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June 2, 2020

What’s the Point of Foreshadowing?

Shadow of a couple kissing with text: Should We Foreshadow Our Story's Events?

When faced with the various “rules” of writing, writers often want to know when, if, or how they can break the rules. The truth is that if our writing is strong enough, we can get away with just about anything because our readers will trust us.

Obviously, just about any aspect of writing contributes to readers’ sense of whether our writing is “strong.” However, certain elements are more important in contributing to readers’ sense of whether we and/or our story have a plan, whether we’re going to take them on a worthwhile journey.

As I mention in that second link above:

“A strong voice and good storytelling fills the reader with confidence, reassures them that everything has a purpose… Readers are swept along…just following wherever the story leads.”

Okay, so a strong, confident voice gets readers into our corner. What about the storytelling aspect? How can we convince readers that our story has a purposeful destination in mind, and thus that they should stick around even if we break the “rules”?

As we’ve talked about before, we want to include elements that give our story meaning. Let’s talk more about making our story feel purposeful and meaningful—with foreshadowing.

What Is Foreshadowing?

Foreshadowing? Isn’t that where we “spoil” our story in advance? Why would we want to do that?

Not quite. Romance and mystery stories can be satisfying even though readers know that a “happily ever after” or solved mystery awaits them, so genre alone can be a form of foreshadowing in that respect. But the benefits of well-done foreshadowing can go far beyond what we may think.

How can foreshadowing improve our storytelling? Click To TweetForeshadowing is a literary technique we can use in our stories that gives a preview or hint of events that will happen later. While many might think of foreshadowing for mysteries, this literary device can be used in any genre.

In fact, most stories need foreshadowing of some type to keep readers interested in what’s going to happen. That said, foreshadowing requires a balance. When used poorly, foreshadowing can make our story feel boring or predictable, but when foreshadowing is used well, readers will find our story more satisfying.

Types of Foreshadowing

Under the umbrella of previewing future events, some foreshadowing is direct and tells readers where the story is going. Other foreshadowing is more about subtle hints that are so indirect as to often be recognized only in hindsight.

Examples of Direct Foreshadowing

  • We can mention a future event, like something scheduled to happen: a meeting, deadline, etc.
  • We can show characters worry about what might happen (remember that if characters aren’t worried, readers usually won’t be either, so the reverse is also true).
  • We can have a character declare that something won’t be a problem, which often hints to readers that the character will be proven wrong later.
  • We can show or allude to tension that readers figure will eventually have to snap.
  • We can include a prophecy of what the future will bring.
  • If we’re writing in normal past tense rather than the default literary past tense, we can directly say what’s to come, such as: He didn’t know it yet, but that would be his last night at home.
  • We can include a flash-forward (often in a prologue or preface) showing events to come.
  • We can include emotions or thoughts of what a character longs for (even subconsciously), letting readers know what their internal arc or internal goal will be.

Direct foreshadowing tells readers the what, but readers still read to learn the how.

Examples of Indirect Foreshadowing

  • We can show a lower-stakes version of the final conflict early, hinting at how the situation will play out later. (Some readers are good at identifying these “pre-scenes” and would consider this a direct foreshadowing technique, but for most readers, the role of these scenes is apparent only in hindsight, so I’m calling it an indirect technique.)
  • Relatedly, we can show a prop or character skill in action earlier that will be important for the success of the final conflict. (Depending on how obvious the earlier incidence is, this type of pre-scene might be more direct than indirect.)
  • We can show a threatening object, hinting that it will eventually be used (i.e., Chekhov’s Gun). (Depending on how obvious the appearance is—background vs. close up, etc.—we might consider this a direct technique rather than an indirect example.)
  • We can allude to something in a throwaway phrase, often burying the detail in the middle of a sentence and/or paragraph, letting readers skim over and forget about the hint.
  • We can toss out a seemingly normal statement that will resonate with more meaning in future events later.
  • We can use similes or metaphors to hint at hidden traits or situations.
  • We can show a suspicious event, but have the viewpoint character believably decide there’s an innocuous reason, so readers don’t know the character assumed incorrectly until later.
  • We can use symbolism, such as how crows and ravens around a character often foreshadow their death or how weather often symbolizes a coming change.
  • We can use imagery and settings to create a certain mood appropriate to the later story, such as dread or creepiness.

Indirect foreshadowing uses subtlety, subtext, and/or misdirection to hide the story’s future, with the truth becoming clear only in hindsight.

