Image: Matthew Loffhagen
At its best, foreshadowing can drastically deepen a story, lending new weight to structure and character. That’s why, in this article, I’ll be looking at how authors can get to grips with foreshadowing and employ it practically in their own writing.
In this, Part 1, I’ll be looking at the various things foreshadowing can do for your story, with Part 2 covering the nitty-gritty of how to write it well.
What is foreshadowing, exactly?
To foreshadow is to hint at or indicate a future event. In literature, this is generally intended to influence the reader’s attitude to what comes next.
In Joss Whedon’s Torn, a young girl who can see the future watches the protagonists leave for an alien world and mourns the fact that not all of them will be coming back. This reveal is a shadow of the event itself, inviting the reader to ask who will be lost and how.
It’s rare, though not impossible, for foreshadowing to simply present information. Instead, its purpose is generally to alter the context of what follows. In Whedon’s story, for example, the reader examines each character’s decisions through the lens of whether they’re likely to get them killed, since knowing that someone won’t return has put them on alert. In fact, a character even dies and is resuscitated soon after. Again, the reader is kept on their toes – does that fulfill the prophecy or not?
Here, Whedon uses foreshadowing to focus the reader’s attention on potential consequences, sharing a little information to focus their attention. The same might be done with a tragedy, as in the opening monologue of Romeo and Juliet, to tell the reader that things don’t work out and encourage them to be contemplative rather than spend the play hoping for the best.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.
– William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
Foreshadowing, then, is finding a way to share a little information before its time, but usually not with the pure intent of informing the reader. It’s a versatile device, so let’s take a look at some of the ways it can improve a story.
Using foreshadowing to set up twists and reveals
A twist only feels like a twist when it’s justified by the story. It’s not hard to write something that shocks the reader with an unexpected reveal – for that, nothing really has to make sense. You can reveal that the entire story has been a dream, that the villain is the hero’s daughter, or that, in the gap between your third and fourth chapters, the protagonist was replaced by five owls in a trench coat. The reader will be shocked – they never saw it coming – but they won’t be satisfied, because the reveal doesn’t mean anything.
No, the joy of a twist is in looking back and seeing how it was true all along. Fight Club has perhaps the most famous twist in contemporary literature, and it’s gained so much cultural traction because, when it’s revealed, the reader is stunned by how plausible it is – in retrospect, it can even feel like the only thing that makes sense. When the narrator finds out that his friend Tyler Durden is actually another personality that inhabits his body, many formerly cryptic or figurative allusions suddenly take on a literal meaning, not so much being transformed in the reader’s mind as simply coming into focus.
Tyler’s words coming out of my mouth. I used to be such a nice person.
– Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
The same is true in Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island, but it also applies to books that aren’t constructed around a central twist. If you’re going to reveal a fact – be it a relationship, a motive, or an unseen act – it needs to feel consistent with the rest of the story. Foreshadowing is the best way of achieving this, as it steadily lays the foundations for the unseen truth.Foreshadowing is often the key to making your story’s twists and reveals work.Click To Tweet
This is especially important in stories where the reveal is an important surprise but still needs to feel real. The plot of Reservoir Dogs revolves around a group of gangsters trying to figure out which of their group set them up to be arrested. For the story to really work, the reveal has to be shocking, but it also has to feel true, and that’s a difficult situation to write. If any of the group feels like the betrayer, then it won’t be a shock when they’re revealed, but if none of them feel like they could have done the deed, the reveal will feel inauthentic.
Writer Quentin Tarantino uses a variety of devices to make the reveal work – including incapacitating the culprit while the accusations fly – but he also throws in subtle hints. Chief among these is an early scene where every member of the group is expected to contribute to the tip at a restaurant. When one of the group doesn’t, the culprit tells on them. It’s an innocuous moment that is so subtle and so early in the story that it raises no suspicions, but it’s there when you look back. He was the snitch then, instinctively, and his later behavior is consistent with that impulse.
If you’re going to reveal something of this nature, foreshadowing is often essential to ensuring it lands as intended. This principal is often referred to as ‘Chekhov’s rifle’, but it’s actually a little more complicated than that.
Using foreshadowing to turn facts into truths
Chekhov’s actual edict runs in the other direction – if you do something that looks like foreshadowing, it had better pay off.
If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on a wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.
– S. Shchukin quoting Anton Chekhov, Memoirs
Through time and misunderstanding, the reverse has also been accepted: if a rifle goes off in the third chapter, it should be hanging on the wall in the first. This new reading has proved so popular because it’s so right, and it applies to more than the literal.
If a character makes a decision, the truth of that decision should, in some way, be foreshadowed in their behavior. Even if they’re putting on an act, there should be something about them that verifies their behavior. A completely successful act isn’t satisfying for the reader – they want to be fooled, not lied to.When does a fact feel like a truth? When you use foreshadowing to set it up.Click To Tweet
This type of foreshadowing can be so subtle that it merges with characterization. In Alan Moore’s Watchmen, the villain is a former hero whose ideals have taken him down a dark path. He’s also thorough and proactive, and so when the protagonists confront him and he reveals they’re too late – he already enacted his terrible plan exactly as intended – it’s a shocking break from narrative structure (the story’s climax was thirty-five minutes earlier, and the heroes missed it), but it also makes sense. His personality foreshadows his success.
Using foreshadowing to prepare the reader for ideas
In Watchmen, Moore depicts a world where traditional heroes come up against a problem too complex for them to deal with. The heroes fail to stop the villain, but the villain may just have saved the day. It’s an interesting, radical idea, but the preceding story – in which heroes who have fallen from grace try to cope with their relative impotence – prepares the reader to receive it.
