How To Foreshadow

What is foreshadowing?

Linguistically, fore + shadow means a shadow is thrown in front of what it is meant to cover. In fiction, foreshadowing is a device used to hint at what’s ahead in the story.

Foreshadowing may appear through setting; through characters’ thoughts or actions; through objects; or through symbolism.

Here are a few classic examples:

In Hamlet, the appearance of the ghost is not only a visitation from a murdered king seeking vengeance, the ghost foreshadows Hamlet’s own death.

In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens announces a foreshadow: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The line illustrates some characters are enjoying an easy life while others are struggling. It also foreshadows that circumstances will be switched by the end of the story.

In Of Mice and Men, the title itself is a hint that Lennie’s  accidental killings of innocent animals early in the story precursor the inevitable death of a person at his hands.

What are some ways to inject foreshadowing into a story? What are some hints given by foreshadowing?

1. How setting can be used to foreshadow:

~ Woods or forests can hint that a character will face a battle with nature in the story;or a character will seek refuge from another man by hiding in the woods; or an unnatural danger lurks there but is hidden by natural growth.

~ A lake, pond or any body of water can mean someone will or has drowned; water can also be cleansing; a setting surrounded by water (island) can portray isolation, both physical and mental.

~ Cemeteries hint at death; cemeteries also hint at rebirth. In Michele Magorian’s Good Night, Mr. Tom, a refugee child is sent to the country during the London Blitz. Willie is terrified when he’s placed near a cemetery, but it foreshadows his future. His old life is about to die, and  a new–better–one begins.

~ On the flip side, a move from one type of place (a city) to another (the country) can hint the expectations of the move will not be met. A family who announces in chapter one they’re leaving the big city for the peace and safety of a bucolic small town is pretty well guaranteed to move next door to a serial killer.

~ Weather can be an indicator of the ominous: Storm clouds equal trouble brewing; a strong wind brings change; rain is a sign of slowly rising tension. And does anything good ever happen on a dark and stormy night?

2. How objects can be used to foreshadow:

~ The gun in the drawer, the sword on the wall, the knife on the counter predict a violent conflict. Whoever is near a weapon on the page, is probably going to need to pick it up and use it at some point in the story.

~ A valuable object such as a family heirloom appears in a story for a reason: it will be stolen; it will be lost; it will be eaten by the family dog; it will give a character strength during a climactic moment.

~ The appearance of a sick or dying animal hints at violence, illness or madness up ahead. In To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus Finch’s shooting of the mad dog in the street was both symbolic and a foreshadow of what was ahead for Macon: it will be visited by madness and it will take a courageous man to end it.

~ The appearance of a traditional symbol–a crow for death, a snake for danger, a mockingbird for innocence–are omens. Omens foreshadow.

3. How interactions can be used to foreshadow:

~ A story that opens with a person being threatened or bullied foreshadows more of the same for that person; a person portrayed as a coward will have to show bravery at some point. Think Neville Longbottom.

~  If a stranger is walking along a road and a truck pulls up slowly and the two guys give the stranger the stink eye, guess who will be at the bar/diner/gas station up ahead, waiting to give the stranger an unwelcoming welcome to town?

~ In a mystery novel, if one character says to another, “I bought my plane ticket this morning, so I only have to survive three more days in this stinking town” he might have just sealed his fate of dying before those three days are up.

Foreshadowing is meant to subtly ramp up the dramatic tension in the story. It’s different from a red herring, which is meant to mislead a reader. Foreshadowing is truthful, but since it is subtle (we hope!)  it’s up to the careful reader to interpret the author’s clever inclusion of foreshadowing elements.

Do you use foreshadowing in your writing?


Tomorrow’s topic: How to Write an Artist Statement