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.
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.
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.
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