Chip MacGregor

February 3, 2016

Literary Devices for the Real World: Foreshadowing


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Welcome to week three of Literary Devices for the Real World! I’m talking today about one of those classic high school literary devices teachers and textbooks loved to point out, foreshadowing.

You may remember learning about foreshadowing from poems like The Highwayman and short stories such as The Lottery or The Tell-Tale Heart, and if so, it might be that you associate foreshadowing chiefly with melodrama and literary horror. The idea that foreshadowing = foreboding, however, or that foreshadowing is a tool of literary writers only is a far too narrow understanding of foreshadowing and its function in storytelling. The fact is that foreshadowing shows up everywhere, in all types of stories, literary or otherwise, chick lit or mystery. It can show up in any genre, adding dimension, helping to catch and hold the reader’s interest, and helping to establish or reinforce the tone of a story. Foreshadowing is a device storytellers instinctively use to heighten their audience’s emotional response to their story— even if you don’t specifically set out to include it, you most likely will do so without a conscious effort. Recognizing the variety of techniques for accomplishing foreshadowing and knowing the ways it can strengthen or heighten your story can help ensure that you’re maximizing its potential to enhance your reader’s experience of your story.

Let’s first take a look at some foreshadowing basics. Foreshadowing, by definition, is an allusion to or hint at something yet to happen in a story. It can be subtle, such as a sneeze in chapter 1 from the character who’s going to die of pneumonia in chapter 10, or obvious, such as a direct revelation from the author or narrator (Shakespeare starts Romeo and Juliet by telling the reader/audience that in the story, “a pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life”). Foreshadowing can occur in dialogue (“I forgot you can’t swim. Don’t you get nervous living so close to the ocean?”), imagery (“And for just a moment the boy’s shadow looked as if it wore a crown, but then he turned his head and the illusion was gone”), or through the setting (“Though the rest of the equipment in the little hut was dusty and worn, the rifle above the door gleamed as though frequently cleaned and greased”).

You’re providing foreshadowing any time you give the reader a clue as to what has happened before (which then might conceivably happen again), any time you introduce a flaw or weakness in a character that will prove to be critical to their undoing or raise the stakes in their final conflict, and any time you provide insight into a character’s dreams/ambitions– any of these start the reader, whether consciously or unconsciously, looking for connections/resolution later in the story. People are wired to look for connections and patterns, and as writers, we increase our chances of holding their attention if we drop a breadcrumb– it’s human nature to look for the next one.

Foreshadowing has the potential to accomplishes a whole host of storytelling tasks beyond simply engaging a reader’s attention. Skillful foreshadowing also:

  • Paves the way for plot developments that might otherwise stretch readers’ credulity. I’ve read many manuscripts in which the deus ex machina just wasn’t believable for me; it wasn’t that I couldn’t believe a fire-breathing robot could appear out of nowhere at the last minute and save the day, it was that that was the first place in the entire book where any kind of robot was even mentioned, so it felt like a too-outlandish and unbelievable and overly convenient (and ultimately, lazy) way of solving the characters’ problems. Now, had the author mentioned in passing 200 pages earlier that so-and-so had once taught robotics at MIT, or if we’d learned that the main character’s inventor father had disappeared years ago taking with him the plans for a new government defense project, I could have accepted the otherwise ridiculous reality that a fire-breathing robot saved the day at the end because, though it would still be surprising, I would have that faint recollection of the earlier exposition as evidence that the author had, in fact, “played fair” and done the necessary work to sell me on his robot ending. (Note: this entire scenario is made up as an example; I have never read a manuscript involving a fire-breathing robot.)
  • Helps to set and maintain tone. Many of you probably read Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery in high school or college, and you remember how the tone of the story is quickly established as foreboding and horrifying, though the events of the story are, on the surface, almost completely non-threatening and commonplace. The feeling of dread that pervades the story is chiefly due to the skillful foreshadowing employed by Jackson throughout– she mentions “stones” just often enough that we grow suspicious of the stones in children’s pockets and the pile of stones in the middle of town, we see the nervousness of the townsfolk increase as the lottery draws nearer, increasing our nervous anticipation along with theirs. But as I mentioned at the beginning, foreshadowing isn’t necessarily synonymous with foreboding– it’s important in creating a suspenseful tone, sure, but it’s just as vital to setting a humorous, wry tone or a romantic, optimistic one. Skillful foreshadowing can prevent the reader from feeling like the author performed a bait-and-switch if a seemingly happy love story has a tragic ending, or can convince the reader to keep going when a supposed-to-be lighthearted book takes a  serious turn. In both cases, the right foreshadowing can help the reader make emotional sense of the book rather than feel betrayed when the story strays from where they thought it was going.
  • Heightens readers’ emotional response. Consider three different car accident scenarios. In one, it’s midnight, the roads are icy and snowpacked, visibility is poor, and the driver of the car is an extremely nervous Florida transplant in a two-seater convertible who’s never driven in snow before. After a lengthy, harrowing drive, when she’s almost home, she starts to slide, panics, overcorrects, and slides into a ditch. In another, a driver is stopped at a stoplight, changing the radio station, when she hears a horn honking from somewhere– she looks into the rear-view mirror and has just enough time to see a giant black SUV speeding towards her before it slams into the back of her car with a sharp, shrill crash. In the third, a driver chatting to his wife, driving home from work like they do every night, he turns up a song on the radio he wants her to hear, and the next thing he knows is a deafening crash and blackness.  Each scenario prompts a different emotional response on the part of the person hearing the story. If you’ve ever been in a car accident that you saw coming– saw the car approaching way too fast in your mirror or slammed on the brake helplessly as you slid across ice straight towards another car– you’ll know the rush of adrenaline/anticipation that results: it’s a completely different experience than happily minding your own business until all of a sudden someone crashes into you with no warning, which is again different from the underlying half-expectation of an accident that you have the whole time when driving in a high-alert situation such as a snowstorm. In the same way, the type of foreshadowing you employ, if any, affects how your readers respond to events, so you want to ask yourself what kind of experience you want them to have and adjust your foreshadowing accordingly.

    Again, this same principle works for maximizing a reader’s response to good things, too– think about movies (or your own life) when you’ve seen a man drop to one knee in front of a woman– there’s about three seconds of squealing, hand-to-heart anticipation (if you’re a girl) between that very obvious foreshadowing and the happy event it foreshadows (a proposal). This creates a very different moment  and a very different emotional expectation on the part of the reader than if the character just says, “Hey, will you marry me?” in the middle of a conversation about where to go for dinner that night, or if the main couple, recently reconciled and nearing the end of the book, are out to a romantic dinner and the girl’s favorite song starts playing. None is objectively a “better” type of surprise, it just depends on your readers and the kind of moment they’ll respond to the most strongly (or the kind of moment you feel fits your voice better– do you prefer to give people the rush of “premonition” to heighten the moment/prime them emotionally a bit, or would you rather sucker-punch them to the face with an event, either happy or horrible?).

Finally, remember that good foreshadowing creates, rather than spoils, suspense: you don’t want to give so much away in foreshadowing that the climax or reveal or happy ending feels predictable or inevitable. Whether you’re building happy suspense like will-they-or-won’t-they romantic tension, or scary suspense like will-he-or-won’t-he-murder-and-dismember-her tension, give the reader enough to prime his excitement and involve him in the story, but don’t spoil the climax!

What about you? Is most of your foreshadowing consciously or unconsciously done? What methods of foreshadowing do you use most often, and why do they work well for your voice and genre?

Next week, I’ll be looking at tone, how to identify it, and how to further establish and clarify it. If you have a request for a future post in this series, let me know, and thanks for reading!
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  • Tamara Meyers says:

    In a two part story, with the parts one hundred and fifty years apart, is it okay to foreshadow in part one for an important event in part two? I’m not sure if it’s going to be a book with two parts or two books, but would that make a difference?

  • Robin Patchen says:

    Great explanation. In my WIP, I have a squeaky stair step that my heroine mentions two or three times–mostly because she has a newborn she wants to sleep. But the thing she’s searching for is hidden beneath that stair, which she doesn’t discover until almost the last page of the book. I’ve already had one critique partner guess, so maybe I’ve overdone it. I never thought of that as foreshadowing, but I guess you’re right. It makes me feel quite professional. 🙂

  • Rajdeep Paulus says:

    I’m thinking of something nice to say to somebody. Great job on another awesome blog on writing devices! They’ve helped improve the process of self-editing big time. Btw, how’d I do on foreshadowing the compliment? :o) -Raj

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