We all know how valuable using foreshadowing is, no?
The definition being a ‘warning or indication (of a future event).’
For a novelist and a writer of narrative nonfiction, the point of this literary device is to add depth, build suspense, and most importantly, to make that future event “fit” in the main plot, character development, and overall narrative.
And while this tool can be used oh-so effectively, what I often see in novel editing is it’s done either too blatantly, or so subtly that it gets buried where the reader can’t find it.
So what’s a writer to do?
Here are a few pointers to make sure your foreshadowing works:
To begin, we want to use this technique for something that truly affects the plot, and deeply disrupts the character’s journey within it.
This seems self-evident, no? Overuse of foreshadowing will water down the entire novel. And worse, it will confuse your reader as to what’s important, and what’s peripheral.
Focus on the major plot points of the story and choose what you foreshadow with care.
- Use Deliberately
I use a three-step process for this.
We want to begin it early on—in the set-up stage. The first mention should come in Chapter One, or even the Prologue, if you use one.
Then somewhere in the middle, find another place to bring up a piece of it.
When you get to the climax scene, the event itself closes the foreshadowing circle.
Get used to this rhythm. Use it, rather than it using you.
- Weave This In
We don’t want it to stick out like a green and brown thumb. In fact, on first mention, this needn’t point itself out—the astute reader (and those are yours, no?) will see it, even if subliminally.
By the next sighting, it registers in the conscious mind.
So by the time the event occurs, the reader is ready for it.
By far what I see most is the writer beating the reader over the head with it: NOTICE THIS!! Which often comes across comically.
Instead, we want our foreshadowing bits to come up organically, sliding into the story as if born there.
Give your reader some credit. Give him subtle clues, which he can find without being smacked in the face with them.
- Follow Through
If you’ve put it a clock ticking in the opening, which foreshadows a bomb going off down the way, that bomb sure better explode at some point.
In other words, don’t lead your reader down a road that doesn’t come back to the climax.
Doing so risks confusing him again, or, worse, he may take that road and not come back (put the book down and not pick it up again).
Just make sure to bring your event to its conclusion.
- The Reckoning
We want our foreshadowing to pay off in spades. The worst thing you can do is build up to something that isn’t big enough for your reader.
Remember—to be effective, your protagonist has to find the Holy Grail, whatever that is in your novel. The girl must be won, or the conspiracy, foiled. The secret needs to come to light, the bad guy vanquished.
And on the road to this, your foreshadowing predicted the essence.
The worst thing you can do is build up to a fizzling bomb.
You can name some of these, can’t you? Cold Mountain did it for me. All that foreshadowing. All that build up. And to end as it did. I found myself wondering why I read the book . . .
Just always keep in mind the payoff for your reader.
By far the easiest way to work in foreshadowing is in the revision stage.
So many people write from discovery, finding out more about the plot and characters as they go.
But even if you write from an outline, it’s often difficult to see exactly how you’re going to get from opening line to The End. And often, your plot takes different twists and turns, which you didn’t foresee.
Once the first draft is down, and you know the core of your climax, it’s often clear what needs to be foreshadowed (and what doesn’t).
While novel editing, I often find key points in a writer’s book that would work great by being foreshadowed. I note those. You can do the same in your own revision process.
Before you begin rewriting, reread, reread, reread. There you can pinpoint the perfect places to subtly alert your reader.
- Study other Writers
See how other writers accomplished effective foreshadowing. Study them. I send my writers down reading lists, to study what works and what doesn’t. And although for a time they say I’ve ruined reading for them, the pleasure comes back—I promise!
Often this is easiest to see in short fiction. There’s such limited space and time, which brings literary devices to the fore for students.
I use a lot of foreshadowing in my new short-story collection, Over the Pass and Other Stories. Although not often apparent on first reading, upon re-reading it becomes quite evident to writing students.
Other authors can help show you the way.
Foreshadowing is just such a useful and effective tool. It adds depth and nuance. It causes the reader to feel a part of the story. And makes the read so satisfying.
And that’s our goal, no?
So jump in! You can do this!