A Guide to Foreshadowing

Updated on May 21, 2018
Use foreshadowing to keep your readers.
Use foreshadowing to keep your readers. | Source

Overview

Foreshadowing is the most powerful tool an author can use to set the tone and theme of their novel. It keeps readers hooked. They know you prepared something good for them and they want to know it. The satisfaction after reading your novel will be even greater once they connect all the dots. So, foreshadowing has a double effect. It keeps the readers with you and it gives them pleasure afterwards.

Using it properly can be a challenge - you don't want to give away your big plot twist. But, you don't want to make it happen out of nowhere, either. You must find a way to make the twins feel natural. Also, it has to give the feeling of satisfaction to readers. So, when I say you should foreshadow, I mean it.

Beware, this post is a long one. This is the ultimate guide, the last guide you'll need to successfully foreshadow events. And we'll cover all the steps. Those are:

  1. Definitions
  2. Similar Devices
  3. Great Ways To Use It
  4. Examples In Literature

To foreshadow events you'll need to understand all four segments. After reading this post, I promise you'll be all set.

Defining Foreshadowing

According to the Oxford Dictionary foreshadow means warning or indication of future events. There is no great mystery there. And literary foreshadowing is exactly that but with a much more subtle approach.

Literary Devices define foreshadowing as a literary device in which the author gives clues about events that will happen later in the story. Often these clues are fairly subtle so that they can only be noticed or fully understood upon a second reading.

You can see the pattern here. This is the device that keeps suspense and it's subtle. Subtle is the term we are concerned with. Apart from how to devise such a construction, you must know how to lay it out through your book.

I said above that it will help you define your theme. The point is that you're going to repeat the foreshadowing until the end. Some fragments of the metaphor or event you are using will appear in various places and in various forms.

At times, it will be a suspicious character or a weather change or a metaphor that will keep appearing. The foreshadowing is the closest device to your theme you'll have. And keeping them in harmony will do wonders to your novel.

Make your books unforgettable using devices such as foreshadowing.
Make your books unforgettable using devices such as foreshadowing. | Source

Similar Devices

Basically, there are three major literary devices we will explore.

  • Foreshadowing
  • Foreboding
  • Telegraphing

Telegraphing

First off, telegraphing is a great little term I fell in love with a few years ago when I first heard of it.

Telegraphing means giving away too much pieces of information to your readers. They figure out what's going on and they get bored. Rachelle Gardner calls it the black-sheep cousin of foreshadowing.

This is a literary device you don't want to use. Telegraphing will put off all your readers who like to think for themselves.

An exercise

In his article from 2013, Brian A. Klems gives an exercise. The goal is to recognize the line between foreshadowing and telegraphing.

Let’s say your female sleuth meets a man who turns out to be a serial rapist/murderer who preys on young businesswomen he picks up at yuppie bars. What would be foreshadowing, and what would be telegraphing? Consider this list of possibilities. Where would you draw the line?

  1. The man is charming: His nails are manicured, and he smells of expensive aftershave. She finds herself feeling a bit uneasy around him, but she can’t put her finger on why.
  2. The man’s eyes linger on the woman’s chest when they’re introduced.
  3. When the man shakes her hand, he places his other hand on the small of her back.
  4. When she gets ready to leave, he offers to walk her to her car, saying there have been some muggings in the neighborhood.
  5. She finds his direct, penetrating blue eyes unnerving.
  6. She notices a scratch on his face; he notices her noticing, and says his cat scratched him.
  7. She’s repelled by the man. He reminds her of the college football player who tried to rape her years earlier.
  8. The man opens his briefcase; she notices a copy of Hustler magazine tucked inside.
  9. The man opens his briefcase; she notices that the briefcase contains a roll of duct tape and handcuffs.
  10. The man’s name is Vlad Raptor.

He says that the line is most likely after the number six. The rest of it makes the reader aware the man is a rapist/murderer. So, study this and think of some points yourself - write them down and find the line.

Foreboding

Foreboding is even more subtle. As foreshadowing hints at plot points, foreboding sets the mood. You can use this device to fill in for foreshadowing. Those two go well together. Understand that this device only hints to the ambient - use it to provoke feelings, not trigger theories.

Foreshadowing would be showing readers a gun while foreboding is the description of red sunrise (The Lord of The Rinds most notably).

These two often work together and the difference is hard to recognize. Also, different sources will tell you different definitions. According to some, weather is one of the most powerful foreshadowing methods. So, for those reason we'll throw them into the same pile.

