If your story starts with anything foreboding—creaking floors, snuffed-out candles, or threatening skies, you’re implying danger or terrible trouble ahead for your main character.
Masterful storytellers foreshadow such things with disquieting clues of what’s to come.
What is Foreshadowing? And Why is it Important?
Foreshadowing is a literary device authors use to lay a foundation for what’s coming in their story. If our primary goal as writers is to keep people reading, foreshadowing is a crucial tool in our belt.
Effective foreshadowing builds suspense without giving away the plot.
Foreshadowing is not limited to suspense or mystery genres—though it can be particularly potent there. Regardless your genre, you want readers eager to know what happens next.
How can you so engage your readers’ senses—seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, or feeling—that will make them eagerly turn the page?
Types of Foreshadowing in a Story
Overt foreshadowing directly suggests the events ahead. This type of foreshadowing might come from your narrator or dialogue. It could just as easily be labeled Obvious Foreshadowing—which I recommend avoiding at all cost. What could be more predictable than that?
If you’ve ever watched a Jordan Peele or an M. Night Shyamalan film, you may notice only in retrospect these directors’ uses of colors, patterns, and imagery. While all elements of the story tie into the underlying secret or twist, these creators plant hints in details that don’t become obvious until the end.
As a writer, you know where your story is headed, so have fun hiding throughout your work hints of later twists. The subtler the better.
Opening dialogue in many Shakespearean plays include foreshadowing. Obviously the characters don’t recognize that their words signal future events, which in hindsight lends dramatic irony to the dialogue.
Engaged readers may pick up on patterns, themes, and clues as they read your story. Careful use of symbolic foreshadowing can build suspense without giving away your ending.
Portentous weather can serve as an ominous symbol and build tension in your story, especially when such symbolism ties directly to the plot and is layered into the action.
Throughout literary history, common symbolic foreshadowing includes birds that represent freedom, a knell to foretell death, or blood to exemplify mortality. Avoid cliched symbols and find nuanced ways to create new symbols and imagery.
- Red herring
This type of foreshadowing might involve an innocent character found covered in blood…Tragedy striking on a beautiful day… Someone falling in love with a betrayer…
It’s okay to slyfully design satisfying twists and turns.
Red herrings lead readers to false conclusions and keep them on their toes. But don’t shortcut the process. This kind of foreshadowing requires cunning and careful planning to stay one step ahead of your readership.
Examples of Foreshadowing in Literature
The misuse of foreshadowing in prologues is one reason I advise against prologues altogether. Aside from the fact that research shows that many readers skip all prefatory material, most prologues are unneeded at best and ineffective at worst.
While it’s hard to argue against the enduring success of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, he wholly gives the story away in his prologue—an example of overt foreshadowing that flat out tells us “A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life.” Of course, by now that’s not a spoiler to anyone high school age or older, but I don’t recommend it for your novel.
Hints at Something Worse
From the opening chapter, Animal Farm warns readers of catastrophe ahead in overt foreshadowing of Old Major’s prophesied violence and in covert foreshadowing involving Napoleon’s intimidating dog Boxer.
Planting small hints of a larger element like violence can signal what’s to come. Boxer’s death is hinted at by his attack in Chapter 7. Animal Farm builds to Napoleon’s major corruption by revealing his smaller deceptions early on.
If you have a character who will have to throw a grenade farther than anyone else in his platoon, working in a scene from his backstory—showing that he was a quarterback or a pitcher—serves as an effective bit of foreshadowing.
The Green Light as a Red Herring
Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby craftily weaves ominous symbolism into every corner of its narrative, reinforcing depictions of an exclusive and elusive American dream.
Fitzgerald craftily foreshadows Myrtle’s death as somewhat of a red herring, because the scene where Tom breaks her nose leads the reader to expect her death might come at Tom’s hands. However, Tom’s violent defense of his wife instead signals the twisted loyalty between the Buchanans. This act of violence foreshadows that Myrtle and Gatsby are doomed to be betrayed by Tom and Daisy.
Overt and Covert Foreshadowing Together
Similar to the Animal Farm example above, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God exemplifies both overt and covert foreshadowing.
