How to Keep Your Audience Searching with Foreshadowing
Learn how to use foreshadowing to engage your readers and make your work re-readable.
Think of a time when you were reading a book or watching a movie and thought, “wait a minute - didn’t I see that earlier?” Maybe watching the characters get to a massive underground facility under a small hill reminds you of when one of them said they were “making a mountain out of a molehill.” Maybe that one guy’s catchphrase about always being on time comes back to you when he’s finally in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or maybe someone pulls out a tool they mentioned in passing an hour ago at a key moment.
Getting little hints about what’s going to happen later on can make reading a book, playing a game, or watching a movie feel like being a detective; if you can string together all the clues, you’ll get the reward of knowing what’s going to happen when the big turning point comes. This literary technique is known as foreshadowing, and it’s a great way to keep readers paying attention to everything in your story.
Not sure where to start? Here’s what you need to know about adding excellent clues to your big plot twists with foreshadowing.
What is the Definition of Foreshadowing?
Foreshadowing is a technique with many synonyms. Similar literary terms include portend, foretell, presage, prefigure, herald, signal, forewarn, and more. Sorry for sounding like a thesaurus – the technique is as old as literature itself.
In technical terms, foreshadowing is what we call the literary device of using various story elements to subtly indicate upcoming events in a story. To put it more simply, foreshadowing is telling your audience plot developments before they happen in a clever and low-profile way.
You can foreshadow using all kinds of structural elements:
- Character dialogue can foreshadow future events (ie, having someone say, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” before walking into a trap).
- Symbolism is a major foreshadowing tool and can include things like color palettes and omens (ie, a character that’s going to die is always described as wearing gray or having ravens near them).
- Timing and setting of a story can foreshadow events (ie, bad things happen in rainstorms, good things happen in sunshine, churches are good places for major revelations, wilderness can be isolating).
Basically, as long as you’re hinting at what you’re about to do to or with these characters or settings, you can use any other literary device to foreshadow.
Things that foreshadowing is not
There are a few instances where what you’re doing is definitely not foreshadowing.
- A flashback tells us about something that’s already happened, not about something that is going to happen. You can foreshadow in a flashback - say, by showing us an important conversation or symbol - but the flashback itself isn’t foreshadowing.
- A flashforward is the opposite of a flashback; it shows us something that’s going to happen. Given that foreshadowing is meant to be subtle, giving us the full scenario in a flashforward doesn’t count as foreshadowing. It’s still a great way to build your story up though, which leads to…
- Dramatic irony is a situation in which the audience knows something that the main characters do not. For instance, we might be told in a prologue that a story is a tragedy but the characters will be obliviously excited for a celebration to come. You can use foreshadowing to create dramatic irony, but dramatic irony itself is not foreshadowing.
I do also want to touch quickly on the topic of spoilers. A spoiler is when you give away exactly what happens during a key story moment before it actually happens. Now, I know that sounds very similar to foreshadowing, so let me expand on the idea a little bit.
A spoiler is not subtle at all; it’s someone leaning out of a car window on a book’s release day and yelling, “THIS GUY DIES AT THE END” (To fans of the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling – I can feel you cringing from here). It’s basically giving away the game without letting the audience do any detective work. Foreshadowing, on the other hand, gives the audience clues but lets them find the answer themselves. If done subtly enough, you might have to re-read a story to realize that the foreshadowing is there at all - you might not notice that the guy who loses everything to greed is being followed around by Midas references until you go back to the beginning and see how many things he handles are swapped out for gold.
Everyone loves some good foreshadowing, but no one likes a spoiler, so you’ve got to make sure that your foreshadowing leaves some room for interpretation and surprise.
The Types of Foreshadowing
Aside from having multiple methods for foreshadowing, there are also two types: direct and indirect. Both are incredibly useful when you know how to apply them - and they can make you seem like a mastermind to your readers, so that’s a win.
Direct foreshadowing, also called overt foreshadowing, is when you openly tell the reader what’s gonna happen next. The opening scenes of many Shakespeare plays do this - we’re told that the lovers are doomed in Romeo and Juliet, that Macbeth will be the king, and that, well, there will be Much Ado About Nothing.
You can use direct foreshadowing in lots of ways, but one of the most common is a prophecy. Whether it’s a written document, local legend, or the visions of a mystical character, a prophecy often has a message that is taken to be inevitable, a harbinger of joy or doom. One way or another, this thing is going to happen or these events will happen in this order.
