Foreshadowing in Writing

Every story needs a bit of foreshadowing. It helps your readers come to terms with unexpected twists, and it keeps them on the edge of their seat, always thinking what will happen next.

In this article, I’d like to talk about what foreshadowing actually is, why you need it in your story, lists some of the types of foreshadowing, and give you some tips on how to write it correctly. Finally, I will give some of the best examples of foreshadowing in fiction.

What is foreshadowing?

Foreshadowing, in its core, is giving the readers small clues about future events, locations, characters, or twists. These clues are small, often almost unnoticeable, but they plant a seed in the reader’s mind. Over time, this seed grows in their subconscious mind, and when the foreshadowed subjects comes into the scene, the reader feels like it makes sense.

Foreshadowing can (and usually should) be incredibly subtle, or very blatant. For example, you can have a prophecy in your story. This is a case of obvious foreshadowing, as the reader knows the prophecy is predicting the future. On the other hand, foreshadowing can be only seeing a character put a knife into their pocket, or noticing an object out of place.

Why your story needs foreshadowing

The point of foreshadowing is to prepare readers for the things yet to come. A foreshadowed twist will make sense, while a sudden twist will be more of an unpleasant surprise for the reader.

It also rewards paying attention to small details, and re-reading the book. If the reader already knows the whole plot, foreshadowing will make them go: “Huh, I can’t believe I didn’t notice that the first time. That’s cool!”

Finally, foreshadowing creates tension in your story. If the reader notices one of the clues you sprinkled in, they’re going to be on the edge of their seat, wondering when it’s going to come into play.

Some tips for writing foreshadowing

Later on in the article, I will be talking specifically about Chekhov’s Gun and Red Herrings in more detail. Now I would like to talk a bit about the more general tips for implementing foreshadowing in your fiction stories.

Be subtle

There is an important difference between foreshadowing and foretelling. When foreshadowing, be very subtle about your clues. Don’t pull unnecessary attention to them. The reader should ideally notice the clue, and then quickly forget about it, instead focusing on a more pressing and exciting matter.

A clue like that will plant a seed in the reader’s subconscious and will slowly grow as the plot progresses, and the foreshadowed event comes nearer.

Beginner writers often make the mistake of pulling too much attention to a clue. This might initially seem like it would show the reader how smart the writer is, it ultimately makes the event obvious and annoying. The reader will lose interest if the foreshadowing is too lurid; a subtle clue will keep the reader engaged in the story and its twists.

Start early

As I mentioned earlier, a foreshadowed clue is like a seed. If you plant it too close to the actual event, it will not have the necessary time to grow, and it will come off as a lazy, last-second attempt to make your writing make sense.

Generally, the more significant an event is to the plot, the earlier you want to foreshadow it. When it comes to your climax, for example, try to sow the seeds in the very first chapter. For smaller events, like the resolution of a side plot, you can get away with foreshadowing it only a few chapters in advance.

Don’t overdo it

Foreshadowing isn’t something you should be doing on every page. You don’t have to foreshadow every little detail about the future of your plot. Try to keep the foreshadowing only to the major events, or large minor events (such as introductions of side characters, or side plot resolutions).

Remember, the reader has to remember all the clues (even if only subconsciously). If you batter them with new and new hints, they might start feeling overwhelmed.

Make sure to decide which specific events you want to foreshadow and try to not divulge outside of that. If you feel like you should foreshadow a minor event, do so with a very, very subtle clue, that almost no readers will notice.

Check back in the editing phase

Since foreshadowing is referencing the future, there’s a good chance you will not get it 100% right in your first draft.

When working on your second draft and all your other editing, pay attention to the foreshadowing you made, and make sure it still makes complete sense with the events you wrote in later.

If not, change the foreshadowing, or delete it altogether.

Get feedback

As with all writing you do, you should have beta readers. Don’t assume your writing is any good, and get feedback from random readers. You want to have them answer you honestly, and preferably give you as much negative feedback as they can – this is the only way your story will improve.

Try to find beta readers you don’t know – your friends and family will, in a lot of cases, try not to hurt your feelings and hold back the negative feedback.

I’m planning on writing a specific article about beta readers and how to find some; in the meantime, check out this blog post on the Reedsy blog.

Foreshadowing in a series

If you are creating a whole series of stories or books, make sure to create an outline for all of them before you release the first part. Then, in your first story, slightly foreshadow the major events of the next installments.

This basically let’s the readers know that you’ve planned everything in advance, gets them something to think about in-between books, incentivize fan theories about what’s going to happen next, and generally create a more comprehensive story arc.

Foreshadowing in worldbuilding

Finally, you want to foreshadow not only events in your book, but also events that take place in your world outside of the one story. If you’re creating multiple stories set in one world, foreshadowing across stories is one of the best ways to pull the stories together and create a feeling of a real, living world.

Remember, in the real world, pretty much all events have some influence on everything else. If your story is contained in its own bubble and doesn’t have any real impact on the world, it will not feel as real, as it would if you foreshadow major events of the world in your book.

Chekhov’s Gun

While the principle of Chekhov’s Gun wasn’t specifically made to apply to foreshadowing, it can be applied here, too.

Chekhov’s Gun is a writing principle that says that every element of the story should be there for a reason. If you introduce a gun, it should be fired at some point.

We can apply this principle to foreshadowing, too. If you foreshadow an event, make sure it actually happens, and make sure the payoff is good.

Red Herrings

Finally, red herrings are a type of “foreshadowing”, used heavily in detective and mystery novels. While normal foreshadowing is supposed to hint at what’s to come, red herrings are meant to distract the reader and plant a false clue.

In detective stories, red herrings can be one of the main sources of tension. The beauty of that genre comes heavily from the mystery, and red herrings let readers think.

Red herrings definitely deserve an article on their own; I’m planning on writing one in the future, so keep an eye out for that!

Examples of Foreshadowing

Here are some of the great examples of foreshadowing in fiction works. Be advised that there will be spoilers for the Harry Potter series, and Romeo and Juliet. If you don’t want those books spoiled, you can skip this section and go right to the conclusion.

While I really don’t like Rowling’s worldbuilding, I have to give credit where credit’s due – her writing is absolutely amazing. And foreshadowing is one of the things she does best – be it with the prophecy, or with Harry’s relationship with Ginny (there’s a huge article about that, here).

Prophecies are an interesting way to foreshadow. In a sense, you’re foretelling with obfuscation. I’ve written a whole article on writing prophecies, so check it out if you’d like to use a prophecy in your story.

Romeo and Juliet is probably the number one most used example of foreshadowing – in Act II, Romeo says to Juliet “

“Life were better ended by their hate,
Than death prorogued, wanting of thy love”

Foreshadowing his ultimate death for Juliet’s love at the end.

Conclusion

Foreshadowing pulls your story together, creates tension, keeps the reader on the edge of their seat, and rewards paying attention and re-reading.

You can include foreshadowing into your story by dialogue, environment, prophecies, or a number of other ways. Remember to be subtle, don’t overdo it, get feedback, and check if everything makes sense in your editing phase.

If you enjoyed learning about foreshadowing, check out all my other writing articles. I’d also like to invite you to the Eledris blog Discord server, which is a growing community of worldbuilders and writers that would love to welcome you.

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FAQ

What are examples of foreshadowing?

Examples of foreshadowing can be found all over literature. One of the most-known example is from Romeo and Juliet. The Harry Potter series is also riddled with amazing foreshadowing.

Why is foreshadowing important?

Foreshadowing builds tension, keeps the reader on the edge of their seat, always thinking about what’s going to happen next. It also makes the events of the plot more believable.

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