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How to Use Foreshadowing in Your Writing

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jan 16, 2020 • 3 min read

No one likes a spoiler, but everyone loves a good breadcrumb. When done well, foreshadowing is a masterful orchestration of the reading experience.



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What Is Foreshadowing?

Foreshadowing is a literary device used to give an indication or hint of what is to come later in the story. Foreshadowing is useful for creating suspense, a feeling of unease, a sense of curiosity, or a mark that things may not be as they seem.

Why Do Authors Use Foreshadowing?

Foreshadowing is a key tool for writers to build dramatic tension and suspense throughout their stories. It’s a quiet flag from the writer to the reader to pay close attention, and it’s also a great tool to prepare your reader emotionally for big reveals. For instance, if an abrupt revelation or plot twist is not adequately set up via foreshadowing, your reader may come away from your story feeling annoyed, disappointed, or confused, rather than surprised and satisfied.

How to Use Foreshadowing in Your Writing

Foreshadowing does not necessarily mean explicitly revealing what will happen later in your story. In fact, when it is used effectively, many readers may not even realize the significance of an author’s foreshadowing until the end. Examples of foreshadowing range from the very subtle to the incredibly pointed. No matter how veiled your hints are, there are a few time-honored ways to weave them into your storytelling:

  1. Dialogue: You can use your characters’ dialogue to foreshadow future events or big reveals. This foreshadowing may take the form of a joke, an offhand comment, or even something unsaid that adds personality to your characters while planting the seed for later revelations. A prime example of dialogue foreshadowing occurs in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, when Romeo says, “My life were better ended by their hate, than death prorogued, wanting of thy love.” This line foreshadows Romeo’s eventual fate: committing suicide over the loss of Juliet. Learn how to write great dialogue here.
  2. Title: The title of a novel or short story can be used to foreshadow major events in the story as well. For instance, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” foreshadows not just the destruction of the physical house, but the demise of an entire family.
  3. Setting: The choices you make about the setting or atmosphere of your story can foreshadow events as well. In Great Expectations, Charles Dickens uses descriptions of foreboding storm clouds and inclement weather to foreshadow the dark turn Pip’s story will take: “So furious had been the gusts, that high buildings in town had had the lead stripped off their roofs; and in the country, trees had been torn up, and sails of windmills carried away; and gloomy accounts had come in from the coast, of shipwreck and death.”
  4. Metaphor or simile: Figurative language like similes and metaphors can be effective foreshadowing tools. In David Copperfield, Dickens uses simile to foreshadow the betrayal of David by his mother, comparing her to a figure in a fairy tale: “I sat looking at Peggotty for some time, in a reverie on this suppositious case: whether, if she were employed to lose me like the boy in the fairy tale, I should be able to track my way home again by the buttons she would shed.” Learn more about the differences between metaphors and similes here.
  5. Character traits: A character’s appearance, attire, or mannerisms can foreshadow that character’s true essence or later actions. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, for instance, author J.K. Rowling makes a point of describing Professor Quirrell’s turban and noting Harry’s curiosity about it. Only later, at the end of the story, do we discover that Quirrell’s turban conceals his possession by the evil Lord Voldemort. On second reading, Lennie’s death at the end of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men comes not as a shock but as an echo of a moment much earlier, when George must put down a dog. For George, the two events are not directly linked, but the reader learns that he is willing to do something gut-wrenching in a moment of greater need. Find our writing tips for character development here.
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