As you read this first sentence, little do you know that by the end of the article you’ll have the power to make people writhe.
Foreshadowing creates a gap between what you know and what the characters in the story know. When done right, it gives the reader a frisson of worry mingled with excitement. The feeling that a greater mechanism is at work which the characters cannot see yet gives the story a sense of direction and sophistication, and a good dollop of suspense.
Types of Foreshadowing
Explicit foreshadowing announces to the reader outright that he’s learning a piece of information unavailable to the characters. Its hallmark phrases are, “Little did he know...” and “Unbeknownst to her...” followed by a key piece of information.
Veiled foreshadowing is much more subtle, and is often fully understood only on second read or later. On first read, it might give the reader a sense of foreboding without a specific reason, which serves to create suspense.
Veiled foreshadowing is created by planting seemingly innocent clues in the narrative prior to a key event. They have to be conspicuous enough to be picked up on second read, but vague enough to not give away the plot at first.
For example, in Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, she plants clues to the surprising conclusion from the second paragraph and onward. There’s a pile of stones, and the kids’ antics with it, coupled with the way the grownups keep their distance from the stones, give the stones a special meaning which will only be clear at the end. But even at first pass the unusual reaction to a pile of stones serves to let the reader know that something strange is going on, and that something has to do with the object.
How to Use Foreshadowing
Explicit foreshadowing is rather straightforward. “Little did he know that he would die later that day,” is a good example for using it.
Veiled foreshadowing can be done in several ways:
- Planting key objects in previous scenes. You can simply mention the object in passing, or have your characters interact with it. Be careful not to reveal its final purpose ahead of time, though.
- Ominous weather changes. These are often used to note a dark event is about to unfurl. Remember the lightning that split the tree in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, for example.
- Unusual behavior in animals. Animals are often claimed to have a sense of coming events, such as earthquakes and storms. The same is often applied to major story events. For example, a dog howling its grief on the morning of the day his master will die.
Foreshadowing DOs and DON’Ts
- Do use foreshadowing to hint at big events that are about to come.
- Don’t over-use foreshadowing in your story, especially the explicit type. When over-done it might turn comical instead of suspenseful.
Don’t give away too much information when you foreshadow, or there will be no suspense left for the reader.
- Do match the proportions of the foreshadowed event to the emphasis you gave its foreshadowing. If you’re heavily foreshadowing a minor event, the reader might feel cheated by getting so worked up over nothing.
- Do add foreshadowing as you edit your story, for an extra layer of direction, causality, and depth.
- Don’t mistakenly foreshadow events that won’t come to pass. In other words, don’t plant Chekov’s gun unless you intend to fire it.
Bringing it All Together
Choose significant events, plant clues for them in previous scenes, and watch your readers writhe with tension. That’s the power of foreshadowing. Try it out!