I am a plot-predictor, and I am shameless about it, so much so that I regularly ruin movies for my husband and get unfairly accused of having pre-watched. There’s something absolutely addicting about finding and following the little trail of bread crumbs a writer leaves for the audience to find, but nothing – absolutely NOTHING – beats following that trail to the last chapter or the season finale and finding a sudden glorious epiphany awaiting: “Of course! How the hell did I not see that coming!?” I live for such moments. It’s that perfect combination of just nearly connecting all the dots, just nearly knowing how it’s going to end, only to be outsmarted at the last moment by some wily writer intent on rewarding your efforts with that satisfying surprise you crave.
This feeling is often the result of successful foreshadowing.
What is foreshadowing? Quite simply, it refers to hints left by the writer as to what is to come. Done well, it adds tension and suspense as the audience tries to anticipate what will happen. It is a means of investing them in the story. For this reason, foreshadowing is a staple of the mystery and thriller genres, but in my opinion, it is equally important in fantasy. The fantasy genre often involves the absurd, the illogical, and the impossible, and foreshadowing can be a useful tool for making the unbelievable seem believable if you can lay the groundwork well enough. For done poorly, foreshadowing can easily come off as annoying elbow-jabs if too obvious, or worse – downright confusing if misplaced. What is the best way to incorporate foreshadowing in your writing process? First, let’s discuss the two types of foreshadowing:
1. Direct (or overt) foreshadowing
This type of foreshadowing involves the writer openly foretelling an event in the plot or directly indicating an outcome. This can be accomplished in numerous ways. A character may joke about dying, only to end up dead in the upcoming plot point. A narrator using past tense may write, “He didn’t know it yet, but that would be the day he lost his freedom,” to directly foreshadow a character’s arrest in the next scene. A prophecy may foretell the outcome of a character. Even a whole prologue can be used to foreshadow what is to come. Direct foreshadowing is most useful when the journey is more important than the actual outcome. It doesn’t matter that the audience knows what’s going to happen because the suspense is in how it comes to pass.
Examples of direct foreshadowing:
- The prologue of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet directly informs the audience that the play is about “two households” whose “ancient grudge” will cause “A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life.” Here the audience’s own foreknowledge creates the tension rather than the tragedy itself.
- The prophecies of the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth directly predict Macbeth’s rise first to Thane and then to King as well as his death. The prophecies are direct enough to tell us the events of the play, and again it is how these events come to pass that provides the dramatic effect.
- The prophecy of Professor Trelawney in The Order of the Phoenix about Harry being the only one powerful enough to kill Voldemort directly foreshadows the approaching final confrontation between hero and villain. By this point, we all know that Harry and Voldemort will have to face each other, but this simply acts as a tension-building reminder and adds a little extra weight to our protagonist’s shoulders.
- The foreknowledge of Claire in Outlander provides a clever use of direct foreshadowing for The Battle of Culloden since Claire, being from the future, knows this battle will be a huge disaster for the Scottish. Here the tension and suspense is in whether or not she and Jamie will be able to avert the battle and change history.
2. Indirect (or covert) foreshadowing
With indirect foreshadowing, information isn’t implicitly given away. Rather subtle hints are left throughout the story, often only to be understood once the reveal is made. There are many methods for creating a hint, whether it be a piece of dialogue that seems unimportant at the time or a metaphor about death or a symbolic color or image. A seemingly innocuous item may be described by the writer, only for it to show up later and become vital to a character’s success or defeat. A character’s own traits may hint at their fate later in the story. A scene from earlier may parallel (and therefore foreshadow) a later scene. A character may make an assumption that comes back to haunt them. Whatever means is chosen, the purpose of indirect foreshadowing is to build suspense without revealing what will happen so that an unexpected, shocking, or dramatic outcome appears logical and believable and meaningful.
Examples of indirect foreshadowing:
- Luke’s vision in Empire Strikes Back of seeing his own face behind Darth Vader’s mask foreshadows the secret that Vader is Luke’s father. Because it is vague and can imply other meanings, the significance of the vision isn’t understood until after the secret is revealed.
- Use of the color orange in Reservoir Dogs is a subtle hint that Mr. Orange is the police informant. The first clue is an orange balloon. The second clue is a shelf full of bottles, where the orange bottles are separated from the pink and white bottles, alluding to Mr. Orange’s removed loyalty.
- The bird cage trick in The Prestige involves the illusion of a bird being crushed in a cage only to come back to life. In reality, there is no illusion because there are actually two birds: the one in the cage that dies and the one that appears unharmed. This foreshadows the rather preposterous truth behind Angier’s magic tricks, which I won’t entirely spoil because if you haven’t watched this movie then you definitely need to.
- In A Blight of Mages by Karen Miller, there is a particularly gruesome bit of magic performed at one point that foreshadows a similar but far more gruesome bit of magic that permanently solidifies a character’s sink into depravity.
