Foreshadowing is a way of indicating or hinting at what will come later. It can be something subtle like storm clouds on the horizon suggesting impending danger, or direct danger such as a conversation stating someone’s intent.
It is a remarkably efficient tool that you can use to place false clues and mislead a reader. These “red herrings,” will often appear in mystery suspense or crime writing.
So why is foreshadowing important?
It is both an element of story telling and an actual literary device that can add palative dramatic tension to a story by building layers of anticipation around what will happen next. Foreshadowing can be used to create suspense or to convey information that helps readers understand what comes later. It can also make extraordinary, even fanciful events seem more believable; if the text foreshadows something, the reader feels prepared for the events when they happen.
To create foreshadowing you need to place clues, both subtle and direct, within the plot line.
The reader can be given direct information by mentioning an upcoming event or explaining the plans of the characters.
By inserting clues in the first few sentences of a story or chapter we can indicate the themes that will be important later.
“I was six when my mother taught me the art of invisible strength. It was a strategy for winning arguments, respect from others, and eventually, though neither of us knew it at the time, chess games.”
-Amy Tan, “Rules of the Game”
By portraying how a character interacts with an object we can leave hints of important threads in the future.
– Robert Jordan, “Great Hunt”
“Digging into his chest, he [Bayle Domon] set out on the desk what he had bought in Maradon. A lightstick, left from the Age of Legends, or so it was said. Certainly no one knew the making of them any longer. Expensive, that, and rarer than an honest magistrate. It looked like a plain glass rod, thicker than his thumb and not quite as long as his forearm, but when held in the hand it glowed as brightly as a lantern. Lightsticks shattered like glass, too; he had nearly lost Spray in the fire caused by the first he had owned. A small, age-dark ivory carving of a man holding a sword. The fellow who sold it claimed if you held it long enough you started to feel warm. Domon never had, and neither had any of the crew he let hold it, but it was old, and that was enough for Domon.”
Or weather or mood to preceed good or bad fortune:
“The night was still. I could hear his breath coming easily beside me. Occasionally there was a sudden breeze that hit my bare legs, but it was all that remained of a promised windy night. This was the stillness before a thunderstorm.”
—Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Foreshadowing tends to appear at the beginning of a story or chapter and can link to imminent conflict between characters. By placing signals that things might not be what the initially seem the reader will be engaged. As a tool foreshadowing is an essential element in keeping readers guessing until the end of the story.
I hope that this article helps and influences you to put more foreshadowing into your work moving forward.
Neil Sehmbhy is a self confessed geek and the author of the upcoming Sunder, Corporation novels.
Follow him on twitter @neilsehmbhy.