Most writers know that foreshadowing is the difference between a twist that works and a twist that doesn’t. But while good foreshadowing is essential to pulling off surprises, it’s also a versatile tool that becomes essential in a wide variety of story situations. To better reflect the diversity of this literary technique, I’ve updated this guide from its original 2015 version (PDF).
Let’s look at exactly what foreshadowing is, what it’s used for, and some tricks for pulling it off.
What Is Foreshadowing?
Foreshadowing refers to any story content that offers hints about future events in the story. These hints allow storytellers to adjust audience expectations when needed.
Potentially anything in the story could hint at what comes next, and there’s no hard line between what qualifies as foreshadowing and what doesn’t. Content is most likely to be called foreshadowing if:
- Its only purpose is to lay groundwork for future events.
- It’s hinting at something surprising, such as a twist or reveal.
For example, let’s say you have a side character who acts like a jerk once in a while. Over the course of the story, their behavior grows worse until they become a villain. Someone might refer to their earlier bad behavior as foreshadowing their villainous future. However, it’s also simply good characterization. The storyteller might not have added that specifically to foreshadow.
Now let’s say this side character has been evil all along, but they’re pretending to be friendly. Later in the story, they reveal themself as a villain in a dramatic twist. While the audience still thinks they’re on Team Good, there’s a brief scene where they pick up a knife and throw it at a portrait of the main character. The other characters dismiss this, and it doesn’t affect the plot. In that case, this knife throw was clearly designed as foreshadowing.
What Is Foreshadowing For?
Storytellers use foreshadowing for three main purposes: hooking the audience, making story events believable, and correcting unhelpful audience predictions.
Hooking the Audience
Often, foreshadowing is simply a plot hook, aka a problem. Like all problems, its purpose is to raise the story’s tension, thereby keeping the reader engaged. Tension means the audience is anticipating a possible bad outcome, so by its nature, it’s forward-looking.
Problems come in many shapes and sizes. If someone suddenly attacks the protagonist with a butcher knife, it does inform the audience that dying by butcher knife is a possible future outcome. But since the protagonist has to tackle this obvious problem immediately, it wouldn’t be what we call a hint.
In contrast, imagine a chef glares at the protagonist and starts sharpening their butcher knife. The problem is still threatening enough to put audiences on edge, but it’s too subtle for the protagonist to respond to. The protagonist will likely give the chef a few nervous looks and go about their business. Then, the chef could attack them later. In this scenario, the glaring and knife sharpening is a plot hook, and it’s also foreshadowing.
Foreshadowing like this is especially handy when you need to increase tension but you aren’t ready to bring a big problem into the plot. Let’s say your story opens with your protagonist’s coming-of-age ceremony. This establishes essential information about your protagonist and their relationship with their family. At the end of the ceremony, the protagonist undergoes a magic ritual that goes terribly wrong, introducing the story’s throughline. But before that happens, your opening is at risk of being a little dull.
In this scenario, the solution is to foreshadow that something goes wrong. You might do that by:
- Introducing some ill omens. The village lore master sees a red comet and wants to delay the ceremony. The chieftain refuses because of the time and expense involved.
- Establishing a dark history. The protagonist might be fretting because in the past, there have been rare instances of people being harmed by the ritual. Other people reassure the protagonist, but their reassurances aren’t convincing.
- Showing early signs of trouble. The ceremony could start with a magical prayer that doesn’t go as well as expected. If the gods are supposed to answer the prayer by sending a sacred animal, the animal might not show up.
- Having a character give a warning. Perhaps the protagonist’s mentor doesn’t think they are ready for the ceremony and warns against it. However, everyone else is eager for it to be done and dismisses the warning as an exaggeration.
This is also useful when the protagonist needs to remain ignorant about problems. Foreshadowing can be clear enough to deliver the hook to the audience while still being subtle enough that the protagonist won’t catch on.
For instance, let’s say the viewpoint character is about to go on a date with the villain. The viewpoint character can’t know their date is the villain, or they won’t go. Instead, a friend might pull them aside and warn them that their date has done some suspicious things. If the viewpoint character makes unconvincing excuses for the villain, the audience will probably know they’re biased and the friend is right. The date will be more tense as a result.
While there are specific situations in which tense foreshadowing is needed, it’s also useful for improving engagement in general. You can add it to revive your slower scenes or give the end of each chapter a nice little hook. The only reason to avoid it is if the problem won’t actually be solved during the story. You don’t want your audience to feel like you didn’t keep your promises.