Hurston’s novel actually begins at the end of the story, Janie telling her friend Phoebe about her life. This immediately foreshadows the major themes of freedom and death. Additionally, Hurston foreshadows Tea Cake’s death when Janie explains that she has returned to Eatonville because he is gone.
Foreshadowing Clues about Characters
While Boo Radly is condemned by the town as a dangerous outcast from the beginning of To Kill a Mockingbird, attorney Atticus Finch’s sympathetic attitude toward him foreshadows his redemptive arc. Hinting at Boo Radly’s heroism, Harper Lee shows how foreshadowing can contribute to character development.
Know the Classics, Diverge from the Expected
Once you gain a thorough understanding of classical examples of foreshadowing, you should read dozens of contemporary examples of novels within your genre. Only then can you choose to break away from writing conventions and reader expectations.
Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is set on the ocean and features an unconventionally ordinary hero—a struggling fisherman. Unlike many classical main characters, Hemingway’s protagonist fights against starvation rather than for glory.
Your foreshadowing may emerge as you write or as you revise. When reworking your novel, consider how natural imagery, character arcs, and rising tension can hint at larger events later.
The Purpose of Foreshadowing in Your Story
Effective foreshadowing leverages both what is known and what is mysterious to create a dynamic and engaging story.
In a dinner party murder mystery, readers know that someone has died and that one of the guests is a killer. As the plot unfolds, the readers learn more about each character—their motivation, backstory, and actions that evening.
But as I’ve said, it’s important to build tension no matter what genre you’re working within.
As the author, you know all there is to know about your novel. You and you alone know your plot and your characters inside and out.
Build anticipation as action and conflict rise. Suspense and irony give your story shape and texture.
Engage readers with little clues about events ahead. Sprinkle a breadcrumb trail of information , keeping readers voracious for more knowledge with every page.
Keep asking yourself as you write: What is known? When? By whom?
In your drafting and editing, be intentional about what you show, tell, or hide from both your characters and your readers.
What will your audience know that your characters won’t? Foreshadowing offers readers information your characters don’t have. A reader assumes a stormy night is an ominous sign. A character knows a stormy night means they need rubber boots.
Both your characters and readers should gradually, eventually learn all that you know. Build suspense by leveraging what your characters know and what your readers know.
Be careful not to dump characters’ backstories, personalities, and futures on your readers all at once. Offer them information by showing your characters in action.
Rather than outright saying that the dinner party hostess was kind-hearted and loved the butler, show her weeping over his loss and prioritizing his burial over her safety.
Suspense is an important part of character development as well. Your audience isn’t just asking whodunnit? Or what happens next? They are also asking, who are these characters really?
Effectively Using Foreshadowing
Creating a crafty, engaging, cohesive story depends on staying one step ahead of your reader.
The right conclusion should be neither obvious nor come out of left field.
As the author, you have an obligation to your reader. Be tricky, but don’t allow your story to become a wild goose chase. Use red herrings sparingly. F. Scott Fitzgerald was a master of using foreshadowing to convey truth while subtly misleading the reader.
As much as we all wish we were as sharp as Sherlock Holmes, readers don’t actually want to figure everything out right away. Take them on a wild ride. A good story is full of growing knowledge, suspense, and surprise.
Engaging readers with clues and twists that take them by surprise.
All the elements of your story should work together to create a carefully crafted plot. The perfect page-turner builds to a climactic aha! moment.
Use imagery, symbolism, and foreshadowing to keep your readers turning the pages.
Know where you’re leading readers so you can create momentum.
If you’re a Pantser like me (writing by the seat of your pants, consider injecting foreshadowing during your rewrite. You can do this even if you’re a painstaking Outliner. The revision stage is a great time to reconsider your story as a whole and determine whether more subtle foreshadowing would enhance the final product.
And remember that conflict—the engine of fiction—and tension (which keeps readers turning the pages) are necessary in EVERY genre.
Understanding and using foreshadowing will help you be able to analyze and learn from examples in your favorite books, movies, and television shows. You’ll also learn from being able to spot why some stories fail to deliver.
Masterful writers use every tool at their disposal. Foreshadowing is a powerful way to keep your story dynamic and engaging.
Whether starting from scratch or revising a draft, challenge yourself to enhance your writing with this literary device.
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