"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."—Anton Chekhov
This quote is the basis of foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is a literary device that allows you to plant clues, hint at what’s to come, build the tension, or even place a red herring in your reader’s path.
You can use foreshadowing in a variety of ways. The resulting action can be immediate or delayed. You can use dialogue or narrative to set the scene, and you can foreshadow a symbolic event or an ethical dilemma. You can use direct or indirect foreshadowing, and it can even be true or false.
Foreshadowing can feed the tension of a scene. Who doesn’t know the famous shower scene in the movie Psycho? Right before the character Marion Crane pulls up to the Bates Motel, her windshield wipers are slashing through the rain, foreshadowing what awaits her in the shower scene.
Another classic Hitchcockian foreshadowing moment is a scene in the pet shop in his movie The Birds. Mitch asks Melanie if she ever feels sorry for the caged birds, and she replies something to the effect that you can’t let birds roam free.
When to Use Foreshadowing
When you want to build suspense, foreshadowing is very effective at giving small hints to your readers about what to expect. In fact, without foreshadowing, a scene may appear to come out of nowhere, jarring your readers enough to stop them cold in their tracks. You want your reader to think “Oh! That’s why he was watching her” or “I knew she shouldn’t have gone in there!”
If you’re building suspense, your foreshadowing should be more prominent, less hidden. But it you’re foreshadowing an event to come later, you want to drop little hints along the way that readers may not even consciously pick up on until the event is revealed. It will help the twist make sense to your reader, even if they are shocked by it.
The key, as with everything, is a little bit goes a long way. You don’t want to foreshadow every scene; you need to be selective about what events need a little foreshadowing.
But how do you know what to foreshadow in your story?
Foreshadow the Major Turning Points
Foreshadowing can happen at any point in your book, but there are three key narrative points where it works particularly well.
Let’s think about story structure for a moment. Your main character’s first major turning point in your story is near the beginning when his life is changed in some essential way. Foreshadow this event so that your reader unconsciously anticipates its arrival.
Borrowing from James Scott Bell in his book Write Your Novel From the Middle, there is a point in great fiction, usually mid-way through, that your character has a “mirror moment.” She looks in the mirror, metaphorically or physically, and asks Is this the person I want to be? Is this who I really am? Foreshadow this moment. Lay the groundwork for it to make sense.
And finally, foreshadowing the climax of your story will make this moment more impactful, spurring the emotions you want your readers to feel. Think of the moment in Star Wars when Darth Vader says, "Luke, I am your father." Do you also remember that moment earlier on when Yoda is speaking to the spirit of Obi Wan about Luke, saying: "Much anger in him, like his father?" That’s perfectly executed foreshadowing.
Tips for Creating Foreshadowing
The first quarter to half of your story is the set-up. This is when you’re identifying your characters, painting your story’s world, and setting the stakes. Dropping hints of what’s to come in the later sections of your book will create tension and add character depth. Be careful, though; you don’t want to give away any of your plot secrets.
You may treat foreshadowing differently depending on if you’re a planner or a seat-of-the-pants-er. If you like to plunge in and write your story straight from the muse to your fingertips, you’ll probably address foreshadowing in the revision stages. You can look back from your major turning points and see where and how you need to foreshadow it in earlier sections as you make edits.
But if you’re a planner, you can look at your story structure or your outline and determine when and where the foreshadowing needs to come in to be most effective. Remember, if you’re building suspense, you want foreshadowing to be more obvious, whereas if you’re preparing your reader for what’s to come, you want your foreshadowing to be almost invisible.
Think of some books with the great foreshadowing like Gone Girl, Fight Club or Life of Pi. I will comment cautiously here because a spoiler will take away some of the magic of these books, but in every case when the twist is revealed, it all makes sense. The clues were all in plain sight, even back in the first chapters.
The earlier you can foreshadow an event, the better because it creates a stronger, more cohesive effect. And for the big turning points, you can drop smaller, lighter hints just before the payoff to remind readers of the previous foreshadowing.
An expert piece of advice is from Brian Klems, who wrote Making the Ordinary Menacing: 5 Ways for Writer’s Digest:
"When you insert a hint of what’s to come, look at it critically and decide whether it’s something the reader will glide right by but remember later with an Aha! That’s foreshadowing. If instead the reader groans and guesses what’s coming, you’ve telegraphed."
The Trick to Foreshadowing
Study the masters. It’s important to see how someone adept at foreshadowing handles it through a novel. An excellent example is The Girl on the Train. No spoilers here, but did you see that coming, even though the author dropped plenty of hints along the way?
Also study movies, especially Hitchcock’s. There are many ways to foreshadow using all five of your senses, and movies show you how a camera angle can be used to create suspense through foreshadowing. You can use this same technique in your writing by focusing your attention on a character or an object, while something is happening in the background to foreshadow events.
Movie scores are also great at creating suspense. Since you can’t (usually) create a score to go along with your novels, think of ways to use words, descriptions, sounds, thoughts, tastes, scents, everything you can think of to create the same mood.
Using foreshadowing can strengthen your story and how your reader experiences it.
Let’s get a discussion going below and create a list of references. Share with us the best uses of foreshadowing you’ve ever read. Or seen.
If you enjoyed this post about writing a novel, you might also enjoy these articles from our archive:
- How to Construct a 3D Main Character
- Are You Ready to Draft Your Story Arc?
- How to Create Your Story’s World
- How to Create a Compelling Character Arc
- Are You Ready to Draft Your Plot?
- 4 Plot Pitfalls You Need to Avoid
- Map Out Your Character’s Transformation Using the 9 Enneagram “Levels of Development”
- The Four Drafts Your Novel Needs (and Why You Probably Won't Use a Single Word of Your First Draft!)