A mysterious lighthouse appears above the mist ahead of a lone traveler

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Most often, writers underestimate how complicated storytelling is and need to think about it a little harder. But there’s one place where writers often go too far and need to take a step back: foreshadowing. Many writers think they have to work harder at foreshadowing upcoming reveals than they really do. Let’s fix that by covering what events require foreshadowing and how much they need.

What We Need to Foreshadow

When I wrote on the basics of foreshadowing, I mentioned its two purposes: raising tension and making future events believable. The former is something you do at your discretion to remedy slow spots in your story. We’re not covering that this time. Instead, we’re focusing on the latter. You want to make sure something that happens feels like it fits instead of coming out of the blue.

Things that often need foreshadowing include:

  • Any new solution a protagonist uses to solve a conflict that wasn’t previously known
  • An answer to a mystery
  • Any type of meaningful reveal, including a villain unmasking or backstory reveal
  • Any plot twist that’s based on new information

Tragedies, complications, and problems need foreshadowing when they contradict what you’ve previously established. For instance, the protagonist being suddenly fired from their job will only need foreshadowing if you’ve shown that the protagonist is performing well at work. Then to explain the change, you might reveal their boss has resented them all along. That resentment should be foreshadowed.

How Rigorous It Needs to Be

Once you’ve identified something that needs foreshadowing, it’s time to put it in a category based on just how specific that foreshadowing needs to be. Ask yourself this: During this story, will a protagonist guess the answer before it’s obvious?

A protagonist guess is usually done as a hidden plan or clever deduction turning point. That means they’ll be in the middle of a conflict when they realize (or reveal they already know) who the villain is, which weapon or tactic will defeat the monster, or the answer to the mystery they’ve been trying to solve. Then the hero uses this insight to win the conflict, creating a satisfying victory.

For a protagonist to do this, you have to put in enough clues that it’s realistic for them to guess something very specific, but not so many that guessing feels easy. That level of foreshadowing can be tricky, and in many cases it’s unnecessary.

Often, a reveal isn’t something that a protagonist figures out, but something that they either discover or are told. So for instance, if a sidekick is really the secret villain, that might be revealed when they betray the hero, creating a tense plot twist. Similarly, a side character might reward the hero for a good deed by telling them about the monster’s secret weakness.

For this second category, you don’t need to put in enough foreshadowing that the answer can be guessed. You only need to put in enough that the reveal is plausible. As long as it blends in with the picture you’ve already painted, there doesn’t need to be an empty space waiting for a puzzle piece.

If you aim for a higher level of foreshadowing than you need, it’s possible you’ll get great results. However, this also has many downsides.

  • Foreshadowing is more obvious than it needs to be, leading to more readers guessing the reveal ahead.
  • Because the foreshadowing is pretty obvious, it may depend on the viewpoint character to either forget details or ignore strange behavior until the right time. This could be frustrating to some readers.
  • Foreshadowing is harder to work into the story. In turn, that can create awkward scenes as the writer struggles to make it feel natural.
  • More information is given to readers than they need for foreshadowing. That means extra exposition and other details that readers are expected to remember.

To avoid these problems, let’s go over the easy method of foreshadowing reveals.

Making Reveals Plausible

Writers tend to approach foreshadowing by looking at the details of their reveals and finding ways to mention or hint at all the parts involved. For instance, let’s go back to the sidekick who’s secretly the villain. Let’s say she wants revenge on the space parliament, and she’s been launching cyberattacks that have been compromising the parliament’s security.

When foreshadowing this, many writers would look at those details and insert clues that are very specific to the answer. To show that she’s secretly evil and wants revenge on the council, she could be mean to some people and glare at council members. To foreshadow that she’s been doing cyberattacks, she might talk about hacking or hang around powerful computers looking suspicious.

Instead of specific clues that point and shout at this character, you only need to create a general context that makes the reveal fit in with what readers already know.

  • Readers don’t need to know this sidekick has any issue with the council as long as it makes sense that she would. Maybe she had to leave her colony after a council-negotiated peace settlement gave away the territory it was on. Even if it looks like she supports the council and the peace settlement they made, she has a plausible motive for revenge.
  • She doesn’t have to be mean or show any other sign of being a bad or edgy person. It’s in her best interest to pretend to be nice regardless of what her actual personality is like, and it’s plausible for someone to act nice and still do bad things.
  • You also don’t need to create specific incidents where she could be hacking. Simply show that she has advanced computer skills or a background in cybersecurity. If she has the means to launch cyberattacks, it will be plausible that she’s the culprit.

