Long ago movie makers learned that previews increase viewers’ anticipation of an upcoming film. Before long they began offering sneak-peeks which allowed some favored viewers to see the movie ahead of time. Again the goal was to heighten audience expectation.
A novelist uses foreshadowing in the same way—either to alert readers to what is coming or to increase tension by revealing the potential for disaster. Furthermore, foreshadowing can strengthen a story’s theme.
Foreshadowing can be subtle or overt, depending on what the author wants to accomplish.
Readers need to know what is coming to a certain extent. Some foreshadowing prepares them for what’s up ahead.
I’ll never forget this one novel–the characters were in a flight-or-die struggle. As they ran across the field, with the villains moments behind, they dove into the barn to hide. Uh, what barn? We were crossing a field, no mention of any structures.
The scene could easily have been set earlier with the mention of rickety outbuildings silhouetted by the setting sun. Readers would then not have been surprised when one of these rickety buildings cropped up at an appropriate time.
Foreshadowing can also create tension.
As the couple set of across the Atlantic, their sail snapped in a surprisingly brisk gale. No weather reports indicated trouble, and this was the most favorable time of the year for an ocean crossing, but there had been numerous reports of out-of season storms. In fact the store clerk who sold them their life vests mentioned a ship that was lost just last year about this time.
And the scene is set. Readers are now expecting something big blowing on that wind.
A third purpose for foreshadowing is to suggest the theme of the book. One of my favorite illustration of this is in Kathryn Fitzmaurice’s middle grade novel The Year The Swallows Came Early. In the story, Ms. Fitzmaurice used candy to symbolize the main character’s life. From the beginning, then, little Groovy makes the comparison that proves to be of utmost significance:
I told my best friend, Frankie, that it was hard to tell what something was like on the inside just by looking at the outside. And that our house was like one of those See’s candies with beautiful swirled chocolate on the outside, but sometimes hiding coconut flakes on the inside, all gritty and hard like undercooked white rice.
An author can create foreshadowing in a variety of ways.
The most obvious method of foreshadowing is by stating, through narrative or dialogue, what is about to happen. Gone with the Wind begins with Scarlet O’Hara preparing to attend an engagement party where she plans to profess her love to Ashley Wilkes, the man about to be engaged. No surprise, then, when this scene takes place.
No surprise, but plenty of suspense has now built up. Will he respond to Scarlet and dump the plain Melanie to be with this startling beauty that all the other men in the county would die for?
A second way to foreshadow is to create in miniature what will soon happen to a larger extent. The men entered the cave to look for treasure. A rock tumbles from the ceiling. Dust flies. “Don’t worry,” the main character says, “we don’t have much farther.” Ah, the reader says, you may not be worrying, but I am! And sure enough, within pages, the cave-in seals the entrance.
Another foreshadowing device is a character’s unreasoned emotion