By the pricking of my thumbs / Something wicked this way comes…Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Foreshadowing is a tricky craft technique to master (I put it right up there with subtext in terms of difficulty level, personally), but it’s an incredibly useful thing to have in your toolbox. In this article, we’ll define foreshadowing, go through some tips and techniques to help you figure out how to best weave foreshadowing into your story, and look at some foreshadowing examples.
What Is Foreshadowing?
A short definition: Foreshadowing is hinting at revelations to come in the text, typically subtly enough that it enhances the entire reading experience to create a more cohesive whole. Often, foreshadowing is set up at the beginning, or at least somewhere within the first act, to provide the most satisfaction when said event comes to pass later in the story. There are two types of foreshadowing which act as different ways to consider implementing this literary technique; direct and indirect foreshadowing.
This approach is more explicit or overt. The story itself points to something to come. If a person is found murdered at the start of the book, we’re going to expect that the murder might be solved by the end, for example, which is more of a genre promise if it’s a crime novel. Yet there can be ways to foreshadow the way that the person died or tease out a connection to the protagonist. Another example is if the narrator or a character says something to the effect of “if only I knew then what I know now, I would never have become tangled in what was to come.” We know something happened, but not the details. Those details are drip fed through the story.
This approach is more subtle or covert. The clues are woven in through subtext, without expressly warning the reader in the same way. Yet they will still have a cumulative effect so that when said event comes to pass, it feels inevitable. This can be built up with symbolism, imagery, less obvious dialogue choices, setting, colour palettes, and more.
Let’s look in more detail at how foreshadowing works and explore some of its other uses.
Why Is Foreshadowing Important?
Readers don’t like to feel cheated. If a revelation comes out of nowhere, it risks turning off the reader or jerking them out of the story. Especially if you’re planning to have a midpoint twist or one near the climax, you want to set things up with clues. The overall aim of foreshadowing is to build suspense, tension, and intrigue so the reader keeps turning those pages. It can also help build empathy for characters, or tug at certain emotions. It’s one of those techniques that can function on multiple levels, which makes it very handy.
How To Use Foreshadowing In Your Writing
Foreshadowing is a great technique, but implementing it can be tricky. Direct and indirect foreshadowing often require different approaches, so lets go through them.
How To Use Direct Foreshadowing
Yes, there’s often the debate of the merits of prologue vs. no prologue, but if it’s serving a purpose, such as foreshadowing, it can work really well. Often this prologue might be told from a different timeline, or a different character’s point of view. It creates a juxtaposition because the reader subconsciously starts looking for links or thematic echoes. A well-known one is Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind. We find out Kvothe, the titular Kingkiller, is working in a remote inn, and eventually he is convinced to start telling his story of how he came to be there. The opening line is even a foreshadow to the foreshadow: “A Silence of Three Parts.” We read on to find out what each part of the silence is. The prologue to N.K. Jemsin’s The Fifth Season ends with the narrator telling the reader that this time it truly is the end of the world. With this book, you read on to find out whether or not that’s true. The goal of the prologue is to create a sense of atmosphere, sneak in some worldbuilding, and set up future events.
A Good Old-Fashioned Prophecy, Nursery Rhyme, Or Soothsayer
In fantasy, prophecy does a tidy job of foreshadowing, for, by their very nature, prophecies must be indirect enough that no one, not even the characters, know exactly how things will play out. Robin Hobb uses an old children’s rhyme in Assassin’s Quest (the third book of the Farseer trilogy), which I’m re-reading just now. It has 7 stanzas about the Six, Five, Four, Three, and Two Wisemen that came to Jhaampe-town (the capital of the Mountain Kingdom in this secondary world). The last two stanzas end like this:
One Wiseman came to Jhaampe-town.
He set aside both Queen and Crown
Did his task and fell asleep
Gave his bones to the stones to keep.
No wise men go to Jhaampe-town,
To climb the hill and never come down.
‘Tis wiser far and much more brave
To stay at home and face the grave.Assassin’s Quest by Robin Hobb
This ends up making perfect sense once you read the rest of the novel. On a re-read, it’s satisfying as you see everything being hinted at quite clearly in retrospect.
While obviously this approach is common in fantasy, sometimes it will be woven into other genres. A character might visit a tarot reader in a contemporary or historical novel, for example, or they might meet a strange person on the street who says something cryptic and then wanders off. Dream sequences often help hint at foreshadowing too (though they can be difficult to pull off and have consequently become somewhat of a cliché).
Take Advantage Of Characters Who Know More
These characters can then tease out information, or tell another character something more openly, but they must have a reason for not telling them everything all at once. Having a trickster character works quite well. For example, in the Marvel films Loki appears in, he often teases the other characters with whatever his dastardly plan is that time.
How To Use Indirect Foreshadowing
Thematic And Imagery Cohesion
Choose themes or images that fit the emotional/plot elements you’re wanting to foreshadow. House of Hollow by Krystal Sutherland uses a lot of imagery of decay and rot to foreshadow a particular revelation about certain characters, which I will leave vague to avoid spoilers. The two twin sisters also have identical half-moon scars at the base of their throats, which you know from the beginning, but you don’t find out how they got them until the end. Scars make you think of old wounds, of trying to heal but not being able to erase what happened because it’s still written as a reminder on your skin.
