“Problems are only opportunities in work clothes.”
—Henry J. Kaiser
The Encyclopedia Britanica defines foreshadowing as “The organization and presentation of events and scenes in a work of fiction or drama so that the reader or observer is prepared to some degree for what occurs later in the work. This can be part of the general atmosphere of the work, or it can be a specific scene or object that gives a clue or hint as to a later development of the plot.”
Foreshadowing can come in several styles. The most common is an older form used by the author to create tension by showing the reader something the character doesn’t see or know.
- Example: Amelia nursed her wounded pride as she walked the six blocks to her apartment complex. She didn’t know then about the shadowy figure following her from a short distance behind.
This type of foreshadowing is outdated, and rarely is used these days, even in mysteries or suspense genres. But I still see it pop up in beginning writers’ manuscripts. Besides being outdated, it is author intrusion and out of POV. Keep in mind that when writing from any POV other than omniscient, you cannot tell the reader things the character doesn’t know.
It’s more fun for the reader to find things out at the same time the characters do. I just read a book that employed this technique of not foreshadowing. The book was a historical, and we learned at the beginning that the main character’s uncle wasn’t happy with her because she inherited all her parent’s money and they’d left him nothing. As the story goes on, this quiet, little sub-plot gets forgotten through half of the book. Then one day as the character and her cousins ride into town to get a few things from the mercantile, a shot rings out and she feels a sting in her shoulder and falls from her horse.
I didn’t see it coming! This type of foreshadowing is more subtle. The thought was planted way back at the beginning of an uncle scorned by family. Then that’s all that’s said about it. The readers didn’t know anything more than what the main character knew.
But the moment I “heard” that shot while reading the book, I sat straight up. I “knew” the uncle had to have something to do with it.
Had the author said something like, “Little did she know that her uncle, scorned by his family and driven by greed, was plotting his revenge against his niece,” the scene with the girl getting shot wouldn’t have had half the impact.
Be on the lookout for foreshadowing in your own manuscript, and determine whether this is being used to create tension in the best way possible. If not done carefully, the foreshadowing can become too obvious and allow the reader to predict the outcome of the story long before the ending.
Another form of foreshadowing is more subtle than the first type. A common example of this is called Chekhov’s gun. This is when a certain setting is described and a loaded gun hanging on a wall is mentioned in the description. The author makes repeated references to the gun throughout the story using subtle foreshadowing. Then later on, this gun is taken off the wall and used to kill someone.
If not done well, the ordinary events in life can make the foreshadowing too apparent, which would allow the reader to predict the ending of the story.
Example: a character behaves in an odd and erratic fashion and complains continuously of a headache, then later is diagnosed with a brain tumor. The tumor comes as no surprise to the reader, and they are disappointed at having correctly predicted the outcome. Beware of this type of foreshadowing that actually leads the reader to the correct conclusion long before the end of the story.
When done well, foreshadowing can be an excellent technique that will add tension to your plot and delight your readers.