Foreshadowing. Every good story has it, but not every author feels comfortable writing it. When done correctly, this literary element has a mesmerizing, suspenseful effect, but when done incorrectly, it can be confusing, misleading, or too direct. Finding the balance between too subtle and too revealing can a challenge for any writer.
If you struggle with finding your foreshadowing happy place, check out these seven tips for crafting an effective trail of breadcrumbs for your reader to follow.
Begin at the End
Before you get caught up in finding a balance of indirect and direct foreshadowing, figure out exactly what you’re leading your reader to.
If you’ve started in on your rough draft, chances are you know what big events you have in mind for the end of your novel. However, if you haven’t written out the concrete details of your turning points, now is the time to do so.
Sit down and list the most important elements of your climactic event. What emotions will your protagonist and antagonist experience during this event? What exactly is the setting and what details can be found in the background? Which minor characters are involved in the main event?
It is important to decide these factors now, so we can correctly hint at them later. Take a moment and outline this event until you are satisfied with all the pieces of the puzzle.
Connect Present and Future with Diagrams
Once you have the main event outlined, begin branching off with hints that will be dropped before the big day. For this stage, use a diagram that you feel comfortable with, like a story web or timeline.
Keeping track of this outline is important. If you attempt to drop hints for the reader, but they have no clear connection to the big event, this can lead to a confused and disinterested audience.
For the purpose of this example, let’s go with the idea of an election. Your characters are preparing for a big election taking place later on. Something major is going to happen at this election that will completely alter this civilization’s existence, but the audience and protagonist are not yet aware. You, as the author, are looking to drop hints at this surprise outcome without directly giving it away.
Now look at your outline. What factors will hint to your reader that the stage is set for something to change dramatically? Maybe the citizens of this nation are deeply unhappy with current circumstances. Perhaps a new but mysterious politician has entered the race. A new law may have just emerged that will make it incredibly difficult for one side to succeed. Connect these ideas to your web and showcase them in your introduction and rising action, to prepare the reader for something to go wrong.
As you connect things to your main event, consider not only major details, but small ones as well. Campaign posters, side characters like senators and representatives, and daily issues suffered by average citizens can clue in your reader that a big change is coming. Include these in your web too.
You don’t have to finish your diagram all at once. Continue adding to it as you perfect your first draft to keep track of all the details you want to connect.
Experiment with Types of Foreshadowing
Foreshadowing can be added in a number of ways, but there are two main types of foreshadowing; direct and indirect.
Both types of foreshadowing are not always included in every novel, but if you are still planning your book you might try playing around with both.
Direct foreshadowing is when an outcome is directly suggested. This can come from several people, including the narrator, an oracle, or even a character retelling the story in the future.
Direct foreshadowing often comes in very explicit statements. Think of an oracle telling a protagonist that he will die at the hand of a closest friend or a prologue directly telling the reader the outcome of an election. With direct foreshadowing, the reader usually has a good idea of what will happen, but the intriguing part is how it happens.
Indirect foreshadowing is far more subtle. This is the trail of breadcrumbs that leads to a mysterious location. When utilizing indirect foreshadowing, the writer includes several small details that hint at the outcome.
Indirect foreshadowing is more like mysterious new characters arriving without purpose or specific emotions the protagonist may experience in certain situations. They don’t tell us what will happen, but what could happen.
Unsure about which kind to use? Start with direct foreshadowing. Write out the events you want to foreshadow as if they were being told to the protagonists by an oracle. If this direct explanation of upcoming events feels right for you, you can keep the clear explanation and mix up how it is delivered based on the characteristics of your novel.
However, if you think this all-seeing oracle method is too straight forward, figure out how you could get other side characters, objects, or scenery to convey the same message. If you think dialogue hints and background objects do a better job of getting the message across, try incorporating indirect foreshadowing into your novel instead.
Both types of foreshadowing are fair game for any novel! Experiment with both during your planning and rough draft stages to find what is best for your story.
Include Foreshadowing from Page One
Once you know what you’re foreshadowing and what kind of hints you’re dropping, include them starting from the first chapter. Good foreshadowing doesn’t just happen in short bursts a few pages before the main event, but rather in small details included from the beginning.
