For a very long time in the history of the novel, writers have tended to produce what theorists call "ideal texts," which means that the novels form sort of closed systems where all the events in the stories lead to a distinct end point (the climax) and all the various subplots and strands of the story are wrapped up and concluded by the last page of the book, often in a denouement of whatever length is necessary. The idea is to leave the reader with no unanswered questions or loose ends, with a feeling that everything is over and the reader's mind can rest. This "ideal text" is based on the false premise that life is a neat, closed system wherein every conflict has a resolution. Now, we all know this isn't the case outside of made-up stories, and over time there has been a growing movement to reject this "ideal text" and the imposed closure of this sort of narrative.
Today I'm going to talk about a narrative technique called "sideshadowing." This is similar to "foreshadowing" and "backshadowing." To quickly review, foreshadowing is the technique of putting clues into the narrative early that a particular event will happen later on, a sort of warning that "something's coming." Backshadowing is the technique of putting commentary into the narrative later on that refers to earlier events, a sort of "should've seen that coming." In general, foreshadowing is visible only to the reader, not the characters. Backshadowing is visible to both reader and character.
Sideshadowing, on the other hand, is the technique of pointing outside of the narrative, of deliberately suggesting to the reader that more things might be going on than what's expressed in the narrative, that there are in fact a multiplicity of narrative possibilities, and that the story in not a "closed system" and that everything can't be all wrapped up neatly by the ending, or even at all. I realize that this is a vague definition, and likely that's because sideshadowing isn't a single technique so much as it's a variety of techniques, and because writers are not thinking in terms of "sideshadowing." The term itself is pretty new, the invention of literary theorist Gary Saul Morson. Go look him up.
Sideshadowing suggests not what happened or what will happen, but what else might happen/have happened in a story. Sideshadowing techniques include:
Historical backdrops vaguely referenced
Sideshadowing is sort of an argument against inevitability, if you will. Where foreshadowing and linear "ideal" stories close off narratives step-by-step, sideshadowing opens up a narrative moment-by-moment, offering the reader the idea of more than a single possible outcome. Here are the examples of sideshadowed narratives that came to my mind right off:
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
Crime & Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevski
The Lady and the Dog by Anton Chekhov (and lots of his other stories)
Tristram Shandy by Laurence Stern
As well as the works of Borges, Beckett, Rushdie, O'Connor, Oates and others.
I think that writers who have resisted the closed nature of "ideal stories" use a variety of techniques all in the pursuit of narratives that more closely reflect the open-ended nature of reality and the many possibilities that exist in each moment of our lives. I think this "now-ness" is what many writers are looking for when they use the present-tense (and that so many writers are using the present-tense because there's an unrecognized but growing sense that "ideal stories" are inadequate vessels for certain types of realist fiction). In other words: modernism has taken a deep hold on current fiction behind everyone's back. For me at least, there is an expansiveness, a feeling that these sorts of stories are not isolated things unto themselves, a hint that these narratives are connected to the larger world and I like that feeling.
This is something that I've been trying to do in my own work. In one of my novels, I refer obliquely to real-world events and mention larger historical movements in passing to give the impression that my characters are part of a complete, forward-moving world. I also leave the essential large-scale conflict unresolved, because it's a large-scale conflict that goes on even to this day. In another novel, I have my main characters' story intersect with the stories of supporting characters and you never learn how those other stories play out. Readers are left, hopefully, with the idea that there is a real world going on outside of my story, that things are in motion and that new stories can come winging into my narrative from any angle and change the course of lives. At least that's one of the intended effects.
Anyway, this is likely very obscure and idiosyncratic but it's what I think about lately when I think about writing: how to open the narrative up and imply not only a larger world than the fictional world of the narrative, but that the narrative is only one possible outcome of the premise, that other endings are possible and may have actually taken place. This technique is still a work in progress for me, and I claim the provisional status of my ideas as an excuse for all the vagueness in this post.