Making Story Events Believable
Audiences don’t react to story events as though they were real. They know everything in the story has been manufactured by the storyteller, but they try to play along. We call this suspending disbelief. However, this process is fragile. At best, breaks in belief are a little distracting. At worst, they completely ruin the experience. Shattered belief is also involuntary, so there’s no point in blaming audience members who don’t buy into events.
When it looks like we invented something last minute to make the plot work, suspending disbelief becomes all but impossible. Of course, we still want fun surprises. The key is that we need to set general expectations for our fictional worlds and the characters in them. As long as the right expectations are in place before story elements become load bearing, the story won’t collapse under the weight of disbelief.
As an essential means of setting expectations for the story, foreshadowing goes a long way in bolstering belief. Let’s look at a few tasks where it comes in handy.
- Establishing how protagonists can solve problems. Nothing looks more contrived than when something happens out of the blue just to get the protagonist out of trouble. Storytellers even have a special name for this: a deus ex machina. Not only does a deus ex machina break belief, but it’s also deeply unsatisfying. When a protagonist faces a tough problem, the audience looks forward to discovering a genuine solution that fits the story you’ve told them. Making up random stuff is cheating.
- Communicating the type of story you’re telling. If your story appears to be hard scifi and then a magical unicorn shows up halfway through, that violates the expectations you’ve set for your world. That doesn’t mean your world can’t have contrast, just that you haven’t communicated what type of setting you’re using. Audiences need to know how a unicorn could be possible before that unicorn shows up. This concept also applies to other story aspects such as tone, style, and atmosphere.
- Making twists and reveals plausible. When your goal is to surprise the audience, you don’t want to include lots of content that gives your surprise away. But if the surprise doesn’t fit the story you’ve been telling, it won’t be any fun. For instance, if a friendly side character pulls off a sudden betrayal, it shouldn’t contradict everything the audience knows about that person. Foreshadowing is needed to make new and surprising information feel plausible.
A good surprise isn’t one that feels bizarre; it’s one that’s unexpected yet makes perfect sense. To create that effect, we need to use foreshadowing or similar setup to prepare the audience for big changes. But you don’t always need to be super specific. Start by creating a bigger picture that makes surprises feel like they belong.
For instance, how is it that a hard scifi world could have unicorns? Is there lots of genetic engineering? Have the rich been using it to create novelty creatures? Establishing how fantasy creatures coexist with hard science would be more effective than simply mentioning unicorns early in the story.
In some cases, we need more specific hints. If you want the protagonist to use a sweet spell to save the day, the audience will need some inkling the spell exists ahead of time. If your magic system is on the rational end of the spectrum, using similar spells might let audiences know the final spell is possible – it will fit into a bigger picture. But if you’re using an arbitrary magic system, each spell is an island unto itself. So you have to mention the spell your protagonist will use and its capabilities. You might have the protagonist use it early in the story for a different purpose. You could also establish that the spell is lost knowledge and let your protagonist figure out how to cast it.
Removing Inaccurate Predictions
Audiences often anticipate something that won’t actually happen. In most cases, this is fine. People generally like it when the story doesn’t unfold the way they expect. However, occasionally these guesses create a negative experience. You have two scenarios to watch out for.
They’re Excited, but You Can’t Deliver
No one wants their story to feel like a letdown. So if the audience gets invested in content that won’t appear, it’s time to adjust their expectations to keep them from getting excited.
That doesn’t mean foreshadowing is the right answer. Our first step should always be to take out misleading material if we can. This is particularly relevant for false romantic setup. Some audience members get invested in a potential romance at the drop of a hat. We can’t always avoid this, but we don’t need to encourage it with discussions about dating or sexual innuendos.
Once that’s covered, start adding signs that indicate the real direction of the story. A false love interest might act selfish to foreshadow how they’ll become a villain. Since most audience members assume characters are monogamous, foreshadowing a romance with someone else can also help.
Besides romance, inconvenient anticipation also ruins story movement. Let’s say your characters are setting out on what they think is an easy trip to an important plot destination. This makes the audience think they’ll arrive soon, but your plan is for the characters to get lost for the next three chapters. While that material may be fun and exciting, audiences could still become impatient.
If your protagonists need to remain ignorant, foreshadowing that the trip is an adventure is your best option. Maybe as they’re setting out, the protagonists realize their map is out of date. Then they shrug it off with an ominously overconfident line, such as “How different could it be after 10 years?” This both raises tension and sets better expectations for the next chapters.