Pathetic fallacy is giving inanimate things or animals an attribution or echo of human feelings and responses. This can work very well for setting and atmosphere. A storm under a sullen sky. A scene where two characters have fallen in love, but they are surrounded by dejected weeping willows, hinting at the heartbreak to come. Use a light touch, however—too much and it might risk the prose becoming overly maudlin or purple.
Colour And Pattern
You can use things like colours and patterns to gradually ramp up your clues. Think of them as little breadcrumbs, you as the author are Hansel and Gretel, and the readers are the birds. Humans are primed to recognise patterns, even subconsciously. The film Reservoir Dogs has objects that are the colour orange, in particular a balloon. This ends up conveying something important about another character later on. Colour palettes can be a great way to hint at things. Say you often have a character wearing red, and they are later the murder victim or the murderer. Again, it needs to be done subtly, but it can be effective. Don’t underestimate the power of the pattern.
Tips For Using Foreshadowing
Now you know how to use foreshadowing in your writing. But how do you execute it well?
Don’t Worry About Foreshadowing Too Much In The First Draft
It can be incredibly hard to set up foreshadowing perfectly when you yourself are still figuring out the overall shape of the story. Sometimes I will make notes to myself like ‘[add foreshadowing here in the next draft]’ to remind myself when I return to that section. I do lots of drafts and tend to layer in more each time, like adding detail to a painting. I’m currently writing an epic fantasy with prophecies, and I left the actual prophecies as placeholders until the second draft, when I knew what I was actually setting up. Trying to write them before I knew the plot ended up resulting in vague poetry, but nothing more.
When Plotting Or Re-plotting, Don’t Neglect The Reader Journey
Consider when in your story the reader should learn a certain piece of information, and how you might point to that without giving away the game. Should the reader be empathetic here? Or are they working more like a detective? Or both? You might want to plot that out as much as you do your story. Again, this might be easier at the second or third draft stage.
Get Some Fresh Eyes
Once you’ve written a cohesive draft, send it to a trusted friend to read. You can ask them to keep an eye out for foreshadowing in particular or ask them to comment in the margins what they think might happen in the plot so you can see if they are picking up on your clues. If your foreshadowing ends up working more like a red herring (more on that later) then you might need to do more work in your next round of editing.
Are you tapping into any existing cultural ideas or networks? If you’re writing a dark fairy tale retelling, for example, are you alluding to some well-known images from the stories we would recognise? A spinning wheel. Straw turning to gold. A rose that doesn’t wilt. Briars around a castle. A glass coffin. A red apple. All of those will point to potential things to come. Or, thinking about usual societal assumptions, having a crow or raven cawing at the crossroads will likely point at a sense of doom or foreboding. It’s a useful shorthand to save you from being too direct.
Things That Seem Like Foreshadowing But Aren’t (Maybe)
Lastly, remember there are things that seem like foreshadowing but aren’t, technically. A flashforward, for example, is a non-linear technique, where you show something about the end upfront at the beginning. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng and Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid both set up, right at the beginning, that at the end of the story, a fire will take place. You read on to find out the details of how this fire was set, what led up to it, and what the impact of the fire was. Yet the fire thematically also represents a lot: the simmering tensions of a family or neighbourhood that is all dry tinder just begging to burn. The flashforward is a useful technique which still generates suspense, but you could argue it’s not exactly foreshadowing because it’s revealing things quite explicitly.
A flashback will often reveal useful exposition or clarify something else you might have foreshadowed previously. Its purpose is to illuminate, or to provide a point of contrast to the main storyline or be in conversation with it. This is not the same as foreshadowing as, again, flashbacks are very explicit.
A red herring, likewise, is not foreshadowing. It’s you trying to misdirect the reader, rather than hint at what is to come. You’re planting false clues to try and bring them to a different assumption and then surprise them with the truth.
Some people argue that Chekov’s Gun is not foreshadowing, but I would say it’s a type of direct foreshadowing. If you haven’t heard the term before, Anton Chekhov once 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.” It’s the idea that everything set up in your story must have a pay off. At this point, the notion of it is so well known to readers, that they pick up on the foreshadowing. The gun on the wall in act one is implicitly announcing its importance. The way the showdown happens might not be as we expect, though, so in that way it might point more to a misdirection, or simply be setting up the plot rather than pointing to an event much further in the narrative. So, I’d say you could use Chekhov’s Gun as foreshadowing, but it depends on the execution and your purpose.
In Short . . .
Foreshadowing is a great craft technique to consider for your story. It can add emotional resonance, generate suspense, deepen themes, symbols, and imagery, and help tie everything together in a satisfying way. It’s a more advanced technique, and it can be difficult to get the balance right. If you’re too heavy on the foreshadowing, it risks killing that suspense, being cheesy, or annoying the reader. But in the right amounts, it will help the reader flip through the pages and race to the end to see if their suspicions are correct or set up that tricky twist that will shock the reader until they realise, in retrospect, it was alluded to all along. And then the reader closes the book, knowing exactly how something wicked that way came.
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