Foreshadowing is a necessary part of any well-executed story. And yet, despite all its prevalence and importance, it’s actually a concept that many authors have a hard time getting their minds around.
by K.M. Weiland
If we sift foreshadowing down to its simplest form, we could say that it prepares readers for what will happen later in the story.
At first glance, this may seem counter-intuitive. Why would we want readers to know what’s going to happen later in the story? If they know how the book turns out, they’ll have no reason to read on.
True enough. So let me reiterate. The point of foreshadowing is to prepare readers for what happens later in the story. Not tell them, just prepare them.
Foreshadowing’s great strength lies in its ability to create a cohesive and plausible story. If readers understand that it’s possible that someone in your story may be murdered, they won’t be completely shocked when the sidekick gets axed down the road. If, however, you failed to properly foreshadow this unhappy event, readers would be jarred. They would feel you had cheated them out of the story they thought they were reading. They would think you had, in essence, lied to them so you could trick them with this big shocker.
Readers and viewers don’t like to be cheated, lied to, or tricked. And that’s where foreshadowing comes into play.
The point of foreshadowing is to prepare readers for what happens later in the story.
Foreshadowing, Part 1: The Plant
We can break foreshadowing down into two parts. The first is the plant. This is the part where you hint to readers that something surprising and/or important is going to happen later in the book.
If the bad guy is going to kidnap the good guy’s son, your plant might be the moment when your hero notices a creepy dude hanging around the playground. If your heroine is going to be left standing at the altar, your plant might be her fiancé’s ambivalence toward the wedding preparations.
Depending on what you’re foreshadowing, the plant can be blatant or subtle. Subtle is almost always better, since you don’t want to give away your plot twists. But, at the same time, your hints have to be obvious enough that readers will remember them later on.
Usually, the earlier you can foreshadow an event, the stronger and more cohesive an effect you will create. The bigger the event, the more important it is to foreshadow it early. As editor Jeff Gerke puts it in The First 50 Pages:
“Basically, you need to let us in on the rules. If the climax of your book is going to consist of getting into a time machine and jumping away to safety, we had better have known in the first fifty pages that time travel is possible in the world of your story.”
Subtle is almost always better.
Foreshadowing, Part 2: The Payoff
Once you’ve got your plant in place, all that’s left is to bring the payoff on stage. If you planted hints about kidnapping, jilting, or time travelling, this is the part where you now get to let these important scenes play out.
As long as you’ve done your job right with the plant, you probably won’t even need to reference your hints from earlier. In fact, you’re likely to create a more solid effect by letting readers put the pieces together themselves.
But you’ll also find moments, usually of smaller events that were given less obvious plants, that will benefit from a quick reference to the original hint (e.g., “George, you big meanie! Now I understand why you wouldn’t choose between the scarlet and the crimson for the bridesmaids’ dresses!”)
The most important thing to remember about the payoff is that it always needs to happen. If you plant hints, pay them off. Just as readers will be confused by an unforeshadowed plot twist, they’ll also be frustrated by foreshadowing that excites them and then leads nowhere.
If you plant hints, pay them off.
The trick to good foreshadowing is preparing your readers on a subconscious level for what’s coming without allowing them to guess the ins and outs of the plot twist. You don’t want your hints to be so obvious that they remove all suspense. In her October 2012 Writer’s Digest article “Making the Ordinary Menacing: 5 Ways,” Hallie Ephron calls this “telegraphing”:
“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.”
Some clever readers will undoubtedly be able to interpret your hints, no matter how cagey you are. But if you can fool most of the readers most of the time, you can’t ask for more than that.
Foreshadowing vs. Foreboding
Foreboding—that skin-prickling feeling that something horrible is going to happen—can be a useful facet of foreshadowing. By itself, foreboding isn’t specific enough to be foreshadowing.
Unlike the plants used for foreshadowing, foreboding is just an ambiguous aura of suspense. Jordan E. Rosenfeld describes it in Make a Scene:
“Foreshadowing … hints at actual plot events to come, [but] foreboding is purely about mood-setting. It heightens the feeling of tension in a scene but doesn’t necessarily indicate that something bad really will happen.”
Foreboding is useful in setting readers’ emotions on edge without giving them any blatant hints. But when it comes time to foreshadow important events, always back up your foreboding by planting some specific clues.
Most authors have so intrinsic an understanding of foreshadowing that they plant it and pay it off without even fully realizing that’s what they’re doing. But the better you understand the technique, the better you can wield it. Using this basic approach to foreshadowing, you can strengthen your story and your readers’ experience of it.
K.M. Weiland is the author of the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn.
She enjoys mentoring other authors through her writing tips, her book Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, and her instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration.