The term foreshadowing always cues the ominous music in my mind, but effective foreshadowing isn’t that showy. It’s more like the secret ingredient that helps your writing make sense. It’s often apparent only after readers reach the big event you’ve been prepping them for. But don’t let the subtlety fool you: a few little clues along the way will prime the pump for your novel’s most critical plot points.
The element of surprise isn’t always your friend
While no writer wants our novel to feel predictable, neither should we blindside readers with random events we haven’t prepared them for. Real life offers few true surprises, and the same should hold true for fiction. In retrospect, readers should be able to look back and identify subtle clues leading to your big plot points.
This isn’t to say you can’t hold readers in suspense and include elements of mystery and surprise. They just need to make logical sense by the end of the story.
A light touch makes all the difference
While real life offers few surprises to the savvy observer, hints rarely smack us in the face. We harbor uncertainty about how things will turn out, even if we’re pretty confident we know the answer. Fiction should read the same way, with everything feeling inevitable only at the end of the story.
With that in mind, keep your hints subtle. You’re laying the groundwork for future plot points, not painting a roadmap for the reader. Foreshadowing creates a world in which major story events make sense. It doesn’t hover over the reader’s shoulder asking, “Get it? Get it?”
Likewise, not every event needs foreshadowing. Overusing this tool can blow smaller details out of proportion and detract from your showstopping moments. Intentional foreshadowing should prepare readers for your story’s major plot points, not your main character’s mundane run-in with a neighbor at the grocery store.
Always deliver on your promises
If you call special attention to specific story details, do it for a reason. Foreshadowing with no payoff will leave readers feeling distracted and unsatisfied. This is the principle of Chekov’s gun: if you place a gun on the table, you need to fire it at some point.
In one of my stories, a character texts my protagonist to express concern about a mutual friend’s alcohol consumption. This foreshadows a major event later in the story. Readers need that hint, even though it goes mostly unnoticed by the main character. It helps the story make sense, as opposed to leaving people wondering why they never saw that character touch a drink before.
Foreshadowing is almost undetectable
Skillful use of foreshadowing is an exercise in subtlety. Most of the time, the reader won’t know it’s there — at least not right away. That doesn’t make it unimportant. On the contrary, it will make the payoff that much more satisfying. As readers reach a climactic moment, they’ll begin to assemble the disparate pieces of the puzzle you’ve laid out for them. If you choose your hints wisely, you’ll have a story that strikes the perfect balance between believability and surprise.