What is Foreshadowing
Foreshadowing is a pivotal literary device seen in all writing in one shape or form. It can be used in several ways to interact with characters, plot, and even the reader. Examples can be simple and obvious, such as a narrative stating foretold events. You see such a narrative for ‘Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events’ (https://youtu.be/DPzMYtze_kA). I am here to talk about this kind and even the sort of foreshadowing that carries hidden agendas and comes into the writing without being noticed on occasion!
To me, Foreshadowing is a tool the author uses to build suspense and even mislead a reader in events to come through words, phrases, characters, plot and the world. Yes, I said mislead and we will talk about this later. Below I will discuss reasons you may want to use foreshadowing and then the different ways you can apply this technique within your writing.
Any well written story should be using a form or type of foreshadowing at some point. Even in our everyday lives we live with the constant variable of foreshadowing of “What if” or “What could” happen scenarios. We know that if we run a red light, something will happen. Depending on where the world, other characters, and even plot are, we have several ways this can go. If I run a light in a busy city, chances are I am crashing versus a “in the middle of nowhere town” where the cops may not even watch that intersection that is lucky to even see one car that day. We even know, with pro-technology areas we could be getting a letter with a ticket in the mail soon! The setup can be tweaked in several ways, but the foreshadowing of breaking the law, running the red light, foretold something was about to happen and built some form of suspense.
How much emphasis you put on this moment can help the reader understand the character or the level of taboo that was committed. A great example of this would be the novella ‘Anthem’ by Ayn Rand or ‘The Giver’ by Lois Lowry, where something we take for granted, like using the word “I” or defining “colors” foreshadows something the character might discover for the first time. So, let’s dive into some reasons and purposes you may want to use Foreshadowing in your own work.
Reasons to Use It
Readers are simply riding our roller-coaster or plot, but there are moments where we want to tease them, build suspense or even plant seeds about various elements involving the story we are telling. It’s like being in the waiting line for a ride and seeing the drop in the distance, hearing the screams of those on the ride before us, knowing its coming, but having no clue where on the ride it will be happening. Let’s look at some reasons we need to consider for using this tool and how foreshadowing can play a part in our ability to tell our story. Mind you, I have listed these from what, in my opinion, is the easiest to hardest to accomplish.
This is where the monologue, preface, prologues and similar writing sections come into play. These all foreshadow in their own way, whether we are explaining a situation from long ago which will control or influence the story to even setting the mood or expectations of the story for the readers. At times, this can foreshadow what sort of story we are about to dive into and works well to hint at the coming tragedy to come or warn the reader of the unconventional tale they are about to take part in, such as the “world travelling” to be seen in the pages and chapters to follow. In fact, this can even be a warning from the author at times!
‘Lemony Snicket’s’ and even Shakespeare uses this method in a more direct manner. Though they reveal the plot we still find ourselves intrigued and curious to see for ourselves. Think of this as a writer’s way of creating a movie trailer for your story at times when done in this manner. Other times it can be like providing a decoding key for the reader. Providing an event to then compare with the story to help you understand the rest of the world and plot. There’s several ways to use it, but it happens at the start or before the first chapter and often to the point.
What Will Come to Pass
Many of the video games we play use this type of foreshadowing. We have a character or some means where the character and reader are informed of an unchangeable fate. Whether the information is from a character or something within the world, some definitive piece of information comes as a warning or declaration. This is a way for you to prepare the reader for what will be happening and to add a sense of foreboding. You see this mechanic in epic fantasy pieces such as ‘Lord of the Rings.’
A great example of this happens in the game ‘Dust: An Elysian Tale’ (https://youtu.be/iL8W6NS0J5k), where a death rocks the player and main characters and you know instantly there will be someone dying in the future. In fact, the recent game ‘Final Fantasy XV’ hints in dialogue and gameplay that tragedy will be increasing with each completion of a Chapter and it weighs heavily on players’ shoulders. Unlike reading a book, I can spend hours leveling, prolonging the inevitable and for the record, I cried like a baby pushing through the end of that game knowing I could not change the fate of poor Noctis. You also see this foreboding effect on readers when they hold off on reading the last chapter or chapters knowing something is going to unfold they aren’t ready for just yet.
