Foreshadowing: The Writer’s Guide to Building Anticipation
How do you get readers to fear what lies ahead in your story without giving away the surprise?
What’s the secret to building suspense without laying it on too thick?
And what’s a thirteen-letter word for a literary device that hints at future events?
Foreshadowing, foreshadowing, and foreshadowing.
This storytelling tool is great for getting readers on the edge of their seats and frantically flipping pages. But like any powerful device, you can’t just start flinging it around willy-nilly. You have to learn how to foreshadow with art and intention.
Fortunately, we’re about to discuss just that. We’ll go over:
- Different types of foreshadowing
- Familiar examples
- How this tool can improve your story
- Foreshadowing techniques
- Common mistakes
Let’s start with the big question…
What is Foreshadowing?
Foreshadowing is a literary device in which the author hints at future events through dialogue and/or narration.
The word “hints” is very important here. The goal isn’t to tell readers what’s going to happen but to give them the sense that something major waits on the horizon. You can foreshadow positive events, but you’ll most often use this device to indicate that bad things are coming.
Types of Foreshadowing
There are several different ways to drop a hint in your narrative, but all techniques fall under two main categories: direct and indirect foreshadowing.
Now, there is a third type, fallacy foreshadowing, but we’re not going to discuss it in this article because it’s not real. Fallacy foreshadowing is when the author misleads the reader by making them think they’re hinting at a specific outcome when they’re really not. It’s a red herring, basically, and it can really tick off your readers if you don’t use it carefully.
We have a separate article on red herrings, so for now, we’ll focus on these two types of legit foreshadowing:
Also called “explicit foreshadowing,” this is when the dialogue or narration tells you exactly what’s going to go down.
In Macbeth, the three witches greet the title character by saying he’ll be king one day. Not much to interpret there, right? They mean exactly what they say. That’s direct foreshadowing.
Now, it might seem like this would kill the suspense, but in this form of foreshadowing, the question that hooks readers isn’t what happens but how it happens.
Also called “implicit foreshadowing,” indirect foreshadowing occurs when the clues regarding the future are more subtle—possibly even symbolic.
Let’s say you’re writing a story where the main character gets a new job in a cutthroat industry where they learn to become ruthless, destroying anyone who might get in the way of their career goals.
As they drive to work for their first day on the job, they see a hawk dive to capture a mouse. The sight gives them a thrill, and though the reader still knows this character to be wide-eyed and unassuming, this moment foreshadows the transformation to come.
Foreshadowing is everywhere in books, movies, television, plays, and even poetry. If you’re cool with a few spoilers, read on for some real-life examples of this literary device.
To Kill a Mockingbird - Atticus tells his kids that courage is “when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” This foreshadows his own story arc—his dogged fight to defend Tom Robinson and eventual loss in court.
The Incredibles - Designer Edna refuses to add capes to her superhero get-ups, pointing out that many heroes have died because of this costume feature, including one whose cape was sucked into a jet engine. This turns out to be exactly how the villain dies.
Romeo and Juliet - Romeo tells Juliet, “My life were better ended by their hate, than death prorogued, wanting of thy love.” Poor dude’s just trying to be romantic and ends up foreshadowing his own death.
Importance of Foreshadowing in Writing
So why do writers bother with foreshadowing? And how can this tool help you write a stronger, more engaging story?
Foreshadowing Builds Anticipation
Sometimes foreshadowing is so subtle readers don’t even realize it’s happening until they get to the event the author was hinting at.
But in many cases, the reader knows foreshadowing is happening, even if they don’t know the true meaning of the author’s clue.
Maybe the witness to a crime warns the detective that they’ll regret pursuing this case. Or a child notices that their neighbor looks around every time they open their mailbox as if they’re afraid they’re being watched.
Details like these suggest that interesting and potentially frightening events lie ahead. It’s a great tool for creating suspense.
It Enhances Reader Engagement
Foreshadowing invites readers to make guesses about the future. When a reader knows the author is dropping a hint, they’ll immediately start asking questions.
What’s about to happen? Are there any other clues I should be picking up? Is my favorite character safe? (Probably not.)
See, foreshadowing isn’t just about building anticipation; it’s also a tool for creating a puzzle, especially if you write mysteries.
Foreshadowing Adds a Dose of Reality
The crazy thing about foreshadowing is that it’s a real thing that happens in real life.