- Harry’s description of entering Grimmauld Place as having “just entered the house of a dying person” is a subtle foreshadowing of Sirius Black’s death at the end of The Order of the Phoenix. It likely goes completely unnoticed the first read through.
- The actual title of “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe actually foreshadows not only the literal fall of the house but also the death of the Usher family.
- The prologue of the Sixth Sense where Malcolm is shot by a patient is a subtle foreshadowing for the twist at the end at the movie. It’s subtle in that its purpose seems to be adding pressure for Malcolm to succeed with his next patient. (Of course that’s just one example; Sixth Sense is full of well-planned foreshadowing.)
- In The Others, Grace’s line “Stop breathing like that,” as well as the emotion behind it, in reaction to her daughter’s exaggerated breathing is subtle foreshadowing of the reveal at the end, which involves her daughter’s death.
When to Use Foreshadowing
Direct foreshadowing should be used relatively sparingly for situations where the outcome is fairly obvious and tension is around some facet of how the outcome is reached. It’s also an effective way to engage the reader in a plot-driven narrative by allowing them some secret knowledge that the characters themselves are unaware of, thus creating tension because of the reader’s knowledge rather than through the absence of knowledge. Indirect foreshadowing should be treated like a seasoning for your plot. Pepper it too much, and it’ll ruin it; add just enough, and it’ll leave your readers with a satisfying aftertaste (and hopefully a hunger for more). It is best used when you need to prepare your readers for an upcoming plot twist, an unexpected event, or an emotionally-charged (and likely tragic) scene. A great reveal or shocking moment needs at least some amount of foreshadowing so as not to confuse or overwhelm your readers. If a dragon suddenly appears in the final scene without any mention at all of dragons even existing (or having once existed) in your world, then the reader will be taken aback, and the existence of dragons will seem like an afterthought just tossed in at the last moment. Essentially, foreshadowing helps a writer to avoid the pitfalls of a deus ex machina, where the conflict is magically resolved by some convenient force. On a structural level, foreshadowing also adds a level of cohesion to a story, directing it subtly down the only logical course and potentially adding a sense of “fatefulness” to the conclusion that is often an element of the fantasy genre.
Where to Use Foreshadowing
When placing subtle foreshadowing in your narrative, the location of the foreshadowing can be important. Ideally, you don’t want it too close to what you’re foreshadowing because it might give your reveal away. You also don’t want one foreshadowing device too close to another foreshadowing device for the same reason. Worldbuilding lore can be a great hiding place for foreshadowing: bits of descriptive information, all seemingly irrelevant except one little piece of information that bears fruit later. Embedding foreshadowing among action scenes is a great way of disguising it as “padding” and letting the action act as misdirection. You’re essentially a magician of words! How exciting! A great technique is to add a little foreshadowing before the final scene of a chapter. The final scene will automatically draw the focus away from the foreshadowing, but the foreshadowing will be close enough to the action that the reader will likely recall it at the pivotal moment. Distance is especially important when using two parallel scenes because the similarities will be easily recognizable, so placing one near the beginning of the book and the other towards the end will allow significant story time to pass as to allow the reader to forget about the first scene.
What to Avoid with Foreshadowing
Avoid hints that are too cliche. Certain elements (i.e. a raven to represent death) have already been done to death, revived, and done again to death to the point that using them as foreshadowing may be too obvious. Using a raven to foreshadow a moment of rebirth, however, would be a bit more clever as the cliche itself would be a source of misdirection. Likewise, you must connect the hints to your reveal, but not too obviously. Too obvious and your readers catch on, the reveal is spoiled, and the story is lame and boring. Too vague and your story will seem cluttered with senseless imagery and symbolism and irrelevant scenes and dialogue. Most importantly though, foreshadowing must live up to its hype: don’t use it if you can’t deliver something spicy. Nothing is more disappointing for a reader than to be hyped up and led to believe this or that is significant, only for it to fall flat.
All that being said, foreshadowing isn’t something to rush into at the beginning of your book. I, for one, am terrible about outlining. My first draft (or two) is largely free-form, so adding foreshadowing is pointless at that stage. Once you’ve nailed your plot and character arcs down and are heading into revision, it’s much easier to look for ways to foreshadow the major events in your book and much more obvious what events need foreshadowing. If something seems out of place or outlandish when you’re skimming through your first set of drafts, chances are you may need a little foreshadowing to flesh it out and make it seem realistic. Unless, of course, your book has accepted a level of absurdism where outlandish is considered normal – then maybe foreshadow the banal events.
Write on! Revise on!
Purpose of Foreshadowing
- To build suspense and tension
- To provide clues to an upcoming twist
- To provide insight to a character or plot
- To prepare readers for an emotional, tragic, or shocking moment
- To promote cohesion
- To avoid deus ex machina
Tools For Foreshadowing
- Chapter titles
- Worldbuilding details
- Weather changes
- Parallel Scenes
Essential Aspects of Foreshadowing
- Reader expectations
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