In a class I recently taught on plotting, one of the students asked me to talk a little about foreshadowing which got me thinking about one of this quiet yet powerful tool to use when writing. Foreshadowing is something we study in literature class, but there isn’t much talk about this stealthy technique when writing a novel.
What is foreshadowing?And why should you use it?
Foreshadowing pays off and hooks the reader during the story if you do it right (and really falls flat if you don’t.) Think of foreshadowing as planting subtle clues for the reader of something that is going to happen later in the story—that something being of major importance.
You know the storm brewing when trouble is coming? That is almost a foreshadowing cliché. Mood and tone can be used, but don’t hit your reader over the head with a foreshadow-club. Foreshadowing falls under the “less is more” category. The two most important things to remember is don’t overdo it and make sure the foreshadowing makes story sense.
In screenwriting, foreshadowing is referred to as “planting and payoff.” (Here we go, novelists, learning from screenwriting again…) The big payoff to using this technique is not only building tension and suspense but when the payoff happens, you give your reader a satisfying “aha” moment.
So how do you use foreshadowing? Here are some methods and examples:
- Use character worry to foreshadow. You can foreshadow with a character worrying about a possible event or outcome in the future. In The Help by Kathleen Sockett, Skeeter, the protagonist, is working on a clandestine project—writing about the lives of black maids in her town. When she finds that someone has removed her copy of The Jim Crow Laws from her bag, she worries (as does the reader!) about what will happen if she’s “outed” as a civil-rights sympathizer. That earlier moment of worry casts a long and effective foreshadow for events to happen later in the book.
In many police-thrillers, a murderer has a pattern or place where he does his dirty deeds. The detective uncovers the pattern, worries as he tries to figure out when the next strike will happen, foreshadowing for the reader.
- A dangerous object can foreshadow. Don’t you get nervous when you are reading a thriller and the protagonist enters a kitchen with a big butcher-block full of knives on the counter? What about the preparation of battle—when the protagonist and his kinsmen are sharpening their swords and spears in a fantasy novel? A gun always foreshadows trouble. In The Likeness by Tana French, one of the suspect roommates finds an antique gun in the old house and begins cleaning it and putting it back together. A gun usually telegraphs future bloodshed, but the author doesn’t do the usual. She uses it in a much more subtle way and foreshadows a moment when the reader sees the protagonist’s life is in big trouble.
- Foreshadow with events that relate throughout the story. In Pet Sematary by Stephen King, trucks zoom down the road in front of the new house just purchased by the protagonist and his family. Pretty strong foreshadowing of oncoming trouble. The family moves in, then the family cat, Church, is killed by one of those trucks. The protagonist buries the family pet in the nearby pet cemetery, which is on the site of an ancient burial ground. That can’t be good! the reader thinks. Plus, the trucks keep zooming past. Lots of foreshadowing going on here. Something bad is coming. Something REALLY bad. And, of course, it does.
- Focus on an object or atmosphere that will have significance later in the story. Remember the snow globe from Citizen Kane? It falls from the hand of a dying man, foreshadowing the scene where he’s abandoned as a child (as it snows), then later in the story when he’s left alone with the snow globe foreshadowing his lonely death. If you focus on an object, be sure you follow through, and that the focus makes some sort of story-sense. Hook it into the happenings in the book. Snowglobe tied to real snow at a huge moment in the character’s life and then tied back again to yet the biggest moment, with echoes of the same theme—being alone. If you have a character focus on an object for no reason it will feel contrived, but if it’s connected to story and theme, it becomes a powerful foreshadowing tool.
- Use visions, omens, and dreams, especially if your genre allows it. Be extra careful with this one; it is misused quite often and easily feels author-manufactured or gives away too much. Be sure to keep something back; don’t let the reader know exactly what is coming. In Odd Thomas Dean Koontz foreshadows bad things coming by the appearance of bodachs—ghostly canine-like creatures that gather in number when death or disaster is on the way. Koontz uses the creatures to gather in huge number and the only person who can see them, Odd Thomas, has to find the reason why before the disaster happens. Ticking clock and foreshadowing all in a group of shadowy ghost-dogs.
A few final foreshadowing warnings:
Be sure to use foreshadowing that is natural to the story. If someone begins worrying about a murder when there is no reason, the foreshadow element will feel contrived and author-intrusive. Also, use foreshadowing with care! You can telegraph what is going to happen and too much foreshadowing will make your reader will feel the story is predictable.
Need more? Check out Six Ways to Add Suspense to Your Story.