Foreshadowing: The Shape of Things to Come
By Michelle Barker
If you’ve ever had one of these comments from an editor—needs a better setup or feels too contrived—chances are you need to add some foreshadowing to your story.
What is foreshadowing?
Foreshadowing is a handy tool that allows you to get away with things like plot twists and events or behavior that would otherwise strain credulity. It involves planting clues for the reader, whether subtle or more obvious, that lay the groundwork for future events.
If you hint to your readers that something is going to happen, and then it does, instead of your plot feeling contrived it will simply seem like adequate setup. You will have made a promise and then honored it.
How much foreshadowing you use depends on what you need it to do for you.
Foreshadowing That Facilitates Future Events
Coincidences might happen in real life, but in fiction they take agency away from your protagonist and don’t allow them to solve their own problems.
So how do you avoid them?
Say you need a doctor to be at a bar to revive your protagonist who is about to have a heart attack. If the doctor just happens to be there at the right time, it will feel too coincidental and contrived. But if you set it up so that the bar is the doctor’s regular after-work haunt and is also a place where your protagonist regularly runs into them, it becomes perfectly plausible that the doc is in the right place at the right time. Your reader will have no trouble believing in it if it has been reinforced.
In cases like this, the reinforcement doesn’t have to be overemphasized, but you don’t want your reader to be taken out of the story by questioning the chain of events. You want them to remember having seen the doctor at the bar.
Foreshadowing That Allows for Believable Character Development
You want Johnny to have a meltdown in Chapter 25, but he starts the novel with a Zen level of chill. Nothing is too farfetched if you plant the possibility of a meltdown in little character cracks along the way. A bit of teeth-clenching at the restaurant when his meal arrives lukewarm; a bit of a cold sweat when the stock market crashes; a grip of the steering wheel in the middle of a traffic jam.
By the time Chapter 25 arrives, you will have primed your reader for that uncharacteristic meltdown you want Johnny to have so that he completely ruins the relationship he cares about most.
Foreshadowing That Sets Up a Plot Twist
The best plot twists are inevitable but unexpected. Your reader should not be able to see them coming, and yet if they were to go back and reread the novel, they’d spot the breadcrumb trail you’ve left in the form of subtle hints and clues. This, too, is foreshadowing.
The thing you don’t want in a plot twist is for your reader to feel blindsided. If you don’t lay this trail, your reader will feel tricked or cheated by the turn in the story and will leave your story world annoyed rather than enthralled.
Red Herrings and Chekhov’s Gun
Red herrings are a novelist’s sleight of hand. Planting false clues or intentionally distracting the reader from what’s actually happening can be a great way to avoid predictability in a plot and create a satisfying twist. Foreshadowing is the tool you need for this type of misdirection.
In the novel Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë gives us a great red herring in the character of Blanche Ingram. After spending some time at Thornfield Hall, her marriage to Mr. Rochester seems like a fait accompli. Jane is despondent. Everyone acts as though the marriage will be announced at any moment. So, when Mr. Rochester tells Jane that he intends to marry her and not Blanche, everyone including the reader is shocked. And yet, we should have seen it coming in the emotion he reserved only for Jane and never seemed to show Blanche.
Throughout the novel 1984, the character O'Brien appears to be a potential ally to Winston in his quiet rebellion against the Party. His demeanor and certain interactions lead Winston (and the reader) to believe O'Brien is part of the resistance. This belief turns out to be a devastating red herring when O'Brien's true allegiance is revealed.
But when does a red herring cross the line and break the rule of Chekhov’s gun? The rule says that if there’s a loaded gun on the wall, at some point it had better go off. What Chekhov means is that if you’re going to use foreshadowing, there had better be a payoff or you will have broken an important promise to the reader.
However, the whole point of red herrings is not that there is no payoff, but that the payoff is not what the reader expects. Again, the success or failure of this depends on how well you’ve set things up.
It’s a Second Draft Thing
Foreshadowing is the kind of revision you do on the second pass through your novel. Often you don’t realize while writing the first draft that you haven’t set up certain things or laid the necessary groundwork for the story to unfold in a way that feels believable. That’s what second drafts are for. It’s easier to see where you need to plant a few hints when the main events are already in place.
The Risks: when foreshadowing goes wrong
As with most things, while a little foreshadowing is excellent, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Too many clues and signposts risk making your story predictable. The last thing you want is for your reader to guess the identity of the murderer two hundred pages from the end. Readers like to guess what’s going to happen in a novel, but they also like to be wrong.
Again, it depends what you want your foreshadowing to achieve.
The repeated warnings we get in A Story of Ice and Fire that “Winter is coming” serve to intensify an atmosphere of dread. George R. R. Martin creates dramatic irony by allowing the reader to know something that most of the characters don’t: the White Walkers are real. Winter is coming and it’s going to be bad.
On the other hand, Martin consistently subverts reader expectation by killing off heroes that the reader doesn’t expect an author would ever do away with. He warns us repeatedly: things are looking dire for this character; how will they get out of it? Answer: they won’t.
On the other hand, if you don’t use enough foreshadowing, you risk creating confusion. The most glaring example of this comes from the movie, The Usual Suspects. Fans of the movie might disagree, but the revelation of Kevin Spacey’s true identity comes so far out of left field, it made many moviegoers feel duped by the twist.
Probably the only way to be sure you’ve achieved the right balance is to get feedback from an objective (and honest) source.
Keeping Your Promises
Writing a novel is all about making promises to your reader: this is the kind of story they’re going to get, and as the author you’re going to do your best to convince them it’s not only plausible but that they’re standing right in the middle of it experiencing it alongside the protagonist.
Foreshadowing is a way to both make those promises and keep them. It can create cohesion in a story, build momentum, and keep your reader turning pages.
Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and poet. Her most recent publication, co-authored with David Brown, is Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in literary reviews worldwide. She has published three YA novels (one fantasy and two historical fiction), a historical picture book, and a chapbook of poetry. Michelle holds a BA in English literature (UBC) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). Many of the writers she’s worked with have gone on to win publishing contracts and honours for their work. Michelle lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada.