Image: Matthew Loffhagen
This is the second in a two-part article on foreshadowing. For the first installment, click here.
In Part 1 of this article, we looked at the versatility of foreshadowing and how you can use it to improve your story. In this, the concluding part of the article, we’re going to turn our attention to the technical realities of writing foreshadowing. Now we know what it can do for a story, let’s explore how we can write it well.
Foreshadowing and concept placement
Generally, foreshadowing is positioned to influence the reader at two points in the story. First, when it’s initially encountered, and second, when it gains new relevance.
When it’s initially encountered, foreshadowing can be anything from almost undetectable to glaringly obvious. Of course, the degree to which you want the reader to pick up on your foreshadowing depends on the effect you want it to have. If you want to put them on edge, it should be obvious, but if you’re just introducing an idea or shoring up a concept for later, subtlety will be more effective.
The opening scene of Romeo and Juliet tells the audience that the main characters are going to die. It’s as direct as foreshadowing gets – a bald statement of what’s to come – and it’s there to ensure the audience approaches the play in the right way. It’s not written to be watched or performed so that the audience believes things might work out, so Shakespeare shares enough to ensure it won’t be.
On the other hand, Fight Club obscures a lot of its foreshadowing with language that initially appears figurative. It wants to make sense in retrospect – and to explore a concept that will be dialed up later on – but it has a big twist up its sleeve that it doesn’t want you to guess.
When the subject of your foreshadowing – the event or idea you were hinting at – comes to fruition, you have to take another look at your reader’s relationship with the foreshadowing itself. The seemingly figurative language used in Fight Club takes on a literal meaning once the reader reaches a certain point in the story.
Tyler’s words coming out of my mouth. I used to be such a nice person.
– Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
Looking back, the reader recognizes this line for exactly what it is. It’s subtle when it first appears, but it loses that subtlety later and gains value because of it. It’s effective, but it’s not the only way to do things.
In The Godfather, oranges are used as a symbol that foreshadows death. This is subtle throughout – it’s not something the viewer is intended to consciously identify, because the symbolism works at a deeper level (you can consciously identify it later, of course, and discuss it intellectually, but the intent isn’t that you point at the screen and yelp every time you see an orange).
Which of these models suits your foreshadowing depends on a) what you’re trying to do with your foreshadowing and b) the type of book you’re writing. Foreshadowing is clever, but it’s identifiable as such by the reader. If your foreshadowing is too overt, they might take against it. Alternatively, if your foreshadowing is never recognized, it might not fulfill its purpose. There are plenty of people who watched The Godfather and found no significance in the oranges.
Below are a variety of different ways you can employ foreshadowing, but consider them with one eye on the truth above. The method you choose has to suit the voice and execution of your story.
Foreshadowing with prophecy
A prophecy is one of the easiest ways to foreshadow future events. Here, a character predicts what will happen, making the reader aware of it. This can be used in a variety of ways, and Macbeth offers a lot of examples.
First of all, the prophecy acts on the reader. Where it’s clear, it sets them up to expect certain events and read the story in a certain way. When the witches say ‘All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!’, they’re telling the reader that Macbeth is going to be king. This influences the reading of a later scene where he considers killing the king to usurp the throne – the audience isn’t simply wondering whether or not he’ll do it (they know part of the outcome). Partly, they’re wondering how exactly it’s going to happen (will it be him or Lady Macbeth?) and partly, they’re watching a tragedy rather than a thriller. Macbeth is cast as struggling against destiny, rather than making an evil choice.Prophecies allow authors to include obvious foreshadowing in their stories.Click To Tweet
Prophecies also act on the characters – Macbeth only sets about his plotting because the witches assure him it’ll work. Similarly, when they say that his friend, Banquo, ‘shalt get kings’, he begins to worry about what that could mean, and that influences him further – he’s motivated both by the certainties and the possibilities that the prophecies offer.
