Plotting Story Structure

8 foreshadowing laws: How to foreshadow right

What is foreshadowing? Generally, the term means a ‘warning or indication (of a future event)’ (OED). As a literary term, it means creating earlier scenes to build suspense, anticipation or understanding ahead of later plot developments. Learning how to foreshadow is a useful skill for creating well-structured writing. Here are 8 rules to foreshadow like a pro:

What is foreshadowing? Generally, the term means a ‘warning or indication (of a future event)’ (OED). As a literary term, it means creating earlier scenes to build suspense, anticipation or understanding ahead of later plot developments. Learning how to foreshadow is a useful skill for creating well-structured writing. Here are 8 rules to foreshadow like a pro:

Rule 1: Make foreshadowing relevant

When planning the plot of your story or novel, make sure an incident needs foreshadowing before you include any.

Not every story event does need an early warning or clue it’s coming. Overusing foreshadowing can have an unintentionally comic effect. If you make a trivial event blown out of proportion, your writing assumes the melodramatic tone of a soap opera. Remember to save foreshadowing mostly for major events throughout your novel.

A good example of foreshadowing: The strange sounds Hogwarts’ students’ hear in the walls in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, sounds that portend the monster they later discover.

What’s a bad example of foreshadowing? If, for example, a character’s eyes change colour or glow when something is about to happen. This is a cliche from the world of comic book superheroes.

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Rule 2: Understand the purpose of foreshadowing

Foreshadowing shows a character’s action or an object and says ‘pay attention, this is important.’ We use this to build suspense or prepare readers for a turn of plot that would otherwise seem unlikely.

The purpose of your ‘forewarning’ will help you determine how to foreshadow in a chapter or scene. If you want to build suspense, your foreshadowing must be obvious enough for the reader to notice there is something going on.

For example, if you show your main character hiding a gun in his glove compartment, this foreshadows a violent event. The reader might ask, ‘Is he planning a hit? Is it for self-defence?’ These are pay-offs your plot can deliver later. You could even simply show your character hiding something, only later filling in the object’s identity. This is the fun of foreshadowing – you can be more or less obscure, depending on the amount of mystery you want to create.

If you are simply setting up a plot situation for later, and don’t want to create active suspense, your foreshadowing should be almost invisible to the reader. For example, you might describe your character browsing a job-hunting website in Chapter 1, to foreshadow a hostile, untenable work situation in a subsequent chapter.

Rule 3: Give the pay-off (like ‘Chekhov’s Gun’)

The brilliant playwright and short story author Anton Chekhov once said that if you introduce a gun in a story, it should go off at some point. Otherwise, it should not be there at all. This idea, known as ‘Chekhov’s Gun’, is important for foreshadowing correctly.

There are exceptions, of course, to Chekhov’s advice. A novel has a bit more space to sprawl than either a short story or a play. It is not necessary for every element to have an important function at novel length.

However, the introduction of something major like a gun where it does not belong or a piece of shocking information (for example, a character discovering his colleague has committed fraud) needs to have a payoff later in the novel. Otherwise, the reader is likely to feel cheated and confused regarding what is significant and worth remembering and what is incidental.

Rule 4: Include plot foretelling at the outlining stage

Think about foreshadowing in terms of your structure. Whether you outline your novel in advance or not, you will probably need to think structurally to use this device effectively.

Your foreshadowing should occur far enough in advance to tip off the reader but not so far ahead that the reader forgets about it. If it does occur far ahead, include an occasional reminder of this significant plot point.

In David Lynch’s mystery series Twin Peaks, for example, he manages to sustain the audience’s curiosity about the identity of a killer who is not a member of the already-met cast by having the killer appear to characters in dreams and visions. These reminders keep the mystery of the killer’s identity alive, despite the show exploring many other subplots.

Having an overview of your story’s arc can help you decide where and how to introduce scenes or incidents that make us recall a significant, important earlier event.

If you don’t outline ahead of time, consider doing a reverse outline after finishing your first draft that just focuses on foreshadowing and the plot points your foreshadowing anticipates. Do you introduce foreshadowing early enough? Does it pay off? Don’t leave readers complaining ‘but what happened to x?’ (unless you want to puzzle and possibly infuriate readers on purpose).

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Rule 5: Don’t overdo it

Getting foreshadowing right is all about using the right amount of emphasis. If you’re laying the groundwork, you don’t want to tip your hand to the reader too early. In fact, you want to plant suggestions that the reader registers at a near-subconscious level.

Ideally, when an event that will later prove significant occurs, the reader will be able to look back and see that the event was clearly foreshadowed even though she did not pick up on the clues. Often the best plot reveals combine surprise with inevitability. Of COURSE they were the killer, we say, even though there were other equally plausible candidates.

One way to ensure your forewarning isn’t too ham-fisted is to slip it into surrounding action or events. Perhaps character Pete is going over an insurance document when he notices something irregular, but he’s interrupted by a knock at the door and forgets about his discovery. Interruptions and changes of focus help to distract the reader from significant plot points (had the chapter ended with Pete’s discovery, readers would see the discovery as a weightier plot point and it would linger longer in their minds).

Rule 6: Make plot pay-offs fit their buildup

Make sure the pay-off in your plot fits the tone and mood of your foreshadowing. If you think back to movies you’ve seen and books you’ve read, you can probably remember examples where you’ve been let down by this. The story built until you expected something spectacular: a conspiracy unmasked, a great love revealed, a criminal brought to justice, an enormous secret finally told.

When what happens does not live up to these expectations the author has deliberately stoked, the disappointment can be crushing for the reader. It can, in fact, ruin the entire novel even if it has been satisfying up to that point. Even so, there are authors such as Kazuo Ishiguro who masterfully use anticlimax or bathos to thwart our expectations. Your leeway also depends on your genre – you can get away with more experimental and daring strokes in literary fiction than genre fiction where genre conventions (e.g. ‘the lovers unite’) are expected.

When you come to revising your draft, look for events that may need preceding shadows cast back through your narrative.

What events require foreshadowing? Plot events that would otherwise seem improbable, for one. If we know a character from the start of the book but he suddenly shoots up a mall in Chapter 7, it might read strangely if we have utterly no inclination of his violent potential.

Although shocking events have their place and can be effective, scattering a trail of crumbs through your story for readers to pick up or ignore will make your book one that rewards alert or repeat readings.

Rule 8: Get feedback on how you foreshadow your plot

Often you are so immersed in your fictional world and creative process that it’s difficult to get a more cohesive view of your story. To improve your foreshadowing, get feedback from others. You are likely so close to the story that plot points that make complete sense to you could confuse others.

Join Now Novel now to get feedback on your opening hook or a foreshadowing scene and improve your craft.

By Bridget McNulty

Bridget McNulty is a published author, content strategist, writer, editor and speaker. She is the co-founder of two non-profits: Sweet Life Diabetes Community, South Africa's largest online diabetes community, and the Diabetes Alliance, a coalition of all the organisations working in diabetes in South Africa. She is also the co-founder of Now Novel: an online novel-writing course where she coaches aspiring writers to start - and finish! - their novels. Bridget believes in the power of storytelling to create meaningful change.

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