The definition of foreshadowing in literature is a literary device that is used as an indication of events to come. It can be used to create suspense, unease, or curiosity with what is to come in the future. Personally, I love foreshadowing. It really can ramp up the tension in a story.
There are several types of foreshadowing:
This comes from the playwright, Anton Chekhov, who famously said that if there is a rifle onstage in the first act then it must go off in the second or third act. Of course, this principle doesn’t just apply to firearms, but any object, skill, or idea. While it aligns itself with foreshadowing, it can also be used as a way of streamlining your plot as it gets rid of anything that isn’t relevant or useful in a story. Chekhov’s Gun is a great reminder that if you’re not going to use it, then lose it.
This is one of the more popular elements of foreshadowing. A prophecy is a statement made to a character or the reader that gives a clue as to what will happen in the future. Sometimes the prophecies are unclear at first, but over time they become much clearer.
Using symbolism – like objects, animals, or images – can be a more abstract way of adding foreshadowing to your story.
Sometimes, certain important information needs to be shared, but the events surrounding it doesn’t quite fit into the current timeline. This is where flashbacks can be handy. Of course, you can also use flashbacks as a method of giving the read hints of what could possibly happen in the future. The only thing with flashbacks is to remember to use them sparingly so as not to confuse your reader.
This is when you deliberately mislead your reader with false information through clues that trick your reader into thinking what you want them to think. Then, later when you reveal the truth, it feels like a giant plot twist to your reader. While these are mostly used in murder mysteries, red herrings can also fit nicely into other genres.
Tips for foreshadowing:
Don’t be too obvious– show don’t tell. And don’t make it too easy for your readers to piece together the events to come, you don’t want them getting bored with the story before they’ve finished. The whole point of foreshadowing is to keep them guessing.
Keep your promises– remember Chekhov who said that if your rifle isn’t going off in a later act then get rid of it? The same idea applies to foreshadowing. Whatever little Easter eggs you plant in your story you need to do something with them at some point, otherwise they’ll just be loose ends and your reader will be disappointed they were never tied up.
Timing– if you’re going to foreshadow, then you need to get the timing right. If it’s going to be a giant plot twist, then you need to start building it up a little earlier in the story. You don’t want your reader feeling like it came out of nowhere. But at the same time, you shouldn’t begin foreshadowing right away because you want to build it up rather than have it be a spoiler.
Moderation– don’t overdo it on the foreshadowing devices. Keep it all subtle but effective.
Beta readers– having someone else read over our work is always a good idea. But it can be particularly useful when working with foreshadowing. Sometimes we might think we’re being obvious with our foreshadowing but that is only because we are too close to the world we’ve created, and we know the storyline inside and out. Using beta readers can be a wonderful resource to make sure that our foreshadowing is actually as solid as we think it is.