(Note: A red herring misleads readers without giving them any hints of the truth. Thus while it’s related to foreshadowing, it’s not the same.)

The Right Balance of Foreshadowing

As mentioned above, foreshadowing can be tricky to get right. While foreshadowing is usually good for our story, there’s a risk of creating the wrong balance.

How can we use — and not misuse — foreshadowing in our story? Click To TweetWe want foreshadowing to be strong enough that the future events feel like they “fit” the story. Readers should get a sense of events playing out in an inevitable way that makes sense. Foreshadowing keeps twists and reveals from feeling like they came out of left field or were just picked via a random generator. *smile*

Yet at the same time, we want foreshadowing to be vague enough for events to not feel predictable. Readers shouldn’t know exactly what’s going to happen before it does. Too-obvious foreshadowing feels like we’re spoonfeeding readers, or potentially even makes our story boring.

In general…

  • Direct foreshadowing should be used only when it will increase readers’ dread, anticipation, or interest.
  • Indirect foreshadowing works best when it’s recognized only in hindsight.

Anything beyond those two points on the balance scale can feel repetitive or lead to predictability.

The Risks of Foreshadowing

In addition to the possibility of making our story boring and predictable, what are some of the other risks of misusing foreshadowing?

  • If we use too much foreshadowing, readers will feel like too much of the story is setup without anything ever happening or resolving. Foreshadowing the same events over and over is simply repetitive.
  • If we foreshadow unimportant events, readers will feel the payoff wasn’t worth the setup. So we should limit our use of foreshadowing to important events unless we’re using it strictly for non-anticipatory reasons, such as the setup and payoff of humorous details.
  • If we give away too much information in our foreshadowing, our story can feel too predictable and the opposite of suspenseful. If readers already know how everything will play out, the only question left is when, and if that’s not interesting to readers, they lose a reason to keep turning pages.

The Benefits of Foreshadowing

Given the risks of harming our story, why would we want to include foreshadowing?

  • Foreshadowing establishes reader expectations, and when we meet reader expectations, they’ll find our story more satisfying.
  • Foreshadowing makes events seem credible to readers because they won’t seem random, and we’ll have already established the possibility so readers will be prepared to accept the events.
  • Foreshadowing of character motivations can make characters seem more logical and less like puppets to the plot with later events and situations.
  • Foreshadowing increases a story’s sense of foreboding, tension, or suspense, as readers might not know what exactly is going to happen, but they know it’s going to be bad.
  • Foreshadowing increases a story’s sense of anticipation, as readers want to know what will happen.
  • Foreshadowing makes readers more invested, as they try to guess how the story will play out.
  • Foreshadowing allows us to delay events until best for the story and reader anticipation, while still letting readers know that more interesting stuff is coming in the story soon.
  • Foreshadowing makes readers feel like they have a relationship with author-us, as readers interact with our writing to guess outcomes.
  • Foreshadowing also prevents readers’ frustration when they’re purposely kept in the dark with lies, instead making them think they could have guessed with truths that are simply hidden.
  • Indirect foreshadowing gives repeat readers something new to enjoy, as they put together new connections on a reread.

The Benefits of Indirect Foreshadowing

Other than the last two bullet items above, many of those benefits are found more with direct foreshadowing, such as setting expectations, increasing tension and anticipation, making readers more invested, etc. So we might ask ourselves: What’s the point of indirect foreshadowing?

If readers are only going to recognize the foreshadowing after the fact, why is it still important to include? Is it just a writerly affectation to make ourselves feel like brilliant authors? *grin*

Indirect foreshadowing…

  • gives our story the feeling of tying up loose ends and gives readers a sense of closure
  • creates a sense of the story being deliberately woven together with a surprising-yet-inevitable ending
  • makes readers feel more satisfied, like seeing the final piece of a puzzle fit and finally glimpsing the bigger picture
  • provides a richer experience for readers by creating layers and parallels
  • avoids making the ending feel contrived or solved by waving a Deus Ex Machina wand, and instead makes events feel natural to the story
  • gives readers the satisfying feeling of “Wow! I can’t believe I didn’t see that coming” rather than the angry or betrayed feeling of “WTF? That came out of nowhere”
  • can increase emotions, such as making a tragedy more tragic by having the character (and reader) realize the tragedy could have been prevented if only they’d known earlier how X was significant

In other words, indirect foreshadowing connects the ending of our story to the beginning (and everything in between), making our plot and/or character arc make sense. In turn, those connections make the whole story feel purposeful and meaningful.

