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How to Foreshadow with Flair

Few outstanding stories don’t include at least a couple of instances of foreshadowing – because, in tight fiction, everything happens for a reason. Real life may be dull, filled with disconnected events that are purely coincidental (hence, ‘stranger than fiction’) but this doesn’t tend to translate well to the page.

In storytelling, action and consequence is key – an essential back-and-forth that drives conflict and moves the story ahead. And this even applies to the smaller things. Short subplots or apparently trivial occurrences should be fully hooked into the primary story in some way. If your reader feels like you’re wasting their time with this sequence of chapters that appear completely disconnected from the main narrative, chances are you’re going to lose them before they get back into the meat of things.

This is something we all know – but sometimes we like to be sneaky. We like to keep readers on their toes through diversionary tactics, setting up delightful twists, shocking revelations, and air-punching rescues from the most unlikely of places.

And one of the ways you can do this without falling flat on your face is by foreshadowing with flair. As a fiction writer, you have power over an imaginary world, and foreshadowing is a tool that helps entice your readers into that world – stealthily setting them up for moments that feel real, rather than far-fetched.

Getting to grips with efficient foreshadowing can be tough at first. Many beginner writers don’t bother with it, and that isn’t a bad thing – it’s best to find your feet first, before trying out additional techniques – yet a lucky few will use foreshadowing without realizing that’s what they’ve done.

In this article, we’re going to pull back the curtain on what foreshadowing is, and how you can use it to maximum effect in your own stories.

So let’s go!

 

Famous examples of foreshadowing

Getting to grips with any technique involves looking at how others do it, so here are a few quick examples from popular stories:

  • At the beginning of The Wizard of Oz, Miss Gulch is shown changing into a witch, indicating what is to come.
  • Ernest Hemingway’s opening line of A Farewell to Arms: “The leaves fell early that year.” This foreshadows an early death.
  • In Jaws, two characters discuss how combustible scuba tanks are. One character wonders aloud what the shark might do with the equipment. “Might eat it, I suppose.” You probably know how the climactic battle works out!
  • In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke sees his own face under Vader’s mask during a vision. Later, the true depth of their connection is revealed.

You’ll notice that these are all apparently minor things. They’re little details, sometimes in passing conversation, that appear relevant to the theme or plot but don’t stand out as particularly significant.

Until you look back and see how they reflected on what came after, that is.

That’s foreshadowing in action – and, used with skill, it adds a subconscious richness to your story.

Why refer to it as ‘subconscious’? That’s because it’s often so sly and unassuming that the reader doesn’t directly observe the connection once it appears. The connection feels like more of a reverberation across chapters than it does a hammer to the head.

That doesn’t mean that your foreshadowing efforts can’t be more obvious, of course… but it sure feels great when subtlety pays off.

 

How to write fabulous foreshadows

Few writers aim to perfect the placement of their foreshadowing during the initial planning and drafting stages of a story. After all, to get started, you just need to know what the main story is about.

However, it’s a good idea to think about it during your planning. Think about where you could work in some foreshadowing of the major events. At this stage, you can just note down what you want to foreshadow here – it isn’t essential to know exactly how you will achieve it.

Different writers work in different ways, though, so if you’re the type who prefers to forgo careful planning and plotting of their novel, the editing stage is where you’ll probably put the most effort into foreshadowing of future events. This is fine. Your efforts shouldn’t suffer just because of the way you prefer to approach your work.

But how do you achieve it after you have already written the story? That’s simple: by reverse engineering. Select which events you want to foreshadow and then work backward, planting clues for each event in the preceding chapters.

  • A small event might only require one signpost at the start of the chapter in which it occurs.
  • A major event occurring near the end of the novel can be hinted at or alluded to almost from the very beginning.

Does it add more work to getting your second draft in shape? Sure. You’re going to need to nicely tie your foreshadowed elements to the chapters and scenes you’re placing them in, so they don’t feel obviously bolted on.

