The Art of Foreshadowing

One of my favorite literary devices is foreshadowing. It’s so satisfying when pieces of a story that starts off seeming small and insignificant come back later to play a larger role. And for readers who can pick up on those details, it’s like the author is giving them a pat on the back for paying close attention to the plot.

It’s not easy to incorporate foreshadowing into your writing. It takes planning and a great deal of thinking in advance, but the end result makes the extra effort well worth it. Foreshadowing ties together plot details and keeps the reader guessing throughout your book. Because of how difficult it can be to utilize this writing technique, I’ve come up with five steps to help you master the art of foreshadowing:

  1. Plan in advance

In order to properly include foreshadowing in your story, you need to know what you’re actually foreshadowing for. If you don’t know where your plot is going next, you can’t foreshadow it. That’s one of the reasons I always draw up an outline for my book before I start writing. Not only does outlining help solidify other aspects of your writing like character arcs, it also ensures you know which direction your plot is headed. This can only help when it comes to details like foreshadowing.

There are many writers that prefer not to plan and decide to let their story run its own course while they’re writing. If this is your style, you can still add foreshadowing into your story, you’ll just have to add an extra step to your writing process. While you’re drafting your book, I recommend keeping a notepad nearby and jotting down scenes that have the potential for foreshadowing earlier on in the story. That way, you’re not tied down to an outline and you’re still able to use this literary device.

No matter how you like to write your story, once you have your list of possible foreshadowing moments ready, it’s time to move onto the next step.

  1. Choose what to foreshadow

It’s important to remember that not everything needs to be foreshadowed (some things are best left as a surprise) and what you do foreshadow can’t be done so too heavily. If you drop too many hints alluding to your big plot twist, it won’t be much of a twist by the time the reader gets there. That’s why I recommend foreshadowing events leading up to the climax, but not the climax itself. It’s necessary to lay the foundation (characters, setting, relationships, etc.) that will play a part in the climax of the story, but you don’t want to reader to guess the big reveal too early on. It’s a delicate balance that’s important to maintain while you’re foreshadowing your work.

  1. Conceal it (but not too much)

So, you know the plot seed you want to plant. But where to put it? First, you have to think big picture: where in the story would this detail make the most sense? Putting it right in the beginning of the story might not be the best idea, because your reader is still trying to get acclimated to the characters, setting and plot as a whole. If you really want to start dropping hints right as the book starts, though, that’s totally fine! There’s really no wrong or right way to do it. Just make sure that you’re keeping your audience and the pacing of your book in mind as you write.

Once you’ve found the chapter/scene you want to insert foreshadowing into, it’s time to break it down sentence by sentence. You want to place it in such a way that it’s not totally obscured, but that’s not too obvious, either. If you tuck a piece of foreshadowing in the middle of a paragraph, readers might not pick up on it. You want to make it subtle, but not forgettable. If you’re worried about it being too hidden, then try making it the starting sentence at the beginning of a new paragraph. Readers are more likely to remember it if you start it as a new thought as opposed to putting it into a block of text. Consider this as you continue to write and add to your scene.

  1. Recall it subtly

Later on it the book, your foreshadowing will eventually come full-circle. When the time comes, you won’t have to worry about being discreet anymore — it’ll be time to reveal your plot point! You can be as blatant as you want. In fact, if you want to be sure your readers get it, you can have your characters mention it directly to jog your reader’s memory and ensure they make the connection.

  1. Check with your readers

As writers, we have a tendency to get consumed in our work. It can be hard to tell if we did a good job foreshadowing or not. Although it may seem very obvious to the reader, that may be because we’re actually writing the book. The best way to find out how you did is to ask your readers. Check with your beta readers, critique partners, editors, and anyone else who gets to read your book to see if your foreshadowing was effective. If they think it’s too obscure or too obvious, try using the tips from step three to improve it. Simply switching up the placing of the foreshadowing can make a big difference.

Adding foreshadowing is a great way to enrich your writing. When you take the time to properly incorporate foreshadowing into your work, you add depth and perspective that a smart reader will appreciate and enjoy.

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