This is something that authors often don’t bother to do. They choose to confront the reader with a startling idea but they’re so keen for it to be a surprise that they don’t recognize the necessity of establishing a world where it fits.
Sometimes, this works out fine, but it places a burden on the reader. They have to make the new idea make sense, they have to make room for it, and some of them won’t be able to.
When Gollum returns near the end of The Return of the King, a distinctly weak and ineffectual character ends up being one of the deciding factors in the outcome of a vast epic of a story. It’s an engaging, fitting way to end, but it’s also something that works a lot better because Tolkien makes a point of foreshadowing the moment earlier in the series.
Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many – yours not least.
– J.R.R Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
This passage plants the idea that Gollum has an inherent importance to the story – when that pays off later, it’s not a shock ending, but the culmination of an idea that Tolkien foreshadows early in the story.
Using foreshadowing to set the mood
Setting the mood is very similar to preparing the reader for an idea. It’s a way of saying ‘here’s a world in which X category of thing is possible’. Fantomas begins with a scene in which a young boy is busy idolizing the titular evil genius. Unfortunately, it’s only a few moments before he discovers that Fantomas has actually murdered one of his loved ones.
It’s a shocking moment, but it’s also a clever bit of foreshadowing that gets the reader in the right mindset to comprehend Fantomas. Is he the sort of villain the reader can gleefully idolize? No – not only has the reader seen what comes of that, but they’ve also seen the nature of the crimes he’ll commit. Grisly, unnecessary, and often affecting innocent victims. Whatever Fantomas does next can be done in the context of everything the reader now understands.
This type of foreshadowing isn’t just for establishing a mood in the early stages of a book. Often, it can be used to imply that things have changed – the story is now in a different stage, and the reader should adjust their expectations accordingly.Foreshadowing greases the wheels of your story, preparing the reader for new ideas.Click To Tweet
This is the case in Macbeth – here, the protagonist has done something so unthinkable that it has upset the natural order. Though the story includes witches early on, they feel aside from the world. Dealing with them pollutes it a little, but it’s only later that the world becomes unnatural and mad. It’s after this point that things like visions, ghosts, madness, and deadly prophecies really fit the story, and so Shakespeare has to make it clear to the audience that things have changed.
He does this in a short section where characters discuss the king’s horses breaking loose.
And Duncan’s horses – a thing most strange and certain –
Beauteous and swift, the minions of their race,
Turned wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out,
Contending ’gainst obedience, as they would
Make war with mankind.
– William Shakespeare, Macbeth
It seems like a mundane image, but it’s a clear sign of the unnatural. Previously, the horses were tame and comprehensible, but now they’ve gone wild. It’s a process that foreshadows what’s happening to the world, and their proximity to the king (whose murder kick-started the process) makes this particularly clear.
This passage allows Shakespeare to shift the mood of the play in a way that still feels natural and comprehensible, but it also allows him to hint at how bad things are going to get. In reply, the next line is ‘’Tis said they eat each other.’ Again, this doesn’t explicitly say what’s going to happen to the actual characters, but it’s a disturbing shadow of it.
Using foreshadowing to reward re-reading
Of course, foreshadowing events means that once the reader knows about them, they get a whole treasure trove of events to rediscover. Rant: The Oral Biography of Buster Casey is built around this idea – near the end, the identities of multiple characters are revealed in a way that reconfigures the story such that it doubles back on itself. The second half of the story is more or less hidden within the first.
Author Chuck Palahniuk doesn’t go the lazy route of re-presenting the information – it’s up to the reader to mentally or literally go back over the story and piece together the implications of all the foreshadowing that came before.Foreshadowing can give your reader a reason to re-read (and recommend) your book. Click To Tweet
It’s an extreme example, but extreme both in execution and satisfaction. There’s a similar moment in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone where it’s revealed that a character who seemed to be casting a spell against the protagonists was actually casting a spell to protect them from the actual attacker. It’s a children’s book, so Rowling explicitly recalls the moment, but it’s still satisfying for the reader to look back and appreciate the truth.
If you’re writing a crime story or a mystery, foreshadowing may be what makes the difference between someone who enjoys your book and an evangelical fan. Looking back over foreshadowing and seeing its accuracy makes the reader feel clever, and that’s the kind of feeling that gets them recommending the book to others. It’s also what makes it a book they read again and again.
Using foreshadowing to keep the reader guessing
I mentioned earlier that foreshadowing isn’t necessarily about doling out the truth. Sometimes, it’s about making an event feel possible, or about making certain actions feel true to a character, but other times it’s about putting the reader on edge.
When Duncan’s horses eat each other, it’s a symbol of utter chaos and destruction, but does it apply to the characters or the country? Telling the reader that the outcome will be chaotic isn’t the same as telling them exactly what happens.
Likewise, if you begin your story at a funeral then flash back, you’re not just justifying the death to come, you’re inviting the reader to wonder who’ll die and how. Many stories find their best form by using foreshadowing to steer the reader into a particular mindset.
How to write great foreshadowing
Those are the main ways foreshadowing can improve your story, but it’s a device that runs the gamut from incredible subtlety to being so obvious that it’s the point of the story, so the potential is almost boundless. If I’ve managed to convince you that your story could benefit from foreshadowing, check out How To Use Foreshadowing With Confidence – Part 2, in which I move on to the mechanical realities of writing foreshadowing and the best techniques for doing it well.
You can also try The Secret Art Of Writing A Surprising Plot Twist and Here’s Why Your Writing Needs Realism (And How You Can Get It) for more on this subject. Or, if you’re currently yelling at the screen, take to the comments to let me know the types and benefits of foreshadowing that I missed.