But is it worth it? Definitely.

There are many ways to foreshadow in novels, and it’s up to you to decide which method suits your style of writing the most. Here are a few of the most well-known methods for you to try in your own novel – some suit certain genres better than others, though, so do pay attention in case you choose an approach that would come across as cheesy to your particular audience.

 

Symbolism and prophecy

For this method, the author might drop in a foreboding symbol to warn of approaching danger. Think of a carving on the wall of a cave or a glimpse of a potentially dangerous animal stalking amongst the trees. The animal itself (as an individual creature) may not have anything to do with the story as a whole, but it introduces the notion of danger. On the other hand, perhaps it will reappear at a later stage in the story, to influence an important event.

Another way is to use a character or narrator to warn readers of what to expect. A famous example of this is the three witches from Macbeth who, from the very beginning, plant the seeds of the narrative in plain view. This technique might be considered a little tacky today, but it can still be used successfully. Perhaps your character receives one of those infernal ‘forward this email or a strangely specific tragedy will happen’ emails. In reality, an event like that doesn’t worry people much – but in fiction, everything happens for a reason.

 

A character’s apprehension

We all know people who are natural worriers, who are often anxious – and having a character like this can be a solid method of foreshadowing a future crisis. Imagine a story beginning with a boy performing a normal morning activity: getting ready for school. He enters the kitchen, and his father is there, eating breakfast. But dad seems uncertain about something… a little anxious, a little off.

Still, the day must go on – and off the boy sets so he can make it to the bus stop.

Later, we’ll come to find the more substantial reasons behind why dad was so quiet.

 

What’s that?

Bring the reader’s attention to an object. This technique is sometimes referred to as Chekhov’s Gun. The playwright once said:

“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

This ties in with suspense – because authors generally do not mention incidental details. How often have you read about a character getting up in the morning, brushing their teeth, going to the toilet, washing their hands, etc.? We don’t ‘see’ it happening in the text because it is not important to the plot.

Implementing Chekhov’s Gun is a more straightforward method of foreshadowing, as you’re setting up a very specific object that will strongly influence the direction of the narrative at a later point – even if it seems fairly inconsequential when it first appears.

 

Pave the path with dialogue

As you saw earlier with our example from Jaws, dialogue is often a worthy way to implement foreshadowing.

You could have a character point to a building and comment on its intimidating structure, for example. Later, that building comes to be the headquarters of the enemy.

Or as the boy we spoke about earlier runs out of the house on his way to school, his mother calls behind him, “Don’t forget your medication!”

“I haven’t, mom!” he yells, as he jogs across the yard.

Later, it’s time to take his medication… and to his horror, the box is empty.

The way that you point these things out doesn’t have to be a direct reflection of the problem that will arise later. For example, one character could ask another if they’ve paid the electricity bill. They confirm that they have, but later, the electricity cuts out – not because it hasn’t been paid, but because of something else.

Still, the connection has been made.

 

Writer beware…

Keep in mind that your aim is for the reader to notice the hint only barely, but to recall it later on as a clever bit of writing. If your reader is overly aware that you are foreshadowing – which usually happens when your dialogue is too on-the-nose or stands out as a conversation that doesn’t quite fit the circumstances in which it takes place – you’re more likely to get a groan of disappointment. Be subtle. People remain much more engaged when they’re not quite sure where things are heading.

Foreshadowing is a method of telling your readers to hang around because exciting things are coming. The purpose of doing that is, of course, to keep them turning those pages. Leave them without expectations, and you risk losing them – so be sure to pay off on your foreshadowing at appropriate intervals. Keep the connections coming, and your fans will have no option but to stay on board for the whole of the ride.

While these examples are simple (but effective) ways to look at foreshadowing in your novels, there are always more ways you can do it. What are your favorite methods? Have any instances of foreshadowing that you’ve read in a story stuck in your mind because of how well they struck you? Share them all in the comments below!

