Foreshadowing is a literary technique we can use in our stories that gives a preview or hint of events that will happen later. While many might think of foreshadowing for mysteries, this literary device can be used in any genre.
In fact, most stories need foreshadowing of some type to keep readers interested in what’s going to happen. That said, foreshadowing requires a balance. When used poorly, foreshadowing can make our story feel boring or predictable, but when foreshadowing is used well, readers will find our story more satisfying.
How Can Foreshadowing Make Stories More Satisfying?
While most aspects of writing contribute to readers’ sense of whether our writing is “strong,” foreshadowing helps create readers’ sense of whether we and/or our story have a plan, whether we’re going to take them on a worthwhile journey. In other words, foreshadowing can help create the sense that every element of the story has a purpose, that it’s all leading to a purposeful destination.
Hints of future story elements—even ones that just register with readers subconsciously—make story events fit into a sense of a bigger picture. While unexpected twists can make a story fun and avoid the feeling of being too predictable, foreshadowing can help a story hit the sweet spot of feeling inevitable-yet-surprising.
For example, imagine a final dilemma where a character faces a choice between two options illustrating the tug-of-war between aspects of their personality. If the story concludes with an unexpected twist as the character lands on a third option, the ending could feel like a cheat or an out-of-character decision – or it could feel like a brilliant way to resolve the story.
The difference between those reactions often comes down to whether the third option was foreshadowed at all, even in the most subtle, subconscious-registering way. A subtle foreshadowing can ensure that twist doesn’t feel like a cheat or out of character, and instead make it feel like the resolution was the point of the journey, adding to the sense of strong—and satisfying—storytelling.
Types of Foreshadowing
That said, before we can use foreshadowing effectively and find the right balance between leading readers along the storytelling journey and “spoiling” events, we need to understand more about foreshadowing as a writing technique. Different types of foreshadowing will fit our story at different times.
Some foreshadowing is direct and tells readers where the story is going. Other foreshadowing is more about subtle hints that are so indirect as to often be recognized only in hindsight.
Examples of Direct Foreshadowing
- mention of a future event
- show characters worrying about what might happen
- a character declares that something won’t be a problem, which often hints to readers that the character will be proven wrong later
- show or allude to tension that readers figure will eventually have to snap
- a prophecy of what the future will bring
- If we’re writing in normal past tense rather than the default literary past tense, we can directly say what’s to come, such as: He didn’t know it yet, but that would be his last night at home.
- a flash-forward (often in a prologue or preface) showing events to come
- mention of emotions or thoughts of what a character longs for (even subconsciously), clueing readers into what their internal arc or internal goal will be
Direct foreshadowing tells readers the what, but readers still read to learn the how.
Examples of Indirect Foreshadowing
- show a lower-stakes version of the final conflict early, hinting at how the situation will play out later
- show a prop or character skill in action earlier that will be important for the success of the final conflict (depending on how obvious the earlier incidence is, this type of pre-scene might be more direct than indirect)
- show a threatening object, hinting that it will eventually be used (i.e., Chekhov’s Gun) (depending on how obvious the appearance is—background vs. close up, etc.—we might consider this a direct technique rather than an indirect example)
- allude to something in a throwaway phrase, often burying the detail in the middle of a sentence and/or paragraph, letting readers skim over and forget about the hint
- toss out a seemingly normal statement that will resonate with more meaning in future events later
- use similes or metaphors to hint at hidden traits or situations
- show a suspicious event, but have the viewpoint character believably decide there’s an innocuous reason, so readers don’t know the character assumed incorrectly until later
- use symbolism, such as how crows and ravens around a character often foreshadow their death or how weather often symbolizes a coming change
- use imagery and settings to create a certain mood appropriate to the later story, such as dread or creepiness
Indirect foreshadowing uses subtlety, subtext, and/or misdirection to hide the story’s future, with the truth becoming clear only in hindsight.
3 Tips for How & When to Use Foreshadowing
Tip #1: Usually, Foreshadowing Should Be Avoided When…
- we’ve already foreshadowed the event, as we don’t want elements to feel repetitive
- the event is unimportant, as the payoff won’t be worth the setup (exception: using it for non-anticipatory reasons, such as the setup and payoff of humorous details)
- we’ve already foreshadowed related events, as readers don’t want to know how everything will play out
Tip #2: Direct Foreshadowing Can Be Beneficial When It…
- establishes reader expectations, as meeting reader expectations makes our story more satisfying
- makes events seem credible, as by establishing the possibility, readers will be prepared to accept the events
- uses foreshadowed motivations to make characters seem more logical, as they’ll seem less like puppets to the plot
- increases a story’s sense of foreboding, tension, or suspense, as readers might not know what exactly is going to happen, but they know it’s going to be bad
- increases a story’s sense of anticipation, as readers will want to know what happens
- makes readers more invested, as they try to guess how the story will play out
- helps us delay events until best for the story and reader anticipation, while still letting readers know that more interesting stuff is coming in the story soon
- makes readers feel like they have a relationship with author-us, as readers interact with our writing to guess outcomes
Tip #3: Indirect Foreshadowing Can Be Beneficial When It…
- gives readers a sense of closure or gives our story the feeling of tying up loose ends
- creates a sense of the story being deliberately woven together with a surprising-yet-inevitable ending
- makes readers feel more satisfied, like seeing the final piece of a puzzle fit and finally glimpsing the bigger picture
- provides a richer experience for readers by creating layers and parallels
- avoids making the ending feel contrived or solved by waving a Deus Ex Machina wand, and instead makes events feel natural to the story
- gives readers the satisfying feeling of “Wow! I can’t believe I didn’t see that coming” rather than the angry or betrayed feeling of “WTF? That came out of nowhere”
- increases emotions, such as making a tragedy more tragic by having the character (and reader) realize the tragedy could have been prevented if only they’d known earlier how X was significant
- prevents readers’ frustration when they’re purposely kept in the dark with lies, instead making them think they could have guessed with truths that are simply hidden.
