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December 14, 2022

Foreshadowing vs. “Spoilers”: What’s the Difference?

Apple on books with text: Deepen Your Craft with Resident Writing Coach Jami Gold (at Writers Helping Writers)

It’s time for another one of my guest posts over at Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Writers Helping Writers site. As one of their Resident Writing Coaches, I’ve previously shared:

With this turn for another coaching article at WHW, I’m digging into foreshadowing. We’ll explore why foreshadowing can improve reader satisfaction and how it differs from “spoiling” a story. Let’s take a look…

Recap: What Is Foreshadowing?

Before we get into the rest of the post, let’s first review what the writing technique of “foreshadowing” refers to. (Feel free to skip down to the next section if you don’t need this refresher.)

How can we use foreshadowing to improve our readers' satisfaction with our story? Click To Tweet

Foreshadowing is when we give a preview or hint of events that will occur later in our story. Sometimes those hints are very straightforward and obvious: He just knew that tomorrow’s meeting would be brutal. And sometimes those hints are very subtle, such as using symbolism to increase reader dread without including specific reasons for those emotions.

We’ve probably all read stories with foreshadowing, but its use isn’t always apparent until later, so we might not know how to use it well. Like many elements of writing, we need to find the right balance.

Wait… So Is Foreshadowing Like Spoilers?

As foreshadowing involves letting readers know—consciously or subconsciously—what’s coming up in the story, we might question whether it’s similar to sharing spoilers of our story. With that perspective, we could think it rather odd to purposely “spoil” aspects of our story—and thus avoid use of the foreshadowing technique altogether.

In fact, if we’re not clear on why, how, and when it makes sense to use (or not use) foreshadowing, we might not see much difference between the two approaches. Admittedly, if we don’t use the right balance of foreshadowing—knowing when to use it (and when not to) along with what type to use—the improper use of the technique can harm our readers’ experience, much like how spoilers tend to do.

However, it’s important to understand that foreshadowing does not have the same purpose as sharing spoilers of our story. Let’s take a closer look at the differences.

How Are Spoilers Different from Foreshadowing?

Truthfully, foreshadowing and spoilers do have some similarities, but their differences are just as important:

  • The more we know about “good” spoilers (i.e., the ways they’re similar), the better we’ll understand how foreshadowing can help our storytelling and know when to use it.
  • The more we understand the differences between spoilers and foreshadowing, the better we’ll understand how to use foreshadowing.

All about Spoilers:

Spoilers are used to reveal unexpected twists, which means readers miss out on the experience of the planned reveal within the story itself. The spoiler makes the unexpected into the expected. The worst spoilers reveal twists due to their sensational nature, not because the knowledge will improve reader satisfaction.

How is foreshadowing different from spoilers (and how are they similar) — and how can that understanding help our storytelling? Click To Tweet

Yet at the same time, we can think of some examples when spoilers are welcomed, such as back-of-the-book descriptions (similar to movie trailers) or content warnings. Why are those less bad? Because they can increase reader enjoyment by helping our story find the right readers who are a good match for our story.

Our book description “spoils” our premise to find readers interested in that type of story or to increase readers’ excitement or sense of anticipation about the story (such as moving our book to the top of their to-be-read pile). Content warnings “spoil” story elements to find the right readers (and warn off the wrong ones) and to help decrease reader anxiety about our story.

In other words, “good” spoilers have the same goal and purpose as well-used foreshadowing.

All about Foreshadowing

If we understand that perspective, we can see that the primary purpose of foreshadowing is to reveal information that will increase reader enjoyment or satisfaction. At the same time, however, the technique — the how — foreshadowing uses is different from spoilers, even “good” ones.

As a literary technique, foreshadowing uses setups and payoffs. They set up expectations or moods or subconscious ideas, and pay those off in a way that creates a satisfying sense of “full circle” for readers. In contrast, spoilers don’t care about payoffs.

Other than getting a story into the hands of the right readers, even “good” spoilers don’t take payoffs into account, and that goal isn’t about paying off aspects of the story itself. In contrast, the payoff of foreshadowing is all about the story, making the story itself more satisfying and enjoyable.

Foreshadowing vs. Spoilers: How Can We Tell?

There’s a great example in The Princess Bride movie that manages to be both a spoiler and foreshadowing, emphasizing how we can differentiate between them. Let’s take a look…

In The Princess Bride, the grandfather character makes a straightforward statement about future story elements:

Grandfather: She doesn’t get eaten by the eel at this time.
Boy: What?
Grandfather: The eel doesn’t get her. I thought I’d mention that ’cause you looked a bit worried.
Boy: I wasn’t worried. Maybe I was a little bit concerned, but that’s not the same thing.

From the boy’s perspective — that is, within the story world itself — the grandfather is spoiling future events without thinking about a later payoff. The grandfather is essentially giving content guidance to his worried concerned grandson.

How can THE PRINCESS BRIDE help us understand the difference between spoilers and foreshadowing? Click To Tweet

However, from our perspective, that of the audience outside the story world, this statement is part of a series of foreshadowing setups and payoffs about the grandfather’s commentary and his relationship with his grandson. From an audience perspective, this exchange adds to our enjoyment by providing humor and heart to the story. The series of these exchanges also creates the sense of a well-planned story with a full-circle closure effect by the time the grandfather closes the book at the end.

How Can We Find the Right Balance of Foreshadowing?

Now that we have a better handle on the similarities and differences between spoilers and foreshadowing, how can we find the right balance of foreshadowing to ensure our use of “bad” foreshadowing doesn’t cause the same issues as spoilers?

We 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.

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.

Wait, what are these direct vs. indirect types of foreshadowing and how can we judge when it makes sense to foreshadow events? That’s exactly what my guest post is about… *grin*

Writers Helping Writers: Resident Writing Coach Program

“No, Don’t Tell Me”: How & When Should We Use Foreshadowing?

Come join me at WHW above, where I’m sharing more about foreshadowing, including:

  • how foreshadowing can make stories more satisfying
  • the two types of foreshadowing (with examples)
  • when to avoid foreshadowing entirely
  • when to consider using direct foreshadowing
  • when to consider using indirect foreshadowing

Have you ever wondered about the line between spoilers and foreshadowing? Do these explanations make sense? Have you ever thought about the gray line between “good” spoilers or “bad” foreshadowing? Do you have any questions about this topic? (My WHW posts are limited in word count, but I’m happy to go deeper here if anyone wants more info. *smile*)

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Melissa Maygrove

Great advice as usual.

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