Have you ever watched a movie and near the end something happens and you say, Oh, I remember something about that? Character Jimmy said this would happen or Character Jane dropped that cell phone behind the sofa earlier.
What Character Jimmy said didn’t mean much to you at the time, but the writer was foreshadowing, hinting to you about what will happen, reoccur, or become clear later in the story.
In writing any story, everything must happen for a reason. It is either part of the current drama, it is providing back story, it is developing your knowledge of a character, or it is hinting at something to come. As the author, if any passage doesn’t have a clear purpose, then quite likely you should consider deleting it.
Many techniques for foreshadowing exist, but in this article I discuss six of the most common ones.
Misdirect your reader
A false foreshadowing tells the reader that one thing is going to happen, but in fact something quite the opposite or different happens. This is sometimes called a misdirect, just like a magician does. He has you focus on one thing while he does something elsewhere.
Tracey tells Mom that she’s climbed the rock cliff hundreds of times and nothing has ever happened. She’ll be just fine.
The reader might think something will happen this time. We have portended a disaster, but with a twist. What actually happens is that another climber falls into a crevasse and Tracey has to abandon her own climb to rescue the fellow climber. She becomes the hero of the story.
Common things aren’t what they seem
Turn a mundane, everyday experience into a hint of something to come.
Karen started her car and backed out of the driveway at eight o’clock just like she did every Monday through Friday.
The reader just might think, uh oh, something bad is going to happen this time, isn’t it? Indeed, a terrible accident occurs, but Karen ends up falling in love with the driver of the car that hit her.
A glimpse of significant objects
A seemingly innocuous object makes an appearance in the scene or to the character.
John finds Julie’s clothes strewn all over the bed and floor. He picks up her jeans and a slip of paper falls onto the floor and under the edge of the nightstand.
The next day, when she still hasn’t come home or called, John reports her missing. Several days later desperate for answers, he finds the paper. It’s a receipt for a hotel in Wacamole where her body is found in a coming chapter.
Untruths that become reality
A character might utter an apparent truth to himself or to another character that turns out to be untrue.
Lying in his hospital bed, Wade, famous adventurer and explorer, tells his Dad that his biggest sadness is that he’ll never get to see the northern lights again.
Three years later, with the help of a prosthesis and a specially equipped snowmobile, he travels back to the small town in the Yukon and sees the the lights in all its colorful glory.
Figures of speech
Figures of speech that you use in your story, such as metaphors and similes can help convey something to happen later in your story.
Mary is in the midst of antiques with dust swirling around her like ghosts from the past.
Some readers may not catch it right away, but others will realize that something from the past is significant to the story. And, indeed, the metaphor of old furniture and other personal possessions and the simile of ghosts used in the opening paragraphs allude strongly to the coming plot.
A physical or gut feeling
Physical or gut feelings (instincts) experienced by the character hint that something is going to happen, usually something bad.
Jane shivered and the hairs prickled on forearms as the wind howled into the cracks of the rotting window frame like a wolf baying at the moon.
She herself is foreseeing something evil happening and, sure enough, when the clock strikes twelve a stranger knocks at the door. And, again here is a simile of the baying wolf, which people often find eerie in the darkness.
If you have a technique or example of foreshadowing from your own stories, I’d love to hear them. Drop a note in the comments below.