Prophecy is a fun way of foreshadowing for readers because it’s so direct, and that directness is both satisfying and can hide misdirection. When it’s prophesied that none of woman born can hurt Macbeth, and that he’ll remain unvanquished until the nearby woods rise against him, Macbeth takes that as hyperbolic assurance that he’ll rule forever, but the audience recognizes it as a narrative time bomb (in fact, the riddle is so potent that J.R.R. Tolkien was apparently incredibly frustrated with the eventual solution).
Take the Ents, for instance. I did not consciously invent them at all… Their part in the story is due, I think, to my bitter disappointment and disgust from schooldays with the shabby use made in Shakespeare of the coming of ‘Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill’: I longed to devise a setting in which the trees might really march to war.
– J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 163 to W.H. Auden
Prophecies also involve your characters in the foreshadowing, allowing you to explicitly explore exactly what the foreshadowing might mean. Of course, ‘prophecy’ covers a wide range of concepts – sometimes it’s a witch, sometimes it’s a scribbled note with a vague warning, and sometimes it’s a dumb friend sharing a theory that holds more water than you might guess.
Foreshadowing through incongruence
Foreshadowing through incongruence is usually subtler than foreshadowing via prophecy – here, the reader is presented with an absence of information. Something is true, and therefore it must have an explanation.
In The Great Gatsby, Gatsby is initially encountered as a rich eccentric. Later, however, the reader finds out he wasn’t born into money, and no-one knows how he got it. This creates a gap in the reader’s understanding, cluing them in that there’s significant information to which they’re not yet privy.
Foreshadowing through incongruence can be large or small – a significant nod between two characters who haven’t been shown to know each other, a character knowing something they shouldn’t, or just a detail that doesn’t quite ring true. The absence of surety invites questions, and the author uses context to direct those questions in a useful way.Drawing the reader’s attention to an incongruent idea can prepare them for a later twist.Click To Tweet
In Dennis Lehand’s Shutter Island, the staff and inmates of Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane behave strangely to the protagonist. The crime he’s investigating throws up impossibilities and unanswered questions, foreshadowing the fact that this isn’t a straightforward investigation. More than that, it suggests the scale of the hidden truth – this isn’t a small upset in the way things should be, but a problem with far deeper routes. The attendant reveal doesn’t disappoint.
Foreshadowing through incongruence still allows you to have characters share their own theories on what’s happening, but generally less explicitly than with prophecy. It does, however, give you greater control over how the incongruence unfolds. Incongruence has two parts – the suggestion of a fact and the invitation to question why that fact is true. It’s F. Scott Fitzgerald’s choice when the reader is prompted to question Gatsby’s wealth. It’s not suspicious on its own; only when Fitzgerald draws attention to it, and that means you can use flashbacks, dialogue, and even your setting to tightly control when and how foreshadowing takes place.
Incongruence can also be used for the kind of foreshadowing that’s only noticeable in retrospect – The Sixth Sense includes several scenes in which the protagonist is ignored in social situations. It’s only with knowledge of the films’ twist (that the protagonist has been dead all along), that these moments make sense, but once they do, they support the key reveal.
One common form of foreshadowing through incongruence is to draw the reader’s attention to something without giving a reason. A character might say where they’re going when they don’t need to, or the author might be careful to point out the gun hanging on the wall. Here, the reader knows they’ve been shown something, and the incongruence is that it doesn’t have any obvious importance. It must, then, be something that’ll come up later.
Often, this is accidental – the author wants to do something later, and needs to foreshadow it so it makes sense, but they’re too obvious in their setup. Sometimes, however, it can be used to the author’s advantage, building suspense for the reader.
This is parodied in The Simpsons episode ‘The Twisted World of Marge Simpson’, which ends with a fight between rival gangs. The protagonists stand on their doorstep but, not wanting to get hurt, Marge suggests they go inside. Her husband looks over at a short gang member in a white suit who stands watching the chaos, his arms folded.
But Marge, that little guy hasn’t done anything yet. Look at him! He’s gonna do something, and you know it’s gonna be good!
Nevertheless, Marge leads him inside, and the door closes on the sound of a scream of exertion and what’s surely an impressive blow. ‘Awwww…’ moans Homer, knowing he missed the crowning moment of the fight.
Foreshadowing through symbolism
Symbolism is a great way to foreshadow events, but it comes at a cost. Namely, it necessitates a gentler approach, and some readers may miss what you’re trying to do.
In The Departed, prominent ‘X’ shapes are used to foreshadow character deaths – a name is crossed out on a piece of paper, a red ‘X’ is graffitied on a truck, floor tiles are set in a certain pattern, over and over again. There are different readings on the symbol – does it suggest an inevitability to the deaths, as if they’re predicted ahead of time, or are they a sign of danger that the characters, caught up in their own plans, are typically too late to see?
They’re interesting questions, and they deepen an attentive viewer’s understanding of the film, but they’re also liable to be missed by many – perhaps even by the majority.Symbolism can be effective, but some readers will miss it.Click To Tweet
The upside is that symbolism can penetrate the reader’s mind without them being aware of it. Symbols like a cross, the color red, and eyes have subconscious potency. Slipping this kind of imagery into your story can prepare the reader in ways they’re not aware of. The King in Yellow, for example, uses yellow’s traditional association with rot and disease to foreshadow its themes and events.
Foreshadowing through mirroring
Mirroring is the technique of connecting two things in the reader’s mind so that one can comment on the other. One of the most explicit mirrors in fiction is the picture of Dorian Gray from… well… The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Gray’s excesses and immoral lifestyle affect his portrait rather than his body, and the story treats the portrait as a mirror of Gray’s moral state. Where it is ghastly to look at, the reader is meant to understand that Gray’s soul is similarly wretched.
Mirroring can also be done between characters, with the actions, motivations, or fate of one commenting on the other.
Where these events aren’t synchronous, they offer opportunities for foreshadowing. For example, in Of Mice and Men, animals frequently mirror and foreshadow the fates of characters. Lennie accidentally kills several small animals while petting them, foreshadowing his accidental killing of Curley’s wife. Likewise, the killing of Candy’s dog foreshadows Lenny’s death in its causes, motivations, and consequences.
Mirroring often allows you to act out a larger plot line on a small scale. When it’s subtle, it can be used to establish that something was inevitable, or explore the reasons it happened. Where it’s obvious, it directs the reader to see things a certain way, or worry about what the foreshadowing could mean. I’ll return to this idea shortly.
Foreshadowing through pathetic fallacy
Pathetic fallacy is a device which personifies nature. One of its most common uses is marrying the weather to the events in a story – happy dates take place on sunny days, while thunder booms over haunted castles.
This type of pathetic fallacy is a great way of shifting the mood of a story. A cold day suggests hardship is on its way, whereas a violent storm expands the limits of what might be possible (fictional characters encounter far fewer ghosts on sunny days).
The natural world can also be used to introduce or cement ideas. In Macbeth, a period of madness and instability is presaged by dark skies and inclement weather, and Wuthering Heights is famous for how its depiction of the wild, dangerous, untamed moors introduces many of the defining traits of its characters.
Again, this is a great way to get in the reader’s head without them knowing. Get the setting right and you can invite a feeling of dread and anticipation that they can’t quite explain, or assure them everything’s going to be alright even when things look bleak. It can even change how they feel about characters.Let your weather and setting foreshadow key events in your story.Click To Tweet
By linking unpredictability and dangerous excess to nature, Emily Brontë sells the idea that a love between two violent, conceited, cruel characters is a transcendent experience that should be realized at all costs. Her foreshadowing steers the reader’s appreciation of everything that comes after.
Of course, making the reader feel these things doesn’t necessarily mean you have to follow through.
Foreshadowing as a red herring
Foreshadowing suggests what’s to come, but it doesn’t have to be honest. You can imply death without it happening, or share a prophecy without it having to come true.
In Funny Games, an early shot sees a tool fall into a boat. The shot lingers, planting the tool in the viewer’s mind. Later, the protagonist is hauled aboard the boat by the antagonists, who intend to drown her and seem to know they’re in a film. The protagonist tries to get the tool, but the antagonist grabs it and throws it overboard, casting a withering glance at the audience – did they really think it was going to be that easy?
