Hinting at what is to come with foreshadowing

This post is the seventeenth in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.

Last week, I discussed adding in bits and pieces of your characters’ back story to your novel. It can add intrigue while making your characters believable. Today, I want to talk about another technique that can add tension and suspense to your story – though in a different way. That way is by foreshadowing.

Foreshadowing is a way of indicating or hinting at what will come later. It can be subtle (such as storm clouds on the horizon suggesting the danger that is coming) or more direct (like Romeo and Juliet talking about wanting to die rather than live without each other).

Foreshadowing can be used to build suspense or to prepare the reader for impending events without revealing too much of what is to come.

Without foreshadowing, readers have no expectations because you haven’t provided them with any. Since many beginning (and even some veteran) authors struggle with foreshadowing, I wanted to offer these tips.

  • Make sure the incident needs foreshadowing. Not every event needs it and overusing it will cause the effect to be lost on the reader. It should only be used for the major events in your novel.
  • Remember to follow through on the foreshadowing. If you introduce a gun (or a mystic stone), it will need to appear as an important piece of the story or your reader will feel cheated.
  • If you are building suspense, your foreshadowing should be more obvious since it is key to the suspense. If you are merely setting up a situation for later, you may want the foreshadowing to be almost invisible to the reader. Think of this as planting clues that the reader may miss but when they think back about it will realize they were significant to the event they were pointing to.
  • Carefully consider the timing of the foreshadowing. It needs to be far enough in advance to tip off the reader but not so far ahead that the reader forgets about it. If you are using it for suspense, remember not to drag it out for too long or the reader will disengage from the suspense building.
  • Don’t forget that you can also use foreshadowing to deliberately mislead the readers. You can make them believe that X is about to happen when really Y happens instead.
  • Since foreshadowing is tough to do – you don’t want it too obvious or too subtle – this is a good time to use a beta reader. Something that you feel might be obvious may not be clear to your readers.
  • A lot of foreshadowing is done after your first draft is written. It might be easiest to plan for foreshadowing by selecting the events you want to foreshadow and then work backwards to incorporate the foreshadowing in the preceding chapters.  A small event may only need a little foreshadowing while a major event that occurs near the end of the novel may be hinted at and alluded to almost from the beginning.

Foreshadowing can be a tricky business and how you use it – heavy-handed or subtle – is up to you. The best way to learn about foreshadowing techniques is to observe them in the books you read and movies you watch. And, of course, by practice in your own writing.

Previous topics

#1 – Deciding to write a novel – Writing Myths

#2 – Three areas to develop before starting to write a novel

#3 – Finding a Story Idea and How to Know if it “good enough”

#4 – Developing Characters for your Novel

#5 – Major characters? Minor Characters? Where does everyone fit in?

#6 – Developing the Setting for your Novel

#7 – The importance of developing conflict in your novel plot

#8 – To Outline or not to outline 

#9 – The importance of a story arc

#10 – The importance of tension and pace

#11 – Prologue and opening scenes

#12 – Beginning and ending scenes in a novel

#13 – The importance of dialogue…and a few tips on how to write it

#14 – Using Internal Dialogue in your novel

#15 – More dialogue tips and help with dialogue tags

#16 – Knowing and incorporating back story into your novel

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