You don’t have to open up your first chapter with a prophecy, but a subtle campaign sign to foretell an election will do the job. In the beginning your foreshadowing can be done in small instances, but you can ramp up your hints as chapters progress.
If the climax occurs at a planned event, mention that event in the first chapter. Send your protagonist to their mailbox to retrieve a wedding invitation, or show them wrapping a gift for an upcoming birthday party.
This is where planning is absolutely essential, and when your diagrams can come in handy. As you progress through your chapters, find small things you can relate to the bigger event down the line. The more you can tie into the big event, the more intrigued your reader will be to witness it.
If you’ve set the stage from the beginning, you’ll have your reader even more excited to see the headlining act.
Introduce a New Arrival
New characters or objects are a quick way to get your reader thinking about what the future holds. New arrivals spice up the scene and bring with them several questions about their intentions and their place in the story.
Thinking back to this idea of an election, let’s imagine the incumbent politician is expected to win once more. However, a mysterious, new challenger arrives that very few people have heard of. The characters don’t expect this person to win the election, but just their introduction can get the reader thinking ahead to how the newcomer fits in to the main event.
Be careful not to introduce your new arrival too early. Your newbie should be new to the characters, but also new to the reader. Take several pages to establish what the world was like without them, so the reader has an idea of what they could change.
Layer More Foreshadowing with Each Draft
As you work through your first draft, don’t worry about placing your hints perfectly the first time. Foreshadowing is often clunky or too light in your first draft, as you haven’t had the chance to really watch your entire plan unfold yet.
As you go over your first draft with a fine-toothed comb, make notes connecting instances of foreshadowing with the main event. Does every instance of foreshadowing pay off in the end, or do some hints lead nowhere? Unless done intentionally, toss the dead-end foreshadowing and add more that pays off.
As you progress to a second draft, layer on more background hints. Campaign posters lining the streets or dialogue between two background characters discussing their anxieties about the election.
Remember, you can always add more foreshadowing as you work towards your final draft, so don’t stress about getting it all organized in the planning stage.
Relate Emotions to Events and Locations
The “gut feeling” is something we’ve seen in countless movies, read in several books, and probably experienced in our own lives, but it can be one of the best foreshadowing tools.
Imagine introducing your protagonists to a perfectly harmless location. Nothing appears to be wrong, but something gives the protagonist an uneasy feeling that they express to another character or the reader. Nothing is revealed about the future, but the reader understands that something may happen here.
Aside from the ambiguous gut feeling, experiment with relating emotions to specific events or objects. In the first chapter, your character may demonstrate uneasiness when visiting a local pool. It is not explained at the time, but in chapter fifteen, the character sails the ocean with a few friends. The boat capsizes, and it is revealed that this protagonist does not know how to swim.
When foreshadowing through emotions, begin by considering your character’s backstory and how it ties into the main plot. Perhaps the protagonist has a rocky relationship with her mother and feels uneasy every time she visits her. The writer can portray this uneasiness in the early chapters, and in the tenth chapter the uneasiness erupts into a fight between both characters.
When planning emotional foreshadowing, you need to consider both the past and present. Here it may be easiest to start with the past. What has happened in a character’s life that triggers certain feelings about locations or objects?
Imagine foreshadowing a huge fight between a character and their father. In the present, they visit their father and can be seen clenching their palms, dreading the visit, and raising their voice in arguments.
As the story progresses, maybe the character or narrator tells the story of previous disagreements they’ve had with their dad, and how there is still heaps of unresolved tension. Maybe the father did something unforgivable during the main character’s childhood, and they have still not made amends.
The reader is aware of the pressure increasing, while not entirely sure what the tipping point will be. This culminates in a huge argument between the father and protagonist at the climax of the story.
As you plan, describe the emotion you’re trying to put into play. Each time it reoccurs, attempt to describe it in a similar fashion, so the reader understands that it is the same uncomfortable feeling the protagonist has experienced before.
There are several ways to include foreshadowing in your novel, and at least one perfect method for every situation and outcome. Plan your foreshadowing carefully when preparing for your first draft, but remember that it is perfectly fine to layer on more foreshadowing with each revision.
No matter the methods you choose, just remember to plan, revise, and re-read to make sure your foreshadowing does a good job of keeping your reader at the edge of their seat.