- gives repeat readers something new to enjoy, as they put together new connections on a reread
Use Foreshadowing, but With Purpose
Whether we’re using direct or indirect foreshadowing, the idea is to set up details, events, and concepts in our story that we later pay off with consequences, growth, change, etc.
Foreshadowing—setups and payoffs—creates echoes in our story that make our story feel more crafted, more purposeful, more deliberate, and more confident. All of that makes our story feel more meaningful to readers—and thus more satisfying. *smile*
Have you read stories with foreshadowing? Did the technique work for you (and why or why not)? Have you written stories with foreshadowing, or have you struggled to know how to use it (or find the right balance)? Can you think of other situations when foreshadowing would be beneficial or harmful? Do you have any questions about foreshadowing?
Jami Gold, after muttering writing advice in tongues, decided to become a writer and put her talent for making up stuff to good use, such as by winning the 2015 National Readers’ Choice Award in Paranormal Romance for her novel Ironclad Devotion.
To help others reach their creative potential as well, she’s developed a massive collection of resources for writers. Explore her site to find worksheets—including the popular Romance Beat Sheet with 80,000+ downloads—workshops, and over 1000 posts on her blog about the craft, business, and life of writing. Her site has been named one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers by Writer’s Digest.
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Great advice on foreshadowing (which I absolutely love as a reader!).
Our audience is hardwired to pay attention & look for clues, and so this is such a fun element to play with, IMO.
Jami Gold says
So very true about readers being primed to watch for clues. That’s why I love the technique of burying clues in the middle of sentences and then distracting readers with the rest of the paragraph. 😉
V.M. Sang says
Great foreshadowing tips here. I love foreshadowing in books I read, but have trouble with it when writing.
In my current WIP, I want to foreshadow that a character turns traitor. She is persuaded by the antagonist by his threatening her family. She is an archimage, but less powerful than the antagonist, who is probably the most powerful mage to have ever existed. He visits her by magic. (The reader doesn’t know this.)
When the protagonist, her husband, returns he detects that magic has been used recently, and asks her about it. She makes up some feeble reason, not looking him in the eye, and fidgeting. He puts this down to embarrassment.
However, I think this might sound like, as one critique partner said after reading this chapter, a bit of an unnecessary scene. Have you any ideas as to how I could make it not sound like this?
But thank you for the post. It is most helpful.
Jami Gold says
Can you add something else to the scene to give it another reason to exist?
If you’re not sure how that works, check my website, where I have a checklist of different ways to make scenes matter: https://jamigold.com/2012/06/how-to-make-the-most-of-a-scene/
Jami Gold says
Thanks so much for having me here as a Resident Writing Coach, Angela & Becca! I hope this post is helpful to your readers. 🙂
Jami Gold says
P.S. If you want to know more about foreshadowing, especially what makes it different from putting “spoilers” into our story, check out my companion post: https://jamigold.com/2022/12/foreshadowing-vs-spoiling-whats-the-difference/
Richard Hebert says
I have a story in which I tried to use foreshadowing, but the lady who read it said that magic was mentioned in the story. I had the girl’s father tell a young man his daughter had powers that he knew no other living woman had. To me, that was the clue to set up the story’s climax. I do not know what else I could have done without exposing the shocking end of the story to the reader.
Jami Gold says
Do you mean that your story doesn’t have magic, but the reader assumed the mention of “powers” meant that magic was involved?
If so, that brings up a great caveat regarding foreshadowing, much like how subtext can be tricky:
We don’t want to spoon-feed ideas to our readers by stating everything plainly, but anytime we leave things open to interpretation, some readers will interpret things differently than we intend. Every reader comes to our story with a different background and perspective, so it’s just a fact of life that some of those variations will lead to different interpretations. (In this case, maybe this reader reads a lot of paranormal stories, so she’s especially attuned to seeing those types of clues.)
While some misinterpretations don’t matter (it’s usually not a big deal if readers visualize a situation slightly differently than we do, etc.), some misinterpretations are definitely a problem. Especially when they lead readers down the wrong path of expectations.
One trick I’d recommend for preventing misinterpretations would be to use a technique that interrupts readers’ thoughts down that wrong path. That is, we find a way to call out the potential misinterpretation and correct the idea right then and there in the story.
For example, in your story, after the father’s line, the daughter could say something along the lines of “You mean like magic?” Then he could respond with whatever clarification makes sense, such as: “No, but you have an amazing heart and way of looking at the world.”
Finding these potential misinterpretations is yet another reason why beta readers and editors can be so important. We usually can’t see how others might interpret things differently because we have our own perspective, so getting feedback from different perspectives is essential.
Hope that helps!
(and even if I didn’t catch what caused the issue in your story correctly, hopefully that whole explanation helps give you ideas)
The title is His Daughter’s Hand
That is the whole premise of the story. Magic is in play by having a gypsy put dreams in a man’s head so he wants to have a woman from the dream. He falls in love with her and her father tells the man she is special and she can do things no other woman can. How else can I foreshadow the ending without telling the ending?
MINDY ALYSE WEISS says
Thanks for sharing so many amazing foreshadowing tips, Jami! This is a great post to print up and keep near my laptop. 🙂
BECCA PUGLISI says
There’s so much good stuff here, Jami. Thanks for introducing the idea of direct and indirect foreshadowing and including so much practical help on how to use them in our stories :).