Textual Evidence for Predictions
When reading good literature, the reader is moved to engage actively in the text. One part of being an active reader involves making predictions. A prediction is a guess about what will happen next. Readers are constantly making predictions based on what they have read and what they already know. Consider the following sentence: “Staring at the computer screen in shock, Kim blindly reached over for the brimming glass of water on the shelf to her side.” The sentence suggests that Kim is agitated and that she is not looking at the glass she is going to pick up, so a reader might predict that she is going to knock the glass over. Of course, not every prediction will be accurate: perhaps Kim will pick the glass up cleanly. Nevertheless, the author has certainly created the expectation that the water might be spilled. Predictions are always subject to revision as the reader acquires more information.
So, like I said, we’ll be looking at two basic kinds of predictions: Predictions based on our knowledge of how literature works and predictions based on information the text has already given us.
This first type uses a slightly different way of looking at literature than the second. Though there is a lot of literature out there, there are often ideas or basic tropes that remain constant (or at least common) throughout most works. For instance, we understand how protagonists work and how they deal with conflict. We also know about the basic structure of plots in novels and stories. What are some of the implications of this in terms of making predictions?
Number 1: Answers are rarely given at the beginning of a story.
Number 2: Looking at where you are in a story or book will give you a good idea as to how soon the
climax will occur.
Number 3: Literature tends to influence other literature. (Think of how many works have similar
endings, character developments, etc.)
Number 4: Think of genres and how their conventions differ: Mystery novels, Shakespearean
comedies, and science fiction works all have different general rules.
These four basic principles allow us to make predictions simply by understanding the basic structure and conventions of different kinds of literature. For example, after reading one or two Jane Austen novels, you will likely be able to predict how future works by Austen will end. You can go further and apply this to romance novels in general, as they have been deeply influenced by the rules and conventions created by Austen.
Now let’s look at our other type of prediction-making: predicting based on information in the text. One of the tools many authors use in their writing, which is helpful when making predictions, is foreshadowing.
Defined simply, foreshadowing is a literary device used by authors that hints at developments occurring later on in the story. Some forms of foreshadowing are more direct—they are obvious or ironic statements that let readers know what is likely to happen. However, sometimes the author may use subtle foreshadowing, which usually consists of clues that don’t become apparent until after the foreshadowed event comes to pass. In this case, you can look at an event in the text and think back to what previously happened and almost say “Ah! I should have seen it coming!”
Let’s look at an example of direct foreshadowing:
Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall contains a clear example of direct foreshadowing in the very first sentence of the book as the narrator states:
“They say that just before you die your whole life flashes before your eyes, but that’s not how it happened for me.”
Here, we know from context that the narrator must be dead. However, we know that the narrator’s life did not pass before her eyes, as it’s known to happen. Therefore, the phrase “that’s not how it happened to me” makes readers ask “Well, how did it happen to you?” This kind of direct foreshadowing works to make readers want to continue reading in order to find an answer to the question posed. You can make predictions by thinking outside the box here, as the information suggests that the narrator will not experience a “normal” death.
Another example occurs in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. In Chapter 7, Bilbo and his band of dwarves enter Mirkwood forest and are warned several times about straying from the main path by the character Beorn. The final warning is written as such:
“Be good, take care of yourselves – and DON’T LEAVE THE PATH!”
First, the fact that this is mentioned several times before Beorn’s final warning makes it pretty obvious foreshadowing, and the fact that Beorn’s final warning is in ALL CAPS drives home the point. We can infer from all of this that there is danger if Bilbo and company stray from the path and, perhaps more importantly, that they will in fact stray from the path. We can reasonably conclude this because otherwise discussing the path so often would be a waste of space.
For an example of subtle foreshadowing, let’s look at Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet:
BENVOLIO: Tut man, one fire burns out another’s burning.
One pain is lessened by another’s anguish.
Turn giddy, and be helped by backward turning.
One desperate grief cures with another’s languish.
Take thou some new infection to thy eye,
And the rank poison of the old will die. (4)
In this dialogue, Benvolio is advising Romeo (who is in love with Rosaline at this point) to fall in love with another in order to cure himself of his infatuation. There are a few things going on here. First, we see Romeo deeply in love with Rosaline—in this way, his future mad love for Juliet is foreshadowed in a subtle manner. But even more subtle here is the reference to “rank poison.” The rank poison of his love for Rosaline does in fact pass once he meets and falls in love with Juliet, but it is this love that ultimately leads him to literally die by poisoning himself. Unlike the previous examples of direct foreshadowing, it would be difficult for readers to piece this together until after reading the play. Then, in future readings (or just by thinking back to this dialogue after a first reading) these lines become all the more powerful.
In terms of making predictions, it is often much easier to focus on direct foreshadowing. Let’s take a look at some useful aspects for understanding foreshadowing and making predictions.
First, be on the lookout for what’s known as Checkhov’s Gun: A Russian writer Anton Checkhov insisted on getting rid of all unnecessary elements in his works, so as to leave nothing hanging or unexplained at the end. He said, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” (5) Though this is not always true, you will find that many writers follow this rule. You can actually see this used in the previous example from The Hobbit—warning Bilbo to avoid straying from the path would be an unneeded thing to repeat and emphasize if he weren’t going to eventually leave the path!
Then again, there’s also the red herring. A red herring is a literary device that misleads the reader; it is essentially a dead end. Red herrings are often used in mystery novels in order to build suspense and hold off on revealing the actual suspect too early.
Secondly, be mindful of genre. Different genres have different rules and conventions. For instance, we know from reading mystery novels or watching Law & Order that the obvious suspect is rarely the correct one. Therefore, we can make predictions about the actual culprit based on this knowledge. Works of science fiction, similarly, often include plot twists—things aren’t quite what they seem until we read further. Therefore, being suspicious of the obvious is one means of making predictions (or at least one way to avoid making incorrect predictions).
This is where using other works to make predictions comes into the picture. We can make predictions by thinking about how other works in a particular genre have functioned. The more mystery novels you read, the better you will become at predicting the culprit – the more Shakespearean tragedies you read, the easier it will be for you to make thoughtful predictions about the ending.
Though not all events in a text can be effectively predicted, foreshadowing often offers a way for readers to logically piece together a story’s outcome. Reading carefully and looking for possible instances of foreshadowing is one strategy for making these sorts of informed predictions.
Now, before we go, here’s a review question to test your knowledge:
Which of the following is an example of a red herring?
- A suspect initially thought to be the murderer ends up being innocent.
- A warning from a psychic comes true.
- A character enters a place that he is warned about and faces conflict.
- Katniss takes Primrose’s place in the Hunger Games.
The correct answer is A.
I hope this review was helpful! Thanks for watching, and happy studying!