Foreshadowing is when an author gives an indication or warning of a future event. The writer does it to build suspense, making the reader turn pages to find out when the gun carefully tucked into a handbag will go off or to wait for an elicit affair to be discovered. The point of foreshadowing is to signal the reader to pay attention because something important is about to come up in the plot. The key with foreshadowing is to make it obvious enough to recognize but not so blatant that you kill suspense. Here are my best tips for how to use foreshadowing effectively.
Make it Relevant
Not every future plot point requires foreshadowing. Keep your powder dry and only use it when it’s worthwhile. Too much risks making the writing seem silly or melodramatic.
Famed playwright Anton Chekhov had a saying that went something like this: if you introduce a gun in the early chapters, it has to go off by the end. Don’t have a character grab a weapon and never use it. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Done well, foreshadowing will excite your reader. It will make her want to know how the pieces connect and will attune her to the moment when the foreshadowing pays off.
I’ve been re-watching the Showtime spy hit, Homeland recently. In an episode in Season 6, an Iranian banker is being interrogated about a nuclear missile program. The camera pans in on the man smoking, his pack of cigarettes, and his lighter. Our attention is drawn to the smoking to the point that we know it must be important. Later, the CIA interrogator recognizes an empty pack of the same cigarettes in the interrogation room. The Iranian had already been there. The interrogation was a setup, and the cigarette pack proves it.
Note that it would have been wrong for the writers of Homeland to zero in on this clue if it wasn’t relevant to the plot of the episode. Make sure any use of foreshadowing is relevant to the story.
Provide a Proportional Payoff
Foreshadowing can be fairly obvious, or it can be highly subtle. It depends on what you want the outcome to be. Do you want the reader, at the end of the novel after all has been revealed, to look back at the subtle clue you dropped and think, “Oohhhhh! I get it now!” Or, do you want them to wait in eager anticipation for the other shoe to drop? Think of the gun or the affair or the lie that was told. These are big clues that the reader knows will have fallout later. Whatever you do, just make the foreshadowing pay off proportionally.
Referring to my earlier example from Homeland, cigarettes aren’t in and of themselves very interesting. Therefore, the camera zooming in on them and the main character taking the empty pack from the trash after the foreign agent leaves the room must have a payoff for that amount of attention. The “cigarette thing” had to be meaningful to the story because otherwise, the buildup wouldn’t have equaled the payoff.
Add Foreshadowing in Later
Foreshadowing done right makes a book fun to read. You can decide where and how much to add into your outline, if that’s how you write. If you take more of a seat-of-your-pants approach to plotting, add it in after the fact. Maybe you didn’t know that your protagonist would have to shoot someone when you started writing chapter 1. But, if that’s how the book ends, feel free to add the gun in earlier in the second draft. It’s never too late to up the ante.