If a hero accused their sidekick of being the villain with only these details to go on, it would feel pretty unfounded. But if that sidekick is going to suddenly betray the protagonist, this is enough.

Let’s do another one. Your protagonist is a commander who will be leading a battle to hold back dark forces. However, this battle is actually a blood sacrifice that feeds the dark ones. If you’re thinking about how to specifically hint that this battle is a ritual, you might send along a high-ranking priest who makes mysterious requests and has to be obeyed without question. That could be a good step if you want your commander to guess what’s happening ahead, but otherwise you don’t need to plant such a big red flag over the mission.

Instead, consider what would make this battle being a blood sacrifice plausible.

  • Blood must be something the dark ones want. If the dark ones have been killing people and feeding off those deaths somehow, that will do it. There could also be a history of corrupted mages making blood sacrifices to the dark ones.
  • There must be someone powerful to arrange this sacrifice for a plausible reason. If the kingdom was led by an immortal leader with mysterious magic, then perhaps the magic comes from the dark ones. Alternately, maybe the battle is done following the instructions of ancient texts on the dark ones. Everyone believes the texts to be benign, but they don’t know much about them. Or finally, you could show the leadership of the kingdom is getting really desperate as they fail to hold off the dark ones via other means.
  • The battle can’t be a blood sacrifice unless a high casualty rate is likely. If this has been done before, that history could show that everyone, or almost everyone, died in a similar effort. Or the kingdom’s leaders could just let it be known that the mission is incredibly dangerous, and they want volunteers who understand they are unlikely to return.

You may find that your simple reveals are already plausible without doing anything. If you have a character who never drinks, you have what you need to reveal a tragic backstory where they killed a stranger after driving home drunk. On the other hand, if their spouse died in the accident, that means the character has a dead spouse. If the readers have spent a lot of time with the character, they’ll expect to have seen some sign of that.

Making Reveals Guessable

Now let’s say you do want your protagonist to jump to the right answer. What’s the best way to do that? Start by making the reveal plausible, like for other reveals. Then add one more clue that moves it from plausible to guessable.

  • If the reveal solves a known mystery, the clue might narrow down the possible options, such as the list of suspects. So the hero might guess their sidekick is the hacker once they learn the culprit launched a cyberattack from the same space station Team Good was on, at the time they were there. That means the villain had to be one of the people on the station with them.
  • If the protagonist doesn’t even know there’s something to wonder about, the clue should change that. The commander might find that their soldiers weren’t given the most effective weapons or that their scouts painted strange sigils around the battlefield before the main force arrived. Then they’ll question why that is, leading them to a possible explanation.

For a clever deduction turning point, give your character the final clue at the last minute, during the conflict. They might observe something new while they struggle, or perhaps an antagonist says something that tips the protagonist off. A turning point like this creates lots of tension, because the character will be genuinely struggling and failing before they have their realization. Then receiving the clue during the conflict provides an easy explanation for why they have their realization at that moment.

On the other hand, a hidden-plan turning point means the protagonist has already caught onto the reveal and made a secret plan based on it, but you’ve concealed that from your audience. In this case, the final clue must be delivered ahead. Writers like hidden plans because they give the protagonist candy. However, they have some significant downsides. Since everything is actually going according to the protagonist’s plan, it’s harder to create tension while keeping them in character. Hiding things from the audience can also feel forced or disingenuous, and delivering the clue ahead means the audience has more time to guess the reveal. If you instead reveal the final clue with the hidden plan, the audience will feel cheated.

You might have noticed that even with guessable reveals, I haven’t been recommending that you give your readers an extended opportunity to examine the clues and guess for themselves. In some situations, such as in the mystery genre, the audience may want the opportunity to solve the mystery before it’s revealed. However, even the Sherlock Holmes stories have rarely managed to keep the mystery a surprise while playing fair with the audience. Instead, concealed information or dubious leaps of logic are often used.

If you want your mystery to be solvable by the audience well ahead of the reveal, I won’t tell you not to try. However, I don’t recommend attempting it unless that’s something you’re passionate about.

Sometimes whether you need to foreshadow depends on what readers would expect to already know about your world and characters. That can be tough to judge, but when in doubt, create supporting context without making the audience learn specific names or dates.

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