A raven is a very common symbol in foreboding.
A raven is a very common symbol in foreboding. | Source

Foreboding is very subtle and atmospheric. Use it when foreshadowing appears to be too strong and threatens to give away the coming surprise.

Foreshadowing and How to Use It

Finally, our main point of discussion. You can use foreshadowing in various ways. Furthermore, some originality to it is welcome. If you can come up with a new way to foreshadow events you have succeeded in your writing career.

So, the most common ways to foreshadow events are:

  • Prophecy
  • Symbolic Omens
  • Opinion
  • Show The Thing
  • Narrator Statement
  • Thoughts And Concerns
  • Approaching Event
  • Down-Scales

Prophecy

Well, this is an old one. Though, it still works very well. You can use prophecy in fantasy, that's the common thing. But, you can use it in any genre if you have the patience to shape it. A fortune-teller could tell fortune to a person who is accompanied with a cynic - you would never really state if there's truth in it, but it can be connected to the plot in some minor way.

Symbolic Omens

Here you have freedom to experiment and bend the rules to the extremes. Or, you can go with an obvious solution and achieve the same effect.

Neil Gaiman's "A Storm is Coming", George Martin's "Winter is Coming" are great examples of foreshadowing in novels. Even if these cool ones are already taken and famous, there are still ideas to be found.

Tolkien use this with the story of Gondor and its famous tree.

Try looking at your surrounding and think what ordinary thing might make a good metaphor for an upcoming event.

Opinion

In literature opinions have more meaning to the events than in real life. Here we simply agree or disagree. But, if a character has a gut feeling we are likely to believe them even if there is no real evidence for it.

This one is commonly used in thriller novels starring veteran detectives who know what they do. But, to be sure, don't use the given example - it's already overused.

Show The Thing

If you have a character who is about to commit a murder, you might foreshadow that by showing your readers a gun or a bottle of poison.

Be careful, this one is on the line with telegraphing. You might have that character carry the gun around for a reason but give them a reason. So, when they commit the murder it will be fairly obvious you planned it all that way.

Note: readers sometimes get into your story completely and when a twist happens they get surprised that the path to it was paved from the beginning.

Foreshadowing is the quickest way to grab your reader's attention.
Foreshadowing is the quickest way to grab your reader's attention. | Source

Narrator Statement

It's a bit obvious, really. There is nothing subtle about this and it might even ruin the experience. But, if you're sure about the way you'll approach it, go ahead.

You can describe in a frank way that when something happened someone had no idea what else was going to happen. That's about it.

Thoughts And Concerns

This is interesting. It is similar to the opinion but it has its own flavor. For example, your lead character has an irrational fear of something. Readers will assume there's a reason for it - in a literary sense.

Another way to do it is by describing non-verbal aspects of their communication in a scene. If they are sweating before going to work, something about the work is troubling them.

Approaching Event

I absolutely love this one. It's my favorite. Again, "Winter" and "A Storm" come to mind. In combination with symbolic omens this works perfectly.

Have something separate from your plot going on all along. Give importance to that without ever saying why it's important. When your readers finish reading they will connect the event to the main plot. Furthermore, you can incorporate the event to the main twins but be careful about the way you set it up. It's easy to fall victim to the telegraphing trap.

Down-Scale

An anti-climax to a small event is a great way to foreshadow a big event. For example, a plane hits turbulence, the pilot struggles to regain the control but everything ends well. Does it? Your readers will feel there is something about to happen. It's so common that if nothing happens after all readers get disappointed.

Note: don't get your readers' hopes up. The worst thing you can do is to plant the idea and miss the pay-off. Once you foreshadow, you must deliver.

"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."

-Anton Chekhov, several times

Examples of Foreshadowing in Literature

One of the greatest examples in literature is Romeo and Juliet. The Bard foreshadows the ending several times and it's one of the most notable examples you'll ever find.

Also, all the mentioned examples from above are a good path to take.

"I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what."

-To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee

That's a great example. The lawyer, Atticus, tells this to his children and it foreshadows the main struggle he is heading to.

Another example would be Frodo's comment that it was a pity Bilbo didn't kill Gollum when he had a chance. To which Gandalf replies that Bilbo's pity may rule the fate of many. In the end, it does.

Quick Poll

Which foreshadowing technique do you prefer?

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Conclusion

Foreshadowing is a must-use device in popular novels. In one way or another, you'll have it. At least in one scene to foreshadow the next scene.

If you have some interesting ideas on how to foreshadow properly, leave them below. A discussion is always encouraged.

Keep writing!

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