The difference between direct foreshadowing and spoiling is that direct foreshadowing will tell you the general theme of what’s going to happen, but it doesn’t show you exactly how or when it will happen. This makes for some great opportunities to subvert audience expectations; you can foreshadow by giving them a technical truth rather than a simple truth. Yes, the lovers are doomed, but it’s by their own and their family’s actions and prejudices. Yes, Macbeth becomes king, but he has to kill his way to the top, and even then, it’s a hollow title he doesn’t hold very long. Yes, in the end, it’s all about nothing, but without that “nothing,” Beatrice and Benedick wouldn’t end up together.
Indirect foreshadowing, or covert foreshadowing, is when you drop hints but never actually say what those hints mean. This is the kind of foreshadowing that gets more use, as it’s easier to do without giving away the entire game.
Indirect foreshadowing might include setting up a repetitive symbol like the ticking of a clock or a particular color appearing, then using that symbol in a major way later on - the hero’s time runs out or a character with a particular color scheme becomes majorly important.
Indirect foreshadowing is incredibly subtle, and might not even be noticeable until you’re already at the event being foreshadowed. This is the kind of foreshadowing that makes books fun to read multiple times.
Okay, you know what foreshadowing is. Let’s see it in action to get a better idea of how it works. Here are some great examples of foreshadowing. Obviously, reader beware, you’re in for some spoilers.
- In Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, we get the title drop fairly early on. Atticus Finch explains to his children that “It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” because they “don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.” This is indirect foreshadowing of the eventually deadly events of the court proceedings surrounding Tom Robinson, an innocent Black man accused of assaulting a white woman.
- Edgar Allen Poe put foreshadowing directly into his titles. The Tell-Tale Heart, for instance, foreshadows the climactic finale to the short story, where the narrator can hear the beating heart of the man he murdered, coming up through the floorboards as he speaks with the police.
- In Disney’s The Incredibles, super fashion designer Edna Mode is very clear about not ever including capes in the costumes of her heroes because she’s seen them cause deadly accidents too many times. This extremely early scene cleverly foreshadows the eventual death of the movie’s main villain, Syndrome, as he’s sucked back into his own machine thanks to the cape he’s wearing.
- In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker sees his own face behind Darth Vader’s mask during a vision in a cave on Dagobah, implying he has a close connection to Vader and his darkness. Later in the movie, he discovers Vader is his father.
- There’s lots of clever foreshadowing in the Broadway hit Hamilton, but one of my personal favorite examples comes from this set of lines in the Act 1 song “Aaron Burr, Sir.”
BURR: Fools who run their mouths off wind up dead
LAURENS: Ay, yo, yo, yo, yo, yo!
What time is it?
LAFAYETTE AND MULLIGAN: Showtime!
BURR: Like I said…
Burr claims that those who won’t stop boasting about their brilliance are doomed to fail, and is immediately followed by a boasting John Laurens, who dies at the end of the act.
How to Foreshadow in Your Writing
So how can you use foreshadowing in your own writing? Well, you’ll have to come at it with a plan, set it up early, and be consistent.
Plan your story backward
It may sound obvious, but let me state it anyway: in order to foreshadow something, you have to know that it’s going to happen. So, write your story backward; if you start with the ending in mind, you can include more concrete foreshadowing and consistent symbolism throughout the story. You’ll know which plot points benefit from the use of foreshadowing, and can therefore use the technique to ratchet up dramatic tension.
Start seeding early
The really cool thing about foreshadowing is that you can do it from before the first line of the story is ever written. Consider foreshadowing in your title - is there a major symbol you could use (like in To Kill A Mockingbird) or a particular key line of dialogue that you like? You might also include a relevant quote as a prologue to your story. Use that to make your audience curious about how it plays into the events unfolding in front of them.
Make your story a scavenger hunt
Starting early is important, but staying consistent is the key to really cool moments of “IT ALL ADDS UP!” later on. So, make sure that you’re putting subtle clues in all of the important scenes - even the ones that don’t look important early on.
There’s a concept that Roy Clark discusses in his book, Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, called “gold coins.” He compares the process of adding plot-relevant clues in a story to scattering gold coins along a path. You want them to be close enough to draw the reader forward, but with enough space in between that the thrill of finding one isn’t diminished by the frequency of them.
