Every good story needs foreshadowing. This literary device keeps your readers curious and engaged, and it also makes for a satisfying story. No matter what the genre, foreshadowing infuses your story with an element of mystery. If done correctly, your readers will think, “Hmmm, I wonder what this means.”
But, foreshadowing is hard work. If you’re not careful and thoughtful in your approach, your foreshadowing can turn into foretelling. Where’s the fun in that? If you make the clues too obvious, your readers will lose interest way before you get to the climax of your story. Continuing to read the story will become a chore because the reader already knows what will happen.
In this post, let’s discuss the subtle art of foreshadowing. Here’s what you need to know to use this literary device correctly in your story.
What is Foreshadowing?
Foreshadowing means a warning of something that will follow. It’s a head’s up to your readers to pay attention.
I like to think of foreshadowing as an actual shadow. In every story, there is a climax. This is the high point of the story, and it usually takes place within the second half of the story. Because this climax is so huge, it casts a shadow that should be visible even in the beginning of your story. The reader shouldn’t be able to make out what it is by only looking at the shadow. However, at the end of your story, the shadow should make perfect sense in context.
For this reason, foreshadowing goes hand in hand with plot development.
Also, in order to be effective, foreshadowing should be subtle, delicate and never overpowering.
Foreshadowing should not be confused with red herrings and foretellings. A red herring focuses on misdirecting the reader so that they don’t follow the correct path. Foretelling tells the reader exactly what will happen once they follow the correct path. Foreshadowing points the reader to the correct path, but does so without flashing neon lights.
Why should you bother with foreshadowing your story? Admittedly, it’s a lot of work to weave in hints about your upcoming plot point without giving it away. However, foreshadowing is so good when you get it right. Here’s why:
Foreshadowing Builds Tension
The reader knows that something’s off. A quiet clue or a curious phrase can elicit the reader’s suspicion. They lean in a little closer, wondering what this could portend for the future. From that point forward, every scene increases in intensity.
Why did she slip that knife into her pocket?
Why, in their lush and green backyard, is there a patch of dead grass?
Why does he wear a necklace made of keys?
While this question may not be in the forefront of the reader’s mind, it should continue to linger as they follow the characters through the story.
Foreshadowing Creates a Plausible Story
Surprises are fun sometimes. However, you don’t want to weave an entire story with unexpected events. The reader needs to believe the ending is plausible. If the reader gets to the end of your story and thinks, “That doesn’t make sense,” then your story has failed. Your goal is to sow hints throughout your story that only make complete sense after they’ve read it. Once they start looking back over the story, the reader will see the mastery of your foreshadowing and realize that they missed the clues. I love when that happens!
But Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Always Foreshadow
Although I believe foreshadowing is essential to storytelling, I also believe that less is more. Too much foreshadowing can ruin a good story. Whether you’re dropping too many hints about an upcoming plot point or you’re foreshadowing every single upcoming event in the story, if you over-do it, you’ll wear out your reader.
As I mentioned earlier, some surprise is good. To balance your story, there needs to be revelations and circumstances that catch the reader off-guard.
If your reader is in a constant state of analysis, your pacing will suffer. To strike the perfect balance, introduce hints but then jolt your reader with something unexpected. To borrow from an above example, the character hides a knife in her pocket and then, seemingly out of nowhere, the factory down the street catches on fire. The reader stops thinking about the knife and must now focus on this other event, but that doesn’t mean the knife has disappeared.
How to Foreshadow Effectively
Now that we’ve defined foreshadowing and discussed why you should use it, let’s look at how to insert it into your story.
Understand the Basic Story
Most stories follow the same basic structure with six main plot elements. It goes like this:
1. Normalcy – This is where your story begins.
2. Inciting incident – Something happens that interrupts the character’s normal. The character must react.
3. Rising action – The character pursues a course of action until something knocks him off his feet. The character then must make a new choice.
4. Climax – This is the high point of the story and culmination of action or decision.
5. Falling action – This is where you tie up loose ends.
6. Resolution – New normal begins.
As writer K.M. Weiland masterfully illustrated in her guest post for TheCreativePenn, there is an opportunity to foreshadow in each of the above six plot elements. During normalcy, you can elude to the upcoming disruption. During the rising action, you can elude to how the characters will resolve their story lines.
Sometimes, it’s easier to look at your story in this way. Breaking it down into the basic plot elements can help you see when to foreshadow.
Sow the Seed as Early as Possible
You don’t want to foreshadow too closely to the event. Instead, give the seed a chance to grow. This is especially true if you’re foreshadowing major plot points, such as what will happen in the rising action or climax portions of your story. Sow those seeds within the first few chapters of your book, and then let them grow slowly, even if only in the reader’s subsconscious.
Scatter Clues Casually But Purposefully
When you foreshadow, don’t make it a big deal. It should be a casual mention. Don’t explicitly tell the reader, “Hey, this is important!” Let the reader figure it out.
Remember Chekhov’s Gun
Short-story writer and playwright Anton Chekhov is credited with the literary technique known as Chekhov’s Gun. The idea is simple: Nothing in your story should be decoration. If you introduce a gun in your story, you need to shoot it at some point.
When applied to foreshadowing, remember to tie every loose end. Foreshadowing cannot be sloppy. Don’t insert clues that are never brought up again. If your character wears a necklace of keys, bring it up some place in the future, or don’t mention it to begin with.
Wait Until the Second Draft
Perhaps you’re lucky and foreshadowing comes easy for you. Whilst writing the story or even during the outline phrase, you’re able to naturally weave in clues about an upcoming plot element.
For everyone else who needs help with foreshadowing, don’t stress. I find that foreshadowing is easiest to accomplish after writing the first draft. Once you’ve gotten a chance to read the story and see how everything fits together, you can begin to sprinkle in the foreshadowing clues of what’s to come. In fact, even if you included foreshadowing in your first draft, you may see the need to tweak.
The second draft is when you begin to shape your story, rearrange scenes, strengthen pacing and increase tension by foreshadowing what’s to come. It’s not necessary to worry about foreshadowing until after you’ve written a rough draft of your story. Otherwise, your foreshadowed clue may be axed in edits.
Final Thoughts and Additional Resources
When done correctly, foreshadowing will engage the reader and inspire them to keep reading until the end. The above tips will work with both types of writers: Pantsers and planners. If you have any questions or comments, let us know below!