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Foreshadowing in Fiction

There are many tools in our writer’s toolbox, and one of those tools is the use of foreshadowing.

Foreshadowing in literature is when a writer drops in hints of what’s to come later in the narrative. It’s Chekov’s gun, if you've ever heard the term. That is to say, what is mentioned early in a story or novel must be shown to have relevance or importance later on in the story or novel. If it isn’t, then we’ve broken the promise to the reader, which leaves the reader unsatisfied because we haven’t wrapped up all of the loose ends. Remember, no red herrings. Or, rather, you can have red herrings, but you have to be cognizant of how you use them. Probably you’ll use red herrings in mysteries and thrillers—not so much in literary fiction. At any rate, the use of such tools as foreshadowing, subtext, and symbolism add a layer of intrigue in fiction that creates heft. It gives us a sense of what is, without the author telling us what is explicitly.

But back to foreshadowing. Foreshadowing can create suspense and tension. It can build curiosity. It can pull the reader along, because they’ll want to know what’s coming. Storm clouds, for instance, can be a type of foreshadowing. Storm clouds symbolize something ominous is on the way, right? So, authors commonly use storm clouds to let the reader know that bad things are on the horizon for their hero. It’s a little cliché, but it works.

In Charles Dickens’s “Great Expectations,” the upcoming bad weather is Dickens using foreshadowing to show Pip’s fear of his unknown future. Here’s how Dickens put it:

“So furious had been the gusts, that high buildings in town had had the lead stripped off their roofs; and in the country, trees had been torn up, and sails of windmills carried away; and gloomy accounts had come in from the coast, of shipwreck and death.”

Dickens’s use of foreshadowing doesn’t disappoint; Pip learns that the convict he helped escape in his youth is his benefactor, rather than Miss Havisham, who made more sense. Dickens’s foreshadowing has an excellent effect on the reader, and if we can use foreshadowing as a tool in our fiction, we should. It needn’t be a trick, but it most assuredly can be something you, as the writer, execute subtly. It plants something in the pit of the stomach of your reader that she can't quite identify just yet, and it forces her to want to know what it is, and so she keeps reading.


Here are some quick and short excerpts from well-known works that show how foreshadowing is used. Notice the feeling it give you as you read the line(s):

Beware the ides of March." - William Shakespeare in JULIUS CAESAR

“My phone rang, and although it wasn't a sinister time of night, and although nothing had happened that I would later see as foreshadowing, I knew, I knew.”

- Hanya Yanagihara from A LITTLE LIFE

“He had high hopes that the key to unlock the riddle of four people's deaths was hidden on this tape. He'd pushed play fully intending to be satisfied with just a clue, any clue. There can't be any danger, he was thinking. What harm could come from just watching a videotape?”

-Koji Suziki from RING

"We've got to have rules, and obey them. After all, we're not savages."

-William Golding from LORD OF THE FLIES

The more we, as writers, have a command of the tools that exist for us to leverage in our fiction, the better fiction we'll be writing. When we pull it off, when we use foreshadowing in a way that "works," like the witches in Shakespeare's MACBETH tell us, "Something wicked this way comes." And when that happens, we'll cast the spell on our readers that'll trap them as if they were caught in a spiderweb.


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