If you’re reading this, I’m going to go ahead and assume you are a writer. And as a writer, I’m sure you’ve spent a good chunk of your life learning the craft and honing your skills. I bet you’ve spent countless hours describing people and places so now whipping out funky adjectives is second nature. A cloudy day? No it’s definitely a “gloomy overcast sky heavy with the weariness of a semester’s end”. But, as you all know, descriptions aren’t everything. When you’re writing a story (novel length or otherwise) you have to pay attention to structure as much as the words you put down. Fancy literary writing is nice and all, but it doesn’t automatically make a story compelling enough to read. This is where foreshadowing comes in.
Don’t know what that is? To foreshadow is to “warn or indicate a future event.” This website sums it up pretty nicely with some examples from works such as Romeo and Juliet and Great Expectations. Basically, foreshadowing is a literary device writers can use to hint at something that will become more important later in the story. Good foreshadowing can build suspense, introduce theme, and set up expectations for readers. Bad foreshadowing (or none at all) could leave someone disappointed and unfulfilled, because there was no build up to the end. If you’ve ever experienced a surprise plot twist that seemed to come out of nowhere, you’ve experienced bad foreshadowing. When it’s done well, the reader should be left satisfied with the ending because no matter how surprising it was or wasn’t, there should have been some nod to it previously in the story. Some little trail of clues. What book lover hasn’t read a book through the end, realized there were tons of hints alluding to the ending, and spent an hour flipping back through the pages going, “HOW DID I MISS THAT?” at every instance of foreshadowing?
Data and Observations
Now as far as writing a good instance of foreshadowing goes, there are a few things to remember:
1. Structure is KEY
In order to allude to events that happen later in the story, you have to know what the events are and why they’re important. So if you’re like me and write a story by just winging it until it’s done, it would be a good idea to go back through it and sprinkle bits of foreshadowing throughout. If, on the other hand, you’re smart and write outlines, you can always use that to inform what events will need hints early on. And with structure, it’s all about the timing: foreshadow too late, and your reader will still feel cheated. Foreshadow too early and your reader might piece together the big reveal themselves. Check out this interview for a more comprehensive reading on structure.
2. Subtlety goes a long way
Got a character who’s really a serial killer? Maybe they’ll say things that seem a bit off, perhaps something like: “I’ve never really liked bright rooms much.” Not the most average of phrases, but not too odd right? Well, ten chapters later when you’re reading the description of their dark, musty, murder dungeon, that line will come back and hit you like a ton of bricks. But it might be a bit too over the top to have your serial killer character obsessed with various torture methods and talking about them all the time. You don’t want to spoil the story for your readers.
3. Only foreshadow the important events
There’s no need to allude to that scene where your main couple goes for a nice hike in the mountains. Unless one of the characters is going to fall off a cliff and die in that scene, don’t stress over it. This post about some foreshadowing guidelines states that, “overuse of foreshadowing can have an unintentionally comic effect because you will end up giving too much significance to even the most minor events”. Although, keep in mind that in some cases authors will purposefully include what looks, sounds, and acts like foreshadowing, but actually has nothing to do with the story’s conclusion. This is what’s known as a red herring. Mystery writers use it a lot so that readers think they’re seeing some big clue, but really it’s just a throwaway line meant to keep them off the trail of the real solution.
A popular example of foreshadowing in literatures comes from the short story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. It’s an impressively quick read, but it packs a big punch by the end. I will be discussing the ending, so if you haven’t read it already, you can find it online here.
The story starts out innocent enough. It’s a warm June day and the residents of a small town are gathering for some sort of lottery. When you hear the word ‘lottery’, you probably imagine winning some grand prize, which is exactly the image Jackson is toying with. However, by the second paragraph Jackson is already dropping hints that something is not quite right.
The line, “Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones; Bobby and Harry Jones and Dickie Delacroix … eventually made a great pile of stones in one corner of the square and guarded it against the raids of the other boys,” at first glance sounds like children simply playing outside. It’s a bit odd to be piling stones, but there’s nothing outright suspicious about it.
A paragraph later, the adults start to arrive with the line, “they stood together, away from the pile of stones in the corner, and their jokes were quiet and they smiled rather than laughed.” Okay, now something is starting to build. Why aren’t the adults laughing? If it’s such a nice summer day, what’s keeping them from acting excited?
On the next page the character of Tessie Hutchinson is introduced. She runs into the crowd late, having forgotten the lottery was taking place. Her husband says, “thought we were going to have to get on without you, Tessie.” Again, this line of dialogue looks like a simple comment on her tardiness, but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that that line in particular was an allusion to the very ending of the story.
By this point in the story, there’s a heavy air of suspense, but we as an audience still aren’t sure why. After the initial town wide drawing, it is Tessie’s family that has to go through another round of selection. Oddly, given that the lottery has been something we’ve expected to have a great prize at the end, Tessie starts shouting about unfair it is that her family was chosen. Jackson writes, “Bill Hutchinson was standing quiet, staring down at the paper in his hand. Suddenly. Tessie Hutchinson shouted to Mr. Summers. ‘You didn’t give him time enough to take any paper he wanted. I saw you. It wasn’t fair!’ ” And all at once we realize that nothing is what it seems. All those hints make sense now. Something is about to go terribly awry.
As Tessie’s family members are called up one by one, people start whispering about how they hope it’s not Nancy, Tessie’s twelve-year-old daughter. Nancy’s friends even, “breathed heavily as she went forward … and took a slip daintily from the box.” Finally, it is Tessie who draws the “winning” paper.
We find out soon enough that the “lottery” is actually a drawing in which whomever draws a piece of paper with a black spot on it is then stoned to death.
Think back to those initial lines I pointed out. The boys collecting stones, how enthusiastic everyone seems to be, and Tessie’s husband asking what he would do without her. They’re all moments that foreshadow Tessie’s demise at the end. What they don’t do is spoil the ending or hint too subtly that we miss the suspense entirely. While reading the story, the lines simply build suspense and make you wonder what’s going on in this town.
Foreshadowing is an extremely useful tool to have as a writer. You can make your story suspenseful and fulfilling simply by leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for your readers. Be sure to pay attention to structure if you’re going to foreshadow and always keep in mind that you want to use it to round out your story, not to throw giant, flashing, neon signs at your readers. Now go forth and write!
Image credit BBC
Anna Moritz is an associate editor for The Publishing Lab as well as a junior Fiction Writing major and Environmental Studies minor at Columbia College Chicago. She can often be found at Barnes and Noble either writing or staring longingly at the shelves.