 

Join the Discussion on “How to Foreshadow with Flair”

  1. Chris says:

    Sometimes foreshadowing can go badly wrong.

    You said:

    “Keep in mind that your aim is for the reader to notice the hint only barely, but to recall it later on as a clever bit of writing.”

    It made me think of when my first full length novel was being beta read.

    One reader loved the book, but didn’t know who carried out the murder that’s the climax of the story. (And consequently, who’d ordered the murder by the un-named hit man).

    I thought I’d seeded the plot with enough clues for the reader to remember when the time came: the anonymous sniper’s hair: the kind of record shop, whose logo appears on the plastic bag he’s using earlier, referencing the jazz music he later puts on the car’s CD player as he leaves the scene: those kinds of details… I’m a pantser, so as the story develops, I go back and insert any necessary references and pointers, even introducing new characters into the earlier plot so readers won’t wonder where they came from.

    However, I learned a very important lesson from that particular beta reader’s revelation which I’ve found to not be exclusive to her.

    Many of today’s readers, more used to TV dramas, will ‘skim read’ the details of settings, vehicles, clothing and all the little pieces of dressing we authors like to include to make the story real. They don’t bother with the descriptions, only the activities of characters.

    It’s as if they’re turning away from the screen, maybe like eating while watching TV, and only listening to the dialogue. This is particularly so in books set in the present, and in familiar places… or at least unremarkable ones… that the reader will recognise from their day to day life.

    These readers only really concentrate on the action. If, like myself, an author hides those essential clues and foreshadowings in those descriptive details, they need to be more obvious, or they need to be referred to in the action narrative as well as in the descriptions of characters and settings. Otherwise, our clever twists in the plot become nothing more than strange unexpected occurrences that the reader doesn’t understand.

  2. Steph says:

    @Chris: That raises a question I’ve had for a while, mostly since I started teaching languages: because the audience / reader is used to taking shortcuts, is it our best and only course of action to simplify and embolden the clues and text/content?
    In a way we pick up books to be entertained, at least in parts, but I’m not entirely comfortable with catering for people’s natural comfort zone – such as skipping descriptions – and “stooping” to easier clues to pick up rather than expect them to, little by little, be jogged into re-reading or reading more carefully when they realise they missed something.
    I’ve recently read back to back an Austen novel and a contemporary thriller. English is my second language, so Austen was challenging: I often had to go back a few lines, re-read something, say it aloud, figure out what was implied between the lines, what was ironic, sarcastic, who that paraphrase referred to… It made for a slow and perhaps arduous experience but at the end of the novel I felt really happy with it and I understood it all. The more recent book had more straightforward language, arguably clearer foreshadowing, it was altogether easier to read. It actually frustrated me with its simplicity at times, it felt “dumbed down” and the final twist completely out-of-the-blue and, to me and around half the readership, unjustified by prior events and descriptions. I threw the book away when I finished it and I still seethe thinking about the let down. I don’t think it was a waste of my time, though, it’s clarified things I didn’t realise I hate and seek when reading.
    But this experience also brought home to me the fact that, although you do want to satisfy readers, I don’t think bowing to their explicit and conscious wants is necessarily a writer’s job. As a reader I like it when a writer makes me think and work at the book, when putting in the effort delivers an extra layer, when I have to almost tease it out.
    As a teacher I’ve experimented a little with both, dumbing down and giving pupils what they want – and let’s face we all tend to minimal effort if we can get away with it – and upping the challenge and giving them breadcrumbs to help them figure out the harder aspects of the subject together or alone. The second option creates more pride and more lasting understanding and knowledge in the pupils. When we discuss it most of them are quite eager to be challenged provided they know they will get support. For a reader that support is simply having the book available and being able to go back as many times as one wishes and ponder what one reads and discuss it with others maybe.