So, think of it like a scavenger hunt. Give your audience little clues that they can pick up as they read if they’re paying enough attention, then reward them by turning those clues into a big moment at the climax of the story. That way, the reader gets to feel like a genius for noticing all the little hints and you get to feel like a mastermind for planting them there.
Get a second opinion
When you’ve added in all of your clues, do the scariest thing a writer can do: hand your story to someone else to read. You know where your clues are because you put them there; the only way to really see if your readers are going to be on the same page as you (pun intended) is to find some readers!
Ask beta readers about whether or not they saw your big twist coming, and if so, how. Ask them whether they noticed certain things, or ask them generally what they noticed - they may have picked up on something that you did entirely by accident, letting you purposefully refine it into an even cooler moment.
Heck, ask people who’ve read your previous projects what small details they noticed. Use that feedback to build similar clues into your next piece, and make it part of your writing aesthetic!
When Not to Foreshadow
Okay, so the big question: are there any times when you definitely shouldn’t use foreshadowing? Sort of. There are times when it’s either not appropriate, or it can be replaced with another literary device that suits the scene better.
Giving away the game
One of the few times where you most definitely shouldn’t foreshadow is right before your big scene. Don’t let your characters get to the big bad’s house and then say, “I have a bad feeling about this.”
Not only is it fairly obvious at this point (your readers aren’t stupid and will definitely know when they’re reaching a big scene), but it’s also going to ruin the impact of your reveal if you tell us you’re about to reveal it. At this point, your attempts at foreshadowing are going to fall dangerously close to spoiler territory.
Think of it this way: the closer you get to your big reveal scene, the less your audience needs warnings about it happening and the more they need to see what’s at stake. Instead of giving away what’s about to happen, focus on your characters’ incentives. Give us heartfelt goodbyes with loved ones, professions about big goals, and determined inner monologues, then take it all away - or give it all back!
Use Chekhov’s Gun instead
What if instead of foreshadowing, you take an innocuous moment and turn it into something incredibly important later on? Sure, anyone who’s read your story before will look at this early scene and cringe in anticipation, but anyone reading for the first time won’t think about it twice until it’s too late.
This is the concept called Chekhov’s Gun, coined from a technique presented by Anton Chekhov. Chekhov said that “if in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” Basically, if you show the audience a person, place, or thing in passing early on, then it should become relevant to your story before the story ends.
Here’s an example for you: in Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens, it’s mentioned briefly early in the story that Crowley, our loveable sauntering demon, is responsible for the poor design of the M25, the ring road that circles London. It’s brought up in a list of his petty demonic acts, to emphasize the kind of villainy he gets up to, but not mentioned again until the climax of the book. Then, the specific design of the road makes it nearly impossible for several characters - including Crowley himself - to get to Tadfiled in order to either keep going or stop the Apocalypse from happening.
Chekhov’s Gun can be a fun way to include mysterious objects, obscure talents, and seemingly random characters into your plot without having to dedicate entire scenes to them. Pair it with foreshadowing of the situation it’s going to be useful in and you’ve got yourself a plot that keeps on giving.
Set up a red herring
There are some situations where the most interesting thing you can do in a story is to leave clues to the wrong conclusion, on purpose. This is a concept called the red herring; it’s basically foreshadowing an event that’s not going to happen to subvert your audience’s expectations.
This works really well in mysteries and thrillers. In many of Agatha Christie’s mystery novels, the most obvious suspect for a crime isn’t the actual perpetrator. Take The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, for example. Our narrator points us at Roger’s various family members as he and Poirot work to solve the murder, but (and this is a major spoiler, so be warned!) they’re all red herrings - it turns out, our dear narrator has been behind the crime the whole time!
Red herrings are a good way to deflect suspicion and make surprise twists come completely out of the dark. What’s even better is if you use both foreshadowing and red herrings - put the focus on the wrong solution while hinting at the correct one in the background. This gives your readers something to go back for after they learn what the story’s twist is.
Foreshadowing is a fun concept to play with in your writing. It helps keep your reader’s attention, guessing what comes next and connecting dots across the storyline. It helps you keep the story consistent by placing small steps for your characters to climb before they take a massive leap into the most intense part of the plot. It’s a great tool for everyone involved.
The next time you set up a story, try working your big moment into the whole manuscript in little pieces. Figuring out how you can keep your readers curious and combing with fine teeth might just be the best part of putting together an intriguing, surprising, or nerve-wracking plot.