It’s the “aha” moment—when everything finally comes together in the story. It’s an exciting discovery for the reader, but it takes a lot of work for the writer to create this moment. One of the best tools writers have to create this effect is foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is a plot element that hints at something to come later in the story. There are many reasons to use foreshadowing in writing, including building suspense, sparking curiosity, and preparing your reader for that “aha” moment.
What is foreshadowing?
Foreshadowing is a literary device that alludes to a later point in the story. For example, if a character mentions offhandedly that bad things always happen to them in autumn, then the observant reader will be alert when the leaves in the story begin to fall. Foreshadowing can be obvious or subtle, and when used effectively, it creates just enough anticipation or curiosity to keep the reader turning the pages.
Writers may also use foreshadowing to set the reader up for an emotional reveal or plot twist. Of course, you don’t want to give away a big surprise, but if you spring it on your reader without any emotional buildup (even if it’s subconscious), they might be confused or even distraught.
What foreshadowing is not
Foreshadowing is not a spoiler
Foreshadowing is meant to inflate suspense, not stamp it out. Foreshadowing hints at what will happen in the future, but a spoiler tells the reader explicitly what happens. With a spoiler, the reader has no surprises to look forward to.
Foreshadowing is not a flash-forward
A flash-forward (the opposite of a flashback) projects the reader into a future situation in the story. While both foreshadowing and flash-forwards deal with the future, a flash-forward explicitly describes what is happening. Flash-forwards are similar to spoilers in the amount of detail they give, but while spoilers deflate a story, flash-forwards enhance it by bringing in new details.
Foreshadowing is not a red herring
A red herring in storytelling is a hint placed deliberately to mislead the reader. You can find examples of red herrings in crime novels and TV shows. When a character is acting a little bit too guilty, they are probably a red herring.
Types of foreshadowing
Direct (overt) foreshadowing
Direct foreshadowing is explicit about what it is. When a narrator says something like, “Little did I know . . .” the character is about to divulge something that happens later.
Direct foreshadowing might also show up in an introduction, a prelude, or even a title. Murder on the Orient Express, a detective novel by Agatha Christie, directly foreshadows that there will be a murder on a train called the Orient Express. It doesn’t take a lot of sleuthing to figure that out.
Indirect (covert) foreshadowing
Indirect foreshadowing is a subtle hint about the future. Oftentimes indirect foreshadowing can be so understated that it goes unnoticed by the reader until after the later event has happened, which leads to that light-bulb moment.
When does a writer use foreshadowing?
Foreshadowing shows up in many ways in creative writing. Some common places to use foreshadowing are in titles, dialogue, and symbolism.
Why not begin at the beginning? The title of a book can provide a huge hint about what’s going to happen in the book’s plot. For example, readers of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King are primed for a return of the king. Death on the Nile suggests that there will be a death on the Nile, and As I Lay Dying does more than hint at the fate of the narrator.
Dialogue can also be a great way to include indirect foreshadowing in the form of a joke or an offhand comment. Let’s say Mary tells Sally that she’ll only get a promotion if her boss takes an extended absence, and then later in the story her boss takes an extended absence. In dialogue, it may have seemed like an exaggerated way of saying the occurrence is unlikely, but when the boss does go on leave, the reader thinks back on that moment and understands it in a new way.
Writers can use symbolism and motif to create more conceptual foreshadowing. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown,” the main character’s rejection of Puritanism is foreshadowed using symbolism associated with the devil. For example, on a nightmarish trek through the woods, he meets a man with a snake-shaped staff.
3 rules for writing foreshadowing
Make it relevant
Make sure the hint is relevant to the plot. There is a literary principle called “Chekov’s gun” that states that every element introduced in a story must have a relevant use. For a literal example, think of the James Bond films. Every weapon that Bond is presented with at the start of his mission will likely come into play at a crucial moment of action.
Not all writers agree with Chekov’s principle—in fact, some even mock it—but it’s useful to keep in mind when creating foreshadowing. When you foreshadow, you are not arbitrarily placing a hint in the story; you are deliberately placing it there to generate an effect. Foreshadowing a meaningless moment will misdirect your reader’s attention and leave them confused or disappointed.
If you’re using direct foreshadowing, you want your reader to pick up on the hint. However, there is a balance between making it obvious and making it too obvious. A hint that is too obvious leaves no room for the reader’s curiosity—defeating the purpose of the foreshadowing. Remember, foreshadowing is a way to engage the reader through anticipation, curiosity, or suspense.
Consider the timing
In general, it’s better for an author to create ample space between elements of foreshadowing and the big reveal. The longer curiosity or anticipation is allowed to build up, the greater the payoff when it gets resolved. It can be the difference between eliciting an “oh” and an “aha!”
Examples of foreshadowing in literature
Mystery and thriller novels rely heavily on suspense, so they are good places to look for examples of foreshadowing. But foreshadowing can be found in other literary genres if you know what to look for.
I don’t know, darling. I’ve always been afraid of the rain.
—Catherine in A Farewell to Arms
In the novel A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, the reader learns that Catherine is afraid of the rain, though she can’t tell why. It later becomes clear that rain symbolizes death, and it is death that Catherine fears. Spoiler alert: Catherine dies in the end, and the narrator walks away in the rain.
It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.
—Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird
In Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird,lawyer Atticus Finch explains courage to his children while simultaneously foreshadowing the outcome of his legal case. This is an example of using foreshadowing in dialogue.
I say that you are the murderer you are seeking.
—Tiresias in Oedipus the King
In the ancient Greek play about Oedipus Rex, a prophet named Tiresias tells Oedipus that he is the murderer he is seeking, foreshadowing (not so subtly) that Oedipus will murder his father. The foreshadowing in this instance is direct and embedded in dialogue. While audiences today might consider this a spoiler, audiences at the time of the play were familiar with the fate of Oedipus, so hearing this exchange wouldn’t ruin the plot for them.
What is foreshadowing?
Foreshadowing is a plot element that hints at something later in the story.
How does foreshadowing work?
Foreshadowing works by suggesting something will happen without giving it away completely. This keeps the reader engaged with the story from start to finish.
What is the purpose of foreshadowing?
The purpose of foreshadowing is to prime the reader for a later event. It is used to build suspense, create curiosity, or prepare a reader for a plot twist.