It’s a chilling moment that plays into the questions the movie has about the horror genre, and it renders the movie’s earlier foreshadowing through incongruence a lie. This is a great way to trick the reader – make them feel smart and you can set them up for a fall later on.
You can be gentler with your red herrings, though. Murder mysteries are built on the foundation of misleading clues, and most forms of foreshadowing are open to interpretation. When Harry’s fortune is told through tea leaves in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the dog in his cup is taken as the ‘Grim’, a portent of death. The prophecy is accurate, but it’s entirely misinterpreted – he’s actually just being followed by a large dog, and one which has his best interests at heart.
The key thing to keep in mind is that your red herrings have to work with the world and tone you’ve established. If you’re writing a ye olde fantasy, it probably won’t work to just have your oracle’s portentous prophecy be outright wrong. Similarly, if you’ve been using symbolism and pathetic fallacy to get into your reader’s head, you’ve built up an expectation that needs to be addressed, even if it’s not met.
Mirroring allows an easier get out, but if you’ve really bound two characters together in the reader’s mind, you’ll need to break that tie somehow, or the deviation will feel random. The real answer is to draw parallels without insisting they’re on the same path, but you can also throw a choice into the mix and have one character go one way and the other go the other. That way, the moment they diverged, and the foreshadowing ceased to apply, is clear.
In The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster establishes a world in which a character might be trapped forever. Happily, the character keeps mentioning what he did next, foreshadowing the fact that he will eventually be free. Late in the story, the character admits he’s only imagining what he’ll do next, and Auster snatches away the reader’s hope. It’s a daring maneuver, but the world Auster has created is so dark and sinister that it makes sense – the reader realizes they were kidding themselves anyway.
If you want your black belt in red herring foreshadowing, however, look no further than the Coen brothers, and especially their movie A Serious Man. The story follows a spiritually bereft man as he tries to find answers, encountering numerous parables along the way. Despite these lessons, no true answer is obviously forthcoming, and it’s easy to read the movie as mocking the idea that, in a chaotic and uncaring world, it would be possible to find real meaning in pat little stories. Not only are the parables red herrings, their red-herring nature is the real foreshadowing – the movie keeps showing its audience seemingly relevant stories that don’t offer a fulfilling answer, and yet they keep waiting for it to conclude in a satisfying way.
When to add foreshadowing to your story
Because foreshadowing can vary so much in subtlety, it can be difficult to write into early drafts. If you’re foreshadowing something essential to the story, a lot of foreshadowing will happen on its own as your writing accommodates for the hidden truth – for example, there was never a draft of Fight Club where, instead of an underground fighting ring, Tyler and the narrator played doubles tennis.
The same is true if you’ve plotted out your story in detail and know what’s going to happen – you can probably fit some foreshadowing in as you write, but you’ll still need to come back later, so consider leaving it until then, because it adds extra stress to an already difficult writing process.
When you’re exploring the story as you go, or writing an early draft to work up into a great story, foreshadowing is something to add at a later stage. It can be fiddly to fit in moments of genuinely subtle foreshadowing, so get everything else in place then look for spaces where it fits. In writing The Departed, for example, William Monahan probably didn’t start with a big list of things that could be X-shaped. He picked compelling locations and then figured out what the most natural ‘X’ was for that scene (I hope).
Foreshadowing takes practice
As in Part 1, it’s impossible to categorize every different type of foreshadowing – it’s such a versatile device that it runs together with other aspects of writing and with itself. Characters, settings, mood, phrasing, presence, and even a sense of absence can each be deployed as foreshadowing in different ways. Let me know what I’ve missed in the comments, as well as your own favorite moments of foreshadowing.
As with any device, foreshadowing will become clearer and easier to use the more practice you get with it. It’s a tool that works on any scale – you can foreshadow the direction a conversation is going to take or how a character is going to die – so make a conscious effort to explore it in your next project.
If this two-part article still hasn’t exhausted your desire to understand foreshadowing, we’ve got you covered. You can check out The Secret Art Of Writing A Surprising Plot Twist and Here’s Why Your Writing Needs Realism (And How You Can Get It).