We warn someone when we see them walking toward trouble. People start behaving differently when they’re about to make big life changes, even changes they’re not conscious of. They might pull away from a partner before they’ve decided to leave them or start reminiscing when they’re in their final days of life.
As an author, you get to add some artistic flair—thunder or flowers in bloom or a symbolic dream. But sometimes foreshadowing simply reflects the natural processes of reflection and communication. Cool, right?
Time to start working these concepts into your own story. And how does that work? What techniques can you use to spice up your plot with some cryptic fortune-telling?
Here are some of the most common foreshadowing tools:
Symbolism and Imagery
Symbolic foreshadowing might not clarify what the reader should be worried about, but it can give them the sense that something significant is about to happen.
Remember the example of the soon-to-be cutthroat, career-driven character who sees a hawk kidnap a mouse on their commute? That’s symbolic foreshadowing. The hawk symbolizes who that character will become.
Character Dialogue and Actions
Readers can look at what characters say and do for clues about the events that lie ahead.
For example, a character might issue a warning, like, “If you make this choice, there’s no going back.” Or change in their behavior might indicate that there’s something going on with them—something to be revealed later in the plot.
Setting and Atmosphere
A mysterious figure walks through the door and suddenly there’s a clap of thunder. An invasive wildflower is in bloom, choking local species as its colors dominate the landscape. A character gives their Lyft driver the address for the party and gets dropped off at the front door of a warehouse in a sketchy part of town.
Setting is a great way to raise questions, drive up suspense, and let the reader know something big is coming.
Hints in Narration
You can even work foreshadowing into the narration. For example, you might open a scene with, “The last time Josie saw Dirk, he was standing in line for ice cream.” Right away, you know Dirk is going to disappear from Josie’s life, but you’ll have to keep reading the story to find out how and why.
Foreshadowing vs. Predictability
Now for an important question:
How do you use this tool so that it engages your reader’s curiosity without giving away major plot points?
The first step is to not write a predictable story. I know that’s an obnoxious answer, but it’s true. If storm clouds roll in as the groom pulls up to the chapel, what’s your first assumption? This guy’s gonna get jilted, right?
As writers, it’s our job to be aware of what our readers expect so we can subvert those expectations.
It also helps to avoid heavy-handed foreshadowing, which brings us to…
Common Mistakes in Foreshadowing
As is the case with all literary devices, poor use of foreshadowing will distract from the narrative at best and aggravate your readers at worst.
So let’s take a minute to highlight some of the easiest ways to slip up when you’re playing literary soothsayer.
Too much foreshadowing can start to feel like you’re constantly promising the reader that the plot is about to get good. If you find yourself ending every chapter with something along the lines of “they had no idea what was coming” without any payoff, you’re probably overdoing it.
Lack of Subtlety
Were the three witches subtle when they greeted Macbeth saying, “Hey there, Guy Who’s Going to Be King Someday”?
No. No, they were not. But their prophesying successfully created more questions.
The bad kind of blatant foreshadowing is the kind where the reader can easily guess where the story is going. Like when the coal miner makes a long speech about the wonderful future that awaits him after he completes this, his last day in the mine.
That guy’s about to die and everybody knows it.
Failing to Pay It Off
When you use foreshadowing in your story, you make a promise to the reader. You promise you’re going to deliver a riveting plot point that’s worth the anticipation they’ve invested.
When a writer drops clues about future events and those events never arrive, the audience feels manipulated. Any time you drop a hint, you’ve got to pay it off.
This principle is known as Chekhov’s Gun. If you draw attention to a detail—a gun on the wall, for example—that detail must eventually be significant to the plot.
That’s why it’s important to learn how to use this tool well. Foreshadowing is not a gimmick designed to sell readers on the story. It’s one of many devices you can use to craft a thoughtful, cohesive narrative that engages readers authentically.
Fill Your Literary Toolbox
Now that you know how to foreshadow thrilling future events in your novel, you’re ready to add a flashback that reveals a shocking backstory. Or a motif that highlights your protagonist’s inner journey. Or an epilogue that provides closure for your reader.
There are endless devices you can use to write a story that hooks your reader, speaks to their soul, and keeps them engaged until the last page. And Dabble is here to help you master every last one of those tools.
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