This form of foreshadowing is easy to implement and it doesn’t aim to hide, deceive or even allow itself to be washed away in the writing. It’s there BAM! In your face! The old Wiseman has spoketh!
What Could Come to Pass
Spinning off the section prior, this version of foreshadowing is a way to give both the story and characters a choice of paths or hint the story can take more than one route. Depending on the story you are telling, this is a way to also cover the multiple possibilities and directions a plot and character can travel down. It also conveys the idea of “learning a lesson” or “making the same mistake twice” within the story.
I often use this to illustrate how flawed my characters are when put right back into the same situation, or a similar one. We know they’ve been through this, so readers may have suspicions of how this time might change, be different or fear the character overcompensates to avoid the same outcome. In romance stories, this could be the choice of two or more lovers. In a “pick your own adventure” story, this is one of the main tools to lead a reader down multiple selections while hinting how each may change the story. In short, a great way to build suspense and split the readers’ predictions on the foreshadowing provided.
A great example of the suspense and unpredictable outcomes this can have would be the romance ‘PS I Love You’ when the possible love interest and main character kiss. There were two ways this would turn out, and thanks to the foreshadowing and story up to this point, readers would understand the outcome, it’s true love or nothing. Though we hoped it would workout secretly, we had enough hints to know it wouldn’t. When using this foreshadowing method, be sure there is enough information provided to the reader to be able to understand all possible paths or why the one was chosen.
Often, we start reading a book and experience events and elements being pointed out and not understood. As we traverse the chapters, we find ourselves needing to revisit those moments when we realize it had a greater purpose to our story, to the characters even. At times, these were actual clues or a complete transparency of things happening without it being realized in the first passing or reading. I love this mechanic and type of foreshadowing the most. No stone left unturned!
This takes a lot of planning on the author’s side to execute. In a stand-alone novel, often the foreshadowing events, items, and such are added in greater detail during rounds of revisions and editing. In a series, it can stretch itself as being pivotal five books later, making a reader scramble back to it and the author laughing as they look over the massive outline of madness they’ve conducted to achieve this. Murder mysteries and suspense thrillers usually use this feature to drive their plot and detectives to solve the serial killings.
A great visual reference is the movie, ‘The Prestige’ (https://youtu.be/ijXruSzfGEc) where, when you watch it the first time you fail to absorb the significance of several moments foreshadowing, hinting and teasing, the audience with the truth from the very start of the movie. In the end, complex foreshadowing like this can inspire readers to READ IT AGAIN in hopes of recognizing the foreshadowing you have placed in the story. The foreshadowing is quiet and doesn’t bring attention to itself until the payoff reveals more about other elements later in the story.
Mislead the Reader
Misleading the reader is tricky business. I call it flirting, the author teasing the reader in ways they can’t even imagine. It often uses some of the reasons listed above in a way where anything can happen. Often this is the moment a character or event doesn’t unfold how we expected or even how the story and written foreshadowing left us thinking it could or should unfold. The difficult aspect of this for the author is now we must justify or reveal some hint as to why things went against the grain. Its purpose is to build suspense, even spin the reader in circles in the beginning by using foreshadowing and as the story hits a prime moment, we reveal which hints were the real deal and how the others were nullified.
In many murder mysteries, this foreshadowing mechanic is used a lot for turning our detectives down more than one wrong path to even the big reveal and all it’s odd details. A great reason to have this within a story, but be careful not to frustrate your readers with this! Psychological thrillers work this angle the best, where the mind and events intermingle to blur the lines. It becomes a guessing game to pick which predicts the mental state versus the reality of the world. A great example of this is the movie ‘Sucker Punch’ where imagination masks the reality of the prison (https://youtu.be/cxdwEOpGknk).