They Hate or Dread It
On the other hand, audiences may hate their predictions so much that they quit before they discover they’re wrong. Even if they stick around, this type of dread is not a positive experience. In these cases, you need to offer hope and build trust.
It’s common for exciting scenes to put beloved characters or cute animal companions in danger. Usually, the audience assumes important characters will be fine. However, queer characters and animals have a long history in stories of being killed, and worrying about this can be deeply unpleasant. If your beta readers have issues with this, you might offer hope by giving animals a special hiding ability or foreshadowing that queer characters have an important role in the end.
If you’re planning a fake death of a beloved character, you don’t actually want your audience to think your character is dead. Luckily, fake deaths are so common that as long as your character dies offscreen and no body is found, audiences shouldn’t believe the death. If your character dies and comes back to life, foreshadow this by establishing how bringing someone back is possible.
Besides deaths, sometimes writers also want to subvert problematic tropes. That requires following the trope in the beginning so there is something to subvert. For instance, you might damsel a female character, only to have her free herself and save her male love interest. Subversions like these offer a later payoff, but before then, the audience will believe you’re playing the trope straight. That could make them quit before they reach the subversion.
If you’re planning something like this, your first step is to reevaluate whether you should have the subversion at all. The easiest way to fight oppression is to leave it out of your story and world. Stories featuring oppression require strong knowledge of the subject matter, or they could do more harm than good. Because of how subversions work, they are even trickier to pull off than a typical depiction of oppression.
However, if you really know what you’re doing, it’s possible to make these subversions work. Build trust with your audience by showing that you have a deep and nuanced understanding of the issues you are depicting and that your values align with theirs. If your story features a diverse set of women who counter stereotypes about each intersection of traits, the audience members most upset by damseling will probably trust that you’re not playing the trope straight.
How to Hide Foreshadowing
In many cases, foreshadowing doesn’t need to be hidden. If you’re creating tension, the whole point is that audiences know something bad is going to happen. Similarly, if you’re aiming to correct inaccurate predictions, you have no reason to hide this.
This changes when you’re foreshadowing surprises. Normally, the audience has to sift through an entire story’s worth of content to guess which pieces are clues and which are not. If your foreshadowing is obvious, they don’t have to do that anymore. All they have to do is figure out what your clues mean. While offering clues with multiple interpretations can help, this still invites speculation. The more the audience thinks about your clues, the more likely they are to guess your surprise.
I have an article with ideas for hiding foreshadowing, but my top recommendation is simply to give foreshadowing an additional purpose in the story. Foreshadowing is usually easy to spot because it feels out of place, the storyteller is putting lots of emphasis on it, or it simply has no other reason to be there. The more you can integrate it into the normal content of your story, the better.
One of the best examples is in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The protagonists are on a quest for the grail when they come to a castle where the guards tell them that they’ve “already got one.” With that, the guards are outright giving away the ending – the grail is indeed in their castle. Except they aren’t giving it away; viewers can be counted on to dismiss the hint. That’s because it looks like the line is a mere joke, it fits in with all the other irreverent jokes in the movie, and stating the ending goes against storytelling conventions.
In contrast, look at this funny excerpt from The Sword of Shannara.
[Allanon] rubbed his craggy face with crooked fingers and looked beyond the forest’s edge to the rolling grasslands of the valley. He was still looking away when he spoke again.
“You… have a brother.”
It was not a question; it was a simple statement of fact. It was spoken so distantly and calmly, as if the tall stranger were not at all interested in any sort of reply, that Flick almost missed hearing it.
This line from Allanon is incredibly out of place, it serves no clear story purpose, and author Terry Brooks makes a big deal out of it. It’s obviously foreshadowing.
If your protagonist is solving a mystery, you’ll need to give them important information to reward them for successes and move the story forward. That means the audience will have hints to think about. However, you can still slip in foreshadowing that doesn’t appear to be a clue, and that information can be the final piece in the puzzle. For mysteries, it also helps to have a creative answer. Picking one criminal in a list of suspects is much easier than realizing the murder never happened at all.
If you’re twisting yourself into knots trying to work lots of foreshadowing in, take a step back to look at your story’s foundation. Do your characters have consistent personalities and motivations? Does your world follow a unified set of rules? Do important plot problems show up promptly? If you have those things covered, you shouldn’t need so much foreshadowing.
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