Have you ever made it to the climax of a story and thought, “Hold on, there were clues to this earlier that I completely missed!” It’s likely that the author used foreshadowing — one of the best narrative techniques around to hook an audience without them exactly knowing why and tie up all the loose ends of a complex story.
In this guide, we’ll walk you through what literary foreshadowing is, show you how to incorporate it into your own work, and give you a few examples from some of the world’s most famous writers.
What Is Foreshadowing?
Foreshadowing, definition-wise, is a technique writers have used for centuries to hint at key plot points that will happen later in the story. Think of it like the build-up of a good thriller. The full truth isn’t completely revealed upfront, as that would ruin the excitement. But small indications that allude to something on the horizon are dropped into the plot.
The best foreshadowing examples are the ones in which the reader doesn’t even notice the clues before reaching the revealing moment in the story. Instead, the writer will subtly suggest what is about to happen and build dramatic tension for the reader using symbols, setting, or dialogue. It’s the written equivalent of storm clouds looming overhead.
Once the plot has reached its conclusion, those signs will suddenly all make sense. It’s the perfect way to set up a shocking twist or unexpected ending, without making your readers feel like it’s come out of nowhere. Instead, you’ve already set their expectations and helped them to manage their emotional response, even if they weren’t aware that this was happening throughout the preceding chapters.
Literary foreshadowing can work in any genre. It’s most commonly used in thrillers and mysteries, but even comedy, romance, literary fiction, and dramatic nonfiction like memoirs can use this narrative device to keep readers turning the page.
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Examples of Foreshadowing
Most examples of foreshadowing in writing can be broken down into direct or indirect:
- Direct foreshadowing is when the writer provides very obvious clues about what is about to happen. Usually, this takes place throughout character dialogue or prologues, comments from the narrator, or even prophecies.
- Indirect foreshadowing is more subtle; when the writer uses contextual hints like symbols or signs to suggest an alternative meaning that’s buried under the surface. For example, crows often symbolize death in literature, so the appearance of a crow could indicate a character’s forthcoming passing.
Foreshadowing in Literature
Pick any fictional work from a bookshelf, and you’ll likely find at least one example of foreshadowing somewhere in the story.
In Great Expectations, for instance, Dickens uses severe weather to suggest that something weighty and upsetting is about to happen to the protagonist, Pip: “So furious had been the gusts, that high buildings in town had had the lead stripped off their roofs,” he writes. Within several pages of this description, Pip discovers that his mysterious benefactor was in fact not Miss Havisham at all and was instead Magwitch, an escaped convict that he met as a child.
The Harry Potter stories also heavily rely on foreshadowing. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry and his friends find a locket while cleaning, described as “a heavy locket that none of them could open.” It isn’t until the next book in the series that we learn about Voldemort’s horcruxes, one of which is a locket.
Foreshadowing in Poetry
Foreshadowing examples also abound in poetry.
In poems like “The Send-Off,” First World War poet Wilfred Owen used foreshadowing to suggest the fate of the soldiers in his work:
Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.
The harrowing imagery of the soldier’s faces and the darkness around them hints at the looming demise of these men.
Similarly, symbolism is used as foreshadowing in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Where the albatross had previously brought the sailors luck, its death marks a major turning point in the narrative:
–With my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS.
How to Use Foreshadowing in Writing
There are several ways you can think to employ foreshadowing in your writing. Below are a few suggestions as you get into your story.
Set Up the Plot Early On
Ideally, you’ll want to start working your clues into the story as early as possible. Not only does this give you the time to add in plenty of foreshadowing elements as you build towards the peak of the drama, but it also means your readers have the seeds of intrigue and curiosity planted in their minds from the beginning of the narrative.
Sprinkle Hints Throughout the Story
Knowing where to drop your hints is just as important as deciding what exactly you’re going to give your readers. There’s no exact formula—every story is unique—so where you choose to plant those clues is entirely up to you.
That said, do aim for a mix of direct and indirect foreshadowing to help keep your readers on track. Not everyone will pick up on your indirect suggestions, so it’s important to offer a more direct handful so they will stay as interested in the narrative as other readers.
Don’t Overdo It
While foreshadowing is an effective way to build tension, there also comes a point where too much ruins the surprise. Too many clues could mean your readers will work out exactly what’s happening before they get to the end. You also don’t want so many that they spend all of their time looking for another clue rather than paying attention to the actual plot.
You should always leave your reader feeling that, when the final revelation is made, there is a sense of payoff after pages of heightened expectation. You know you’ve found the right balance when someone wants to re-read the story to go back and find all of the hints that you dropped throughout the story.
Get a Second Opinion
You know everything about your story—after all, you wrote it! So when you know what’s coming down the road for your characters, writing effective foreshadowing can be difficult. Having a friend or editor look over your work can help you to identify moments when the setup is too obvious or when a symbolic moment isn’t quite clear enough.
A second set of eyes on your writing will also help you to determine whether or not to add more clues at key moments in the plot or if paring back your foreshadowing leads to a more satisfying conclusion as a reader.
Difference Between Foreshadowing and Suspense
Before you dive into your new story, it’s important to understand the differences between foreshadowing and building suspense. The latter is all about anticipation for your reader; those nervous, edge-of-the-seat feelings that keep them interested enough to read on and find out what happens.
Foreshadowing is one way to create this feeling by dropping clues that suggest something to come later in the story. But it’s not the only narrative technique you can use to make your readers hold their breath. Cliffhangers are another great way to do this. Leave a character in an open-ended or perilous situation—it’s the “to be continued” of literature that makes us want to know more.
Whatever genre you’re writing, use a range of literary devices to give your writing a boost and maintain your readers’ interest in the narrative.
Channel Your Inner Hansel and Gretel
Leaving a handful of literary breadcrumbs throughout your writing turns your readers into armchair detectives, eager to follow your protagonist’s journey throughout your story. It’s not easy to write effective foreshadowing, but when you’ve cracked it, you’re sure to have a plot your audience won’t forget any time soon.
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