Foreshadowing: What is Foreshadowing & How to Use it (Sneakily)

Posted on May 31, 2019

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Written by R.E. Vance

Home > Blog > Fiction, Writing > Foreshadowing: What is Foreshadowing & How to Use it (Sneakily)

Without foreshadowing in your book…you run the risk of an unsatisfying story.

Let’s be honest, how many of us pick up a book, read half of it, get busy and never get back to it?

Life or other books get in the way and, well, as good as that book was, we were never really hooked. There was nothing compelling us to read to the end.

No harm, no foul, right?…Wrong.

When you’re the author of that half-read book, then it’s devastating.

Still, there are certain tools you can use when writing a book to hold the reader’s attention to the end and one of the most powerful among them is foreshadowing.

Because even the best writing prompts and story ideas need finessing in order to become mind-blowing reads.

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Here’s how to use foreshadowing in your novel:

  1. Understand what foreshadowing is
  2. Learn what foreshadowing means
  3. Utilize foreshadowing examples
  4. Use prophecy
  5. Use Chekov’s Gun
  6. Use Omens
  7. Use “I got this weird feeling”
  8. Outline your book
  9. Use flashbacks or flashforwards

What is foreshadowing?

Foreshadowing is a literary device used in fiction that drops hints and clues as to what will happen later in the story in order to give readers the sensations of shock but satisfaction when they finish the book.

Foreshadowing can be used in a number of ways but the point of it is to ensure that your book and the outcome of it makes sense but is still shocking to the readers.

If you’ve ever read a book and thought, “I should have seen that coming!”, then you understand the impact foreshadowing can have.

This is one of the most important things that makes for a good book.

What does foreshadowing mean?

Foreshadowing is a literary device in which the writer gives advanced warning that something specific is going to happen later in the story. Through foreshadowing, you are preparing the reader for an event that will eventually take place in your story.

In other words, the writer is managing reader expectations by giving them a heads up.

And the better you set those expectations, the faster the reader will turn those pages to see how it will happen.

But what does a writer foreshadow? Anything really. A character’s action, reaction, victory, defeat or even death. The st

Here are some elements an author can foreshadow:

  • The story’s major (or minor) plot points
  • A shocking twist … it doesn’t really matter.
  • Character development throughout the novel

All that matters is that you’ve prepared the reader for what’s to come so that they don’t get to that golden moment in your story and go, “Huh? Where the hell did that come from?”

That can be a major flaw of your published book—that you can’t undo.

Foreshadowing Examples

One of the best ways to learn any skill, including foreshadowing, is to look at examples and understand why they were done.

Here are some of our top foreshadowing examples (you probably recognize) that you can learn from in order to put these writing tips to use.

Foreshadowing Example #1 – Nightlock in Hunger Games

By now, we all pretty much know the story of Katniss Everdeen, the selfless sister who bravely sacrificed herself as a Hunger Game competition in order to save her younger sister.

This series has a number of fantastic foreshadowing examples, but one that sticks out to us the most is the prevalence of nightlock, a poisonous berry that causes death upon consumption.

Foreshadowing Example

These are the instances in which the use of nightlock is used as foreshadowing:

  • In the beginning of the book, we learn that Katniss is well-versed in which wilderness elements are poisonous and which aren’t
  • The second time we see nightlock is when Katniss is at the Capital, training for the games and we learn more of it
  • Later, while in the competition, Katniss has a run-in with Peeta and recalls her father telling her of nightlock’s dangers
  • Lastly, during the Hunger Games, Katniss wanders near a dead competitor, who had died by eating nightlock

All of these instances are meant to show us just how important nightlock is to the story. And later, when Katniss and Peeta nearly eat the berries on purpose, we know just how fatal the result of this would be.

Foreshadowing Example #2 – Obi-Wan’s Death in Starwars

This one might speak to all of you Star Wars fans out there.

Obi Wan’s death (spoiler alert) was foreshadowed very early on—to the point of how he would die…and by whom.

There’s actually a moment when Obi-Wan Kenobi is talking to Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode II when he says, “Why do I get the feeling, you will be the death of me?”

This was a complete foreshadowing of what happened later in the book. However, readers can mistake this for a side comment and not take it too seriously.

Foreshadowing Example #3 – Lennie Killing in Of Mice and Men

If you’re familiar with Of Mice and Men (meaning, if your teachers made you read it in school), you know that Lennie, a mentally delayed man, kills his puppy by being too rough with it—unintentionally, of course.

This foreshadows Lennie accidentally killing Candy, a woman who mirrors the puppy in various ways.

Because we learn early on that Lennie is strong enough to kill, this makes moments of him interacting with others more foreboding.

Foreshadowing Example #4 – The Prologue in Game of Thrones

If you’ve read George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, you know just how vital the prologue of the series is—they even recreated this perfectly in the HBO show.

The White Walkers in Game of Thrones are among the biggest threats in the world Martin has created. They become the center of conflict and dread.

Martin foreshadows this from the very, very beginning by narrating some men venturing beyond the wall, all thinking the White Walkers are just a myth—a legend meant to scare children at bedtime.

The end of the prologue in Game of Thrones

During this prologue (spoiler alert), all the men, aside from one man of the Night’s Watch, are killed.

This single man runs away (from The Wall) and is intercepted in Winterfell as a deserter, where he tells this story to those who don’t believe him. This is the key foreshadowing moment of the potential horror the white walkers induce in this series.

The Power of Foreshadowing and the Writer’s 6th Sense

Let’s talk about one of the greatest plot twists in modern cinematic history: The 6th Sense.

Before I go on, spoiler alert!.. you have been warned!