How to Use This
We have a few goals and reasons in mind. There is no right or wrong combination and it really comes down to the writer and the story as to how it all connects. In the end, foreshadowing should always be connected to something later in the story and add an extra emotional weight for the reader and audience. Think of some of the examples I have mentioned thus far and take away the foreshadowing. Do you lose the suspense? Does the climax trip up or fall flat? In the end, it should be helping to keep the reader’s attention, drive their want to continue reading and make the events to come more emotional and rewarding. If it does nothing for your story, take it out, if you need something, try a different method.
Foreshadowing usage comes with establishing a writing style, the genre you are writing, and the sort of plot you are conveying to the reader. These have some pull on how you will be using it and what format it appears within the pages of your story. So, let’s look at ways to implement foreshadowing in your work.
Narrative & Word Choice
The best example I can give that immediately comes to mind is ‘Lemony Snicket’s’ and it is done in a very open manner both in the book and even in the recent Netflix version (https://youtu.be/s5kmfaNseMw). You can even use a keyword, such as here in this video clip, where he emphasizes on the word “rickety” and the description implies what is about to unfold in the story. When you begin to write the scenes before a battle, we often set the characters up using the narrative and vocabulary choices. At that moment, we are also prepping our readers, shifting their state of mind and tugging their emotions in ways they may not realize. We shift the ambience to depressing with keywords and in the writing, add emphasis on old battle wounds aching, foreshadowing an incoming battle. It’s like the moment the scary music starts in a movie and we know something is going to happen, foreshadowing what is to come.
On another spectrum, a character described as humming and skipping, blushing at their own thoughts can foreshadow a crush developing and a possible chance for romance to blossom. Be aware of what you are telling the reader and mindful of the vocabulary used leading up to an import moment. You’d be impressed to see how much this foreshadows on a natural and effortless level in your writing. Just be sure to be more aware that this is happening and adjust it where necessary to be more complimentary to the events to come.
Setting and worldbuilding can help us build foreshadowing in many ways. For starters, many things can be foretold in the initial layout or description of a story. A world with armies, civil war, and even abrasive governments can be assumed that our cast of characters will be part of this or affected by this in one form or another. Magic, monsters, and demons allow us to expect the unusual and look forward to learning about these more intimately. A murder and detective world lets us know more people will be dying and this is who will be solving our crimes for us.
As we traverse through the world, there are other means of foreshadowing. For example, having our character travel through a village and taking in the sight of a little boy crying over losing his dog can be a foreshadowing hint that, he too, will be losing his best friend. In the game ‘Dust: An Elysian Tale’ we experience this when the world doesn’t go our way and a character died despite being able to reach a goal. Later on, the world mechanic this exposes comes back to haunt the player after defeating our final boss General Gaiuss (https://youtu.be/M7NQ3HB1sFs).
Another rule of thumb in foreshadowing is mentioning certain objects and elements that should be given a purpose later. ‘Chekhov’s gun’ is a dramatic principle but a great example of how important it is to be mindful of what has been noted and mentioned in your writing. A great piece of advice that also reflects into foreshadowing efforts from Anton Chekhov is:
“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. 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. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
Whether this is a main, secondary or even a background character, you can use them to convey foreshadowing for you. For example, in my novel ‘Cedric the Demonic Knight’ an old witch foretells what needs or should be done so Cedric and Angeline become more powerful. Even in video games and movies, characters are the main vehicle for delivering foreshadowing. Whether we are watching any of the ‘Star Wars’ movies or playing ‘Portal 2,’ both use and depend on the characters and their interactions to deliver foreshadowing. Some use direct, out-in-the-open variants where at other times use the building hints within the actions, cause and effect outcomes, that leads us to suspect what’s coming.
A common character used is the Wiseman or fortune-teller who bluntly inform both the reader and main character what will or could come to pass. They often make one statement and stick with it, stand by it. I used this concept at the very beginning of my novel ‘Romasanta’ when Daphne makes the haunting statement, “Just remember, it’s not your fault.” Followed by an echo with his sister, “It’s not your fault, Romasanta” even though he’s done nothing to warrant such statements. Instead, the secondary characters are all warning him of something that will come to pass and now the reader and Romasanta must decipher which of the events to come was more sinful than the other. Throughout his life, he hears their echoes and wonders when he will move pass this foreshadowed warning of disaster.
