Mastering the Art of Effective Foreshadowing


Every story needs clues, even if they aren’t mysteries. Picture this: You’re at the end of a good book, the plot is thick, and Bam! Out of nowhere, the author ties in a character or object from an earlier scene. Situations like this leave readers asking, “How did I not see that coming?” This is foreshadowing, and it’s an important part of your work in progress, whether you realize it or not.

Direct and Indirect Foreshadowing

Direct foreshadowing happens when the author talks about a specific event that will take place in the coming pages of the book. This could be a direct quote from a character, such as “I’m going to the grocery store now,” or something less blatant, such as an internal monologue.

Indirect foreshadowing, on the other hand, is elusive. Simply put, indirect foreshadowing happens when the storyteller alludes to an impending event.

Here, the reader assumes a storm is mulling on the horizon and expects to see it in the next few pages:

Dark clouds churned across the sky like a witch’s boiling cauldron. The air, hot and sticky like a hound’s breath.

In many cases, indirect foreshadowing is less obvious than the example above. In Flannery O’Connor’s short story A Good Man Is Hard to Find, O’Connor employs numerous funerary symbols, harbinger’s of her characters’ impending plight.

Practical Tools for Foreshadowing

  • Omens and symbols – Example: A girl sees a raven on the sill of her bedroom window and later receives an important message. (In folklore, ravens are thought to symbolize misfortune or messengers).
  • Direct Prophecies – Example: A man opens a fortune cookie and finds a message inside, “You will inherit a large sum of money.” Later, his father dies in a hunting accident, leaving him the family estate.
  • Character Opinions – Example: A young woman tells herself she’ll never find love again, but the author has something different in mind.
  • Loaded Guns – Example: A housekeeper finds an empty bottle of poison in a kitchen drawer, and the reader later discovers where it went.
  • Pre-Scenes – Example: A young woman bumps into a man at work, causing him to drop the stack of papers he’s holding. The reader anticipates their next encounter.

Foreshadowing is a challenge. If you’re having trouble hanging enough loaded guns on the wall at the beginning of your story, take inventory of your climactic moment. What objects, emotions, or situations should you prefigure in the first act? Once you pinpoint these factors, you can drop clues about them in the beginning of your story.

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