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What Is Foreshadowing?
Foreshadowing is a literary device used to give an indication 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.
Foreshadowing is not explicit. Successful foreshadowing is subtle enough to surprise—the reader should not realize the significance of foreshadowing until the actual event occurs later in the story.
For example, in a story where the main character keeps seeing ghosts, there can be multiple events that foreshadow, or give hints, that the character is herself a ghost. The reader may not understand those foreshadowings until the very end when this major plot point is revealed.
While foreshadow is a common tool in mystery novels, which rely on building suspense, it is not exclusive to that genre and can be used successfully in any type of book.
Why Is Foreshadowing Important?
Foreshadowing is a key tool for a writer to use as a way to build dramatic tension and suspense throughout your story. Foreshadow makes your reader wonder what will happen next and keeps them reading.
Foreshadowing is also a great tool to prepare your reader emotionally for big reveals. Without foreshadowing an abrupt revelation or twist ending, your reader might become annoyed or disappointed rather than surprised and satisfied.
5 Ways to Foreshadow With Examples
- Dialogue: You can use dialogue to foreshadow future events or big reveals. The foreshadowing can be a joke or an offhand comment that adds personality to your characters while planting the seed for your reader’s later revelation. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Romeo says, “My life were better ended by their hate, than death prorogued, wanting of thy love.” This quote foreshadows Romeo’s eventual fate, commiting suicide over the loss of Juliet. Learn how to write great dialogue here.
- Title of a work: The title can be a tool to foreshadow as well. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” foreshadows not just the destruction of the physical house, but the demise of a family.
- Setting: The choices you make about the setting of your story can foreshadow events or story developments as well. Charles Dickens used foreshadowing to emphasize Pip’s growing anxiety in Great Expectations via descriptions of the weather: “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.”
- Metaphor or simile: You can aliken a character or event to something else as a means to foreshadow. Dickens used simile in David Copperfield to foreshadow the betrayal of David by his mother: “I sat looking at Peggoty 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.
- Character traits: How you build a character’s appearance, attire, or mannerisms can foreshadow that character’s behavior or essence. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling makes a point of describing Professor Quirrell’s turban and Harry’s curiosity about it in their first encounter; only later do we discover that the turban conceals Quirrell’s possession by the evil Voldemort. Find our writing tips for character development here.
5 Tips for Foreshadowing
- Plan Your Story: Plan, outline, revise, and plan more. You may need to wait until your second draft to properly foreshadow. Take as much time as you need to work out every detail before dropping hints.
- Plant the Seed as Early as Possible: Make sure foreshadowing takes place far enough away from the event or ending so that it is not directly in your readers’ minds. This will also give your readers even more joy when they comb back through your story to find the bread crumbs you left.
- Scatter Those Seeds: Be as sly as possible. Think of it as a scavenger hunt. You do not want all your treasures to be hidden in the same place; scatter them around for maximum enjoyment.
- Balance: Don’t wear your reader out. Too much foreshadowing, and your readers will feel as if they have already read the last page. Not enough foreshadowing, and your readers may be frustrated by an unexpected resolution. Craft the right balance, and your readers will find themselves re-reading your stories to find all of your clues.
- Second Set of Eyes: Grab your friend, coworker, or neighbor for a cup of coffee and hand them your manuscript. Once they finish reading it, ask them if the clues were too obvious, not obvious enough, or just the right amount.
Literary Devices Similar to Foreshadowing
- Chekhov’s gun is often confused with foreshadowing. Russian playwright Anton Chekhov famously 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.” The rule refers to the idea that every element in a story should contribute to the whole.
- Red herring is a literary device that is similar to foreshadow, but that you use to mislead your reader. Learn more about red herrings here.
- Flashforward takes your reader forward in time for a glimpse at the future. This is not foreshadow as you’re actually showing your readers what is to come.
- Foretelling is a tool that lets the reader know exactly what’s coming up. Shakespeare foretells the action of Macbeth when the witches predict that Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor and “Thou shalt be king hereafter!”
Looking to hone your writing skills? Learn more about the art of storytelling with Neil Gaiman here.