If we weren’t prepared for the surprising fact that Bruce Willis’ character was actually dead, we’d meet that final, climactic reveal with confusion and anger. Instead, M. Night Shyamalan painstakingly prepares us with visual effects like one’s misty breath when a ghost appears, he has Haley Joel Osment tells out outright that some ghosts, “Don’t even know that they’re dead,” and when the reveal finally happens, it’s met with a montage of all the moments that M. Night Shyamalan foreshadowed that shocking plot twist.

And most of us still left the theatre going: “I didn’t see that coming.”

What none of us did do was leave the theater disappointed or confused, saying, “Well that came out of nowhere.”  

Make no mistake, when used correctly, foreshadowing can be more of your most powerful tools in keeping your reader hooked.

How to Use Foreshadowing in Your Novel

There are five common foreshadowing techniques that will never get old.

Use them wisely and readers will be hooked for life (and give you those 5-star Amazon reviews).

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#1 – Prophecy

With ultimate power comes ultimate…knowledge? Wait…that’s not right.

But what is right is that as the author, you possess god-like powers over your characters. You make them do, say or think anything. You know what is going to happen to them down to the last word they utter. You’ve seen it all.

You can see the future!

Trouble is, it’s all in your head.

That’s when you can use a prophetic character or event in your book to foreshadow what’s coming. It could come in the form of an actual prophet screaming from the hilltops that the ‘end is nigh’… and then the end actually becomes nigh.

Or some wise old man who says something like, “When I was a young lad, those dark clouds meant a storm was coming.”

One example of this foreshadowing in books is Professor Trelawney in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter.

Professor Trelawney is seen as a “fraud” by many (if not all) of her students, particularly when she has her “episodes.” However, Rowling wrote this in such a way that you as a reader also don’t believe what she’s saying is true…when in fact, it is.

Whatever you choose to do, use your secondary characters in your book to prophesize (foreshadow) events yet to come.

# 2 – Chekov’s Gun

There is an old rule in writing, known as Checkov’s Gun: If you see a gun in Act One, it better go off in Act Three.

I find that the opposite is equally true. If a gun goes off in Act Three, you better have shown it earlier.

By focusing on some detail, especially one that isn’t immediately obvious as important, you are essentially giving your reader a heads up that this will come back in some significant way later on in the story.

Foreshadowing In Books

A famous (non-gun) example of this is the Nightlock poisonous berries in the Hunger Games, as we mentioned in the examples above. At the climax of the book (spoiler alert), Katniss threatens to commit suicide by eating the berries.

This is foreshadowed three times:

  • First, at the beginning of the book when we see her out in the wilderness, foraging for food. We learn that she knows what’s poisonous and what’s not.
  • The second time occurs at the Capital when she is training for the Games. In that scene, we actually read about Nightlock.
  • The third time is when, during the Games, Katniss finds a dead tribute who accidently poisoned herself by eating the berries.

We saw the gun, ahhh, I mean berries, several times before that big climactic moment.

And because of that, we knew they’d be important (and we also didn’t think, “Well, isn’t that convenient” when they did show up.

In other words, the author foreshadowed that big final moment.

#3 – Omens

Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight. Red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning.”

OK, so if your main character is a shepherd and it’s about to go down, then delight your readers with a dawn that lights the sky blood red.

What are omens?

Omens, or common cultural symbols, can be extremely effective tools when foreshadowing a coming plot point.

Here are some examples of common omens in fiction:

  • A black cat for bad luck
  • A four-leaf clover for good luck
  • Walking under a ladder
  • Finding a penny heads up
  • A crow symbolizing death

NOTE for foreshadowing with omens: You don’t have to stick to omens from our world. Make them up! For example, if you’re writing a novel that’s set in some magical kingdom or a distant planet, ask yourself, “What are the ‘omens’ they have?”

It could be anything… touching a Minotaur’s horn, seeing a mermaid, the three moons simultaneously appearing in the morning sky, etc.,…

Just make sure that whatever you decide, you adequately explain it to the reader, too.

#4 – “I Got This Weird Feeling”

Three characters walk into an abandoned cabin. One of them says, “I got a bad feeling about this…” and BOOM!

You’re away to the foreshadowing races!

Here’s the literary schtick: In real life, when your mom calls you because she had a bad dream about you getting hit by a bus, it’s just her being overprotective. (Jeez mom, chill. I’ll look both ways when I cross the road. I promise.)

But in fiction, if a character’s mother calls them with that same bad dream, it better be foreshadowing events to come (or don’t include that little tidbit at all).

#5 – Outline your book for better foreshadowing

It’s very, very hard to drop foreshadowing hints if you have no idea where your book is going.

For that reason, outlining your book will help you create much stronger (and sneakier) foreshadowing elements.

Think of it this way: the more you know about your own story, the better foreshadowing bits and pieces you can leave behind in order to hide them better from your readers.

#6 – Flashbacks/Flash Forwards

Setting a scene outside of the narrative timeline can also be an effective foreshadowing tool.

For example, you could have a flash forward scene with a sinking ship, then return to the story’s present time, three hours earlier, and the reader can watch with delight as the hero boards that very same ship.

Oh boy—someone gonna drown!

Or, a character could walk into a room and smell a strange, meaty odor that leads to a flashback of a time when he was fighting a gang of cannibals who were barbequing his buddy.

Oh wait—someone is getting grilled!

These elements are very helpful in creating foreshadowing but remember that flashbacks and flash-forwards should also show up elsewhere in your novel instead of just for a single foreshadowing event.

So there you have it, foreshadowing and all its mighty powers. Use this tool wisely, young Padowan, and I promise, you’ll have your reader frantically turning the pages until the glorious end.

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