Sometimes it can all be centralized in one character, which is intense and in many cases a villain takes on this amazing role! In the game ‘Final Fantasy XV’ Ardyn Izunia is a foreboding character (SPOILER: https://youtu.be/-xrb86E5Js4). He rescues you, puts you in scenarios and complicates the storyline. In each meeting, he hints at something still to come and the more we see him the more unnerving his presence becomes. He foreshadows himself, in fact, using word choice and actions. Players found themselves captivated and curious at the same time as feeling wary and afraid to see what Ardyn has in store for us and Noctis.
Another use of character is the voice of reason type character. Consider the TV Series and comic ‘The Walking Dead’ where we are introduced and experience the character Hershel. Our main character often finds himself in turmoil only to be brought back to earth by the voice of reason provided from this character. At the same time, Hershel makes statements of “what could come” if a lesson is not learned and preps us for something that is going to happen in the near future (https://youtu.be/jTcdva-HzSs).
In short, you can use a combination of characters to help push foreshadowing, but don’t water down dialogue forcing it into the characters. Include it in a natural and not so obvious manner. For Romasanta, I pushed it because both Daphne and his sister are able to see the future and their need to repeat this builds tension for both the reader and made clear, they see something coming. No loose ends when you use this method! Otherwise building up tension with this type of foreshadowing and never satisfying it later in your story can make the readers feel they missed something or you forgot something as the author.
Usually this is used in conjunction with other ways for a more well-rounded feel like the example of ‘Dust’ where a combination of world, word choice and characters come together to deliver an impactful foreshadow moment for how the game will be ending. Events happening and unfolding should be using everything at its disposal and not always in connection to just one other element. For example, let’s look at the movie ‘Tremors.’ Between the title and the clues building up that the geological readings aren’t normal, the jack hammer hitting something and blood boiling up from the ground are foreshadowing the events about to unfold (https://youtu.be/kFhIMrW1Yk4).
Real life even reflects this with historical events such as ‘the shot heard around the world’ and many more events that set off memorable, for better or worse, larger events. That’s right, I am implying a smaller event can foreshadow larger ones. A common tool is the scenario of my hometown being wiped out as a precursor to a villain aiming for world domination. We’ve seen it countless times in games and stories using the Hero’s Journey plotline. Often this can be predictable in a logical conclusion or by what the reader knows of cause and effect scenarios. Again, if you use this to mislead your reader, be sure you provide evidence to support why the normal cause and effect was rendered invalid.
It is my firm belief we can sometimes use the reader to our advantage in foreshadowing certain moments. If the writing is speaking well, we can have the character thinking ahead and evaluating what is to come without needing to put it in the writing itself. Often we see this in contemporary work where the author depends on the reader to know they world they live in. Even young adult novels use this method of knowing they will be making assumptions, then feed and toy with those to foreshadow what is to come. For example, when something like pregnancy is mentioned, there is an instant list of foreshadowed events the reader develops with this information that the author no longer needs to put in writing… instead they face those events when they get there. No foreboding statements or coy misleading snippets are needed to foresee the complications of being pregnant and having a baby. Instead the author gets to focus on the reaction the characters. Be careful, this doesn’t always work out the way you want it to and you lose the control of narrowing the foreshadowing on a singular aspect or cherry picking the readers focus!
The End Result
As I said before, the result of using foreshadowing should add to the height of the roller coaster’s drop. The screams made louder, the gravitational pull stronger. It may create more questions when you implement it, so be sure those are answered by the end of your story. Don’t bog yourself and the writing down feeling the need to add it in or add more, let your natural storytelling do its thing! Afterwards identify and strengthen the techniques you naturally implemented or make sure you finished the foreshadowing attempted. Often things feel missing in our rough drafts and a lot of times it’s due to loose ends. Many of these are incomplete attempts at foreshadowing and assessing them can make a huge difference in revisions and edits.
Good Luck and Happy Writing!