twenty years ago, I didn’t even know what MFA stands for or that a Master of Fine Arts degree can be earned in creative writing (not just visual arts, performing arts, etc.).

This post is part of a series of short lists with definitions and links for further reading that I could have used when I started on my own writing journey.

Foreshadow

Foreshadowing hints at something important that will happen later in the story. According to KM Weiland such hints “can be blatant or subtle. Subtle is almost always better, since you don’t want to giveaway your plot twists. But, at the same time, your hints have to be obvious enough that readers will remember them later on. 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.” Foreshadowing can be found in many elements of a story to include dialogue, setting, and character types.

For more:
Kyle Malone, Mythic Scribes: “In the Land of Mordor where the Foreshadows lie”
NowNovel.com: “8 foreshadowing laws: How to foreshadow right”
Robert Wood, Standout Books: “How To Use Foreshadowing With Confidence” Part 1 and Part 2
K.M. Weiland: “How to Use Foreshadowing” and “Setup and Payoff: The Two Equally Important Halves of Story Foreshadowing”

MacGuffin

“A MacGuffin [also McGuffin or Maguffin] is a plot device that is an object, goal, or something that motivates the protagonist and drives the plot, but serves no other purpose whatsoever. The significance or importance of the MacGuffin is never explained, and sometimes it might never actually be shown. All the reader knows is that everyone in the story is trying to get their hands on it.” ~ Joe Bunting, The Write Practice

The statuette in The Maltese Falcon and the suitcase in Pulp Fiction are two examples of physical MacGuffins. In “What is a McGuffin?”, Michael Kurland discusses other types of MacGuffins (some found in Shakespeare), such as the tale told by the ghost of Hamlet’s father in Hamlet and King Henry’s desire for the whole country of France in Henry V.

For more:
Joe Bunting, The Write Practice: “How to Avoid the MacGuffin Trap and Create a Unique Plot”
Michael Kurland, Gotham Writers: “What Is A McGuffin?”
Robert Wood, Standout Books: “Is There Such A Thing As A Good MacGuffin?”

Red Herring

Used most often in thriller/mystery/suspense writing, red herrings are false clues meant to throw a character, and the reader, off track.

“The term has its origins in the training for hunting dogs. Usually when a dog was tracking a scent, it wasn’t the only scent competing for the dog’s attention. Since fish have a distinct and powerful odor, they were sometimes used to train the dogs to stick to the scent they were tracking…When the dog followed the fish scent, the dog had followed a red herring.” ~ Liz Bureman, The Write Practice

For more:
Liz Bureman, The Write Practice: “Why Writers Love Red Herrings: A Brief Guide”
Kathryn Lilley, Kill Zone: “Hooking Your Readers with Red Herrings”
Robert Wood, Standout Books, discusses foreshadowing as a red herring in “How To Use Foreshadowing With Confidence – Part 2”

Though you might never use red herrings or a MacGuffin in your particular genre, foreshadowing is a useful technique found in every kind of fiction writing (even just a character’s casual remark or a darkening sky that hints of a future event). Have you used any of these techniques in your writing?


For more in the 3 Fiction Writing Terms series, check out:
Active Verbs, Author Intrusion, Backstory
Arcs, Beats, Blurbs

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2 comments on “3 Fiction Writing Terms: Foreshadow, MacGuffin, Red Herring
  1. Joyce says:

    It’s surprising that some writers never learn these terms, or use the concepts to enrich their stories.

    • KL Wagoner says:

      Maybe it’s a matter of “we don’t know what we don’t know.” Taking classes/workshops and participating in critique groups with writers who are at a higher level than I am has opened my eyes to what I don’t know and what I need to improve in my writing.

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