What Do We Mean by Making a Story Feel Meaningful?

As I’ve discussed before, the following elements all help create the feel that our story is leading to something—that there’s a point to it all—which in turn, gives our story a sense of meaning:

  • events lead to something climactic
  • situations or characters change/resolve over the course of a story
  • insights are revealed about deeper social messages or themes

We can make the most of all those elements by using techniques explored in that post like rising stakes, epiphanies, big reveals, turning points, etc. Together with a strong cause-and-effect chain and non-episodic storytelling, our story’s events won’t feel random.

In addition, that post also mentioned the important concept of creating echoes in our story. “Echoes” here refers to how elements of our story should reverberate throughout our story over time or through varied approaches or layers.

Echoes and Foreshadowing

As explored in that post, several ways the elements of our story can echo and reverberate include:

  • Consequences from events and choices could continue affecting the story in later scenes, rather than just the immediate following scene. (That is, rather than A affecting only B, A can affect B, G, and Z.)
  • Issues, dialogue, and situations can go through a setup and payoff cycle to call back to earlier mentions or foreshadow later mentions.
  • Layers of depth or understanding could be added to character traits, conflicts, motivations, etc.
  • Contrast can be drawn between characters or situations, such as the hero and villain sharing the same flaw, but the hero is shown overcoming theirs on some level.
  • Ideas, character growth, stakes, and situations can be revisited and woven throughout a story, growing and changing each time.

The second bullet point—setup and payoff—is all about foreshadowing, and many of the other bullet points relate to foreshadowing as well. Whether we’re using direct or indirect foreshadowing, the idea is to set up details, events, and concepts in our story that we later pay off with consequences, growth, change, etc.

Foreshadowing—setups and payoffs—creates echoes in our story that make our story feel more crafted, more purposeful, more deliberate, and more confident. All of that makes our story feel more meaningful to readers—and thus more satisfying. At the same time, that strength of storytelling will help readers trust us and our writing—even when we break the “rules”—and that’s the point of foreshadowing. *smile*

Do you enjoy foreshadowing in stories? Do you have a preference for direct or indirect foreshadowing? Do you consciously include foreshadowing in your writing, or do you struggle to know how to include it? Does the difference between direct and indirect (and the different risks and benefits of each) make sense? Do you have any questions or insights to share about foreshadowing?

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Anne Kaelber
Anne Kaelber

I have a love/hate relationship with foreshadowing. I wonder if I’ll ever be any good at it — though I think it’s something I could improve during edits/revisions, rather than automatically knowing when/where to add such details. Foreshadowing is the main reason I have been so resistant to writing book 1 in my series before I have the series arc worked out. BIG things could be set in motion in book 1, if I know they are coming. Ultimately, at my level of skill, I’ve had to give myself a very rough idea of the series arc and just work on making book 1 the best it can be. (Hoping to begin writing this week or next!) I dislike the “Little did I know it would be the last time I saw him” type of foreshadowing. Why? It takes me out of the events of the story and reminds me I’m reading an after-the-fact telling, not in the midst of the story events. I love when an author manages to completely wallop me over the head with revelation(s) like Sylvia Day did in her Crossfire series. (I’m hesitant to say even that much for fear of spoiling it!). [Should I issue a spoiler alert for a movie released in 1982? Consider this it!] We recently re-watched all the Star Trek movies (well, we skipped #1), which reminded me of the leaked spoiler that “Spock dies” in The Wrath of Khan. To combat that spoiler and let the audience think he…  — Read More »

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thanks, great post!
I tend to write woven stories so there is a good element of foreshadowing. One reason to do this is to introduce a minor character who has a relatively important role near the end.
The only aspects I didn’t see you mention, are a prologue – tricky, because people like me often don’t read prologues, especially if they are in italics – and a foreshadowing dream. I remember writing this into a story (I was about ten) and I knew the reason was that I was starting at the start but I couldn’t wait to get to the dramatic events. I wanted them now. So if a writer finds herself penning in a spooky or chaotic dream instead of actual events, maybe she could rethink her story. Nothing wrong with starting in the middle, then going back to the beginning. I didn’t know that at the time.

Somebodylost
Somebodylost

I love foreshadowing when done right. And you nailed why I felt unfulfilled by other stuff! They seem to be setting up for some grand finale when the story abruptly ends — wrong stuff to foreshadow.

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