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microphone by Miyukiko © 2013
microphone by Miyukiko © 2013

Four Basic Foreshadowing Techniques

There are several ways we can foreshadow plot points.

Here are four simple techniques that range from the implied through to the explicit.

Firstly, we can use suggest future events through hints, symbols and omens. Eg. The weather was unseasonably cold that day. There was a dead bird lying on the bonnet of his car, frozen solid.

Secondly, we can foreshadow by explicitly drawing attention to a person, mood, or thing within the story that would otherwise be overlooked. If we have our protagonist break-off from what they would normally be expected to see and hear in order to notice the furtive looking figure on the street corner, or comment on the beauty of the gun inside the glass case as they are led into the study, or get a vague sense that something feels off about the old house, on one page, then the audience will expect these digressions to be paid off somewhere further down the track – the house must have a dark secret, the gun must be used, or the furtive street-corner lurker must become important in some way.

Thirdly, we can provide a smaller version of a larger scene. The plane flight is bumpy on the way into the airport, but on the way out it must fly through a thunderstorm. The protagonist watches an aggressive guy push ahead in the line at the local store only to discover later that this is his competitive and ruthless new co-worker.

Fourthly, we can explicitly tell the audience that something is coming through external or character narration – The storm would reach town about 9.00 pm…

The first two are examples of light foreshadowing, while the latter two are examples of heavy foreshadowing.

When should foreshadowing be used?

Foreshadowing should certainly not be used for anything trivial. Foreshadowing should be used to emphasize important plot points. Remember that if you try to make everything seem important, then nothing will be. It’s a good guideline (but it’s only a guideline) to reserve the foreshadowing for the major turns in the plot; the inciting incident, the point of no return, the reversal, and the final confrontation.

Heavy foreshadowing occurs early in your narrative (the larger the gap between the foreshadowing and the event foreshadowed, the heavier the foreshadowing needs to be).

Light foreshadowing occurs closer to the events.

Try to get the heavy foreshadowing out of the way in the first 25% to 50% of the story. Then use light foreshadowing to lead into the payoff of each significant event.

How do you foreshadow events in a story?

To foreshadow an event requires two things; a setup and a payoff.

The setup is where you provide your readers with hints about the future (using the methods discussed above or others of your own invention). It’s usually better to be subtle (even when engaging in heavy foreshadowing) so that you don’t spoil any surprises you have in store for your audience.

The payoff occurs when you deliver the event that you were foreshadowing. It’s important that this event be dramatically and emotionally satisfying to your audience or they WILL feel cheated. That noise in the alley can’t turn out to just be a cat rummaging around in search of scraps – not if you’ve made a big deal of foreshadowing it. Mess this up and you are guaranteed to alienate and anger your audience.

The Most Important Rules

That which you foreshadow cannot be trivial. You have to pay off the foreshadowing with something surprising, dramatic, or emotional. This is why it is usually best to foreshadow your story’s major turning points.

Whether you are a planner who outlines your intended use of foreshadowing prior to writing, or whether you are more organic in your process, letting the moments present themselves to you intuitively, you will want to carefully examine your final draft to ensure that both setup and payoff are present for every element of foreshadowing you use and to ensure that nowhere is the foreshadowing you have employed trivial.

What methods do you use to foreshadow the major events in your story? Are there other techniques that you use? Share your thoughts and opinions below in the comments.

This article is © 2017 by Philip Craig Robotham – all rights reserved.