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 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, 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. Find out more about our RWC team here and connect with Jami below.