    Wow this was long, sorry! TL;DR: is a writer’s job to pander to readers’ habits even when those mean simplifying clues or making them bigger and more obvious? Should writers follow codes and techniques that work well within the visual medium of TV and movies?

    1. Chris says:

      Steph… sorry about the delay in responding. (Autocrit’s blog doesn’t always notify of replies).
      You make some good points, but as a writer, I need to find the balance. In Austen’s time, there weren’t the alternative distractions to readers. Reading (for those who could read) was one of very few home entertainments available. The language and style is very different from those of today… as is the readers’ attention span.

      It’s no good deciding to ignore the reader who might miss the clues, if it means they don’t finish the book… and even worse, don’t pick up another (of mine or anyone else’s.). The art is to ‘double seed’ the clues… some in the details, and others in the action narrative… without making it feel to the more committed reader that you’re labouring the point.

      You refer to finding the Austen challenging, because English isn’t your first language. To most of today’s readers, for whom English is their native tongue, it would be equally challenging. I don’t enjoy the style of older books. They feel too stilted and quite frankly ‘old fashioned’, which is understandable, I guess.

      You ask if it’s a writer’s job to pander to readers’ habits… I’d say ‘of course it is’, up to a point, at least it is if you want those readers to read your work. It depends a lot on the kind of readership you’re aiming at. I write series crime novels, so in effect I’m trying to compete head on with TV and movies for the crime fiction aficionado’s time and attention. To do that, I need to give them a more interesting and enjoyable… even a more challenging… version of what they’re already consuming.

      At least I’m not hampered by the constraints of TV’s ‘watersheds’, or movies’ censorships (even the unofficial censorship of distributors who are scared of offending their advertisers’ target audiences). My next ‘Lena’s Friends’ novel, ‘Disrespected’ (due out in a week or so), is less than complimentary to some Muslim practises… balance will be restored by the one being edited at present (Selected), which gives some Christians a hard ride. – The previous book (Deadweight) had digs at the culture of weight loss marketing targeted at impressionable young girls… and the less obvious risks of internet porn. – TV (particularly US TV) might be shy of putting them out, particularly as my eponymous protagonist, Lena, is a prostitute, but as books, we can still write our stories as we want them… that’s not to say we can be gratuitously offensive (my publisher would soon have something to say about that), but at least we can tell a story as the real world sees it, and leave the reader to do the questioning.

      1. Chris says:

        Steph… PS: I can’t include a link, as this site holds back posts with links (sometimes indefinitely) but if you want to check out the series, there’s a free e-book short (11k words) prequel to the series (Recreation) available to download from my publisher’s site. Google ‘Ex-L-Ence publishing’, then go to either the ‘free books’ section, or ‘Chris Graham’s books’ page (or the fiction section). It’s also free on Smashwords (or 99p/99¢ on Amazon).

  3. Bill Dukas says:

    Foreshadowing should be used as little as possible.
    When noticed in a movie, it tends to take away from the observer being mesmerized, and signals an intellectual awareness of story development.

  4. Larry S. says:

    Yes, there are consumers of the written word who treat a story like a TV show. I say ‘consumers’ because they don’t really read, that is, read and see. See how the author crafts the written word, puts you in the time and place of the story, and absorb the scene as the omniscient third voice tells it. I have no patience, nor would I write my stories to cater to readers who want to ‘click through’ a story. That, I feel, is lazy reading.
    .
    I believe foreshadowing should be minimally used. Instigating a major plot point or twist, yes, absolutely go for it. Foreshadowing adds interest and ups the intensity. Used too often would muddy up the story with confusion and guessing, and waning interest by the reader.

  5. Susanne says:

    As a reader, not a TV watcher, I need to write a story that satisfies me, first. Then I listen to the opinions and thoughts of my writers group (most are also more book oriented) Now I am in final editing of my WIP. I hope it reaches people like me and my friends. I have never thought that Everyone has or should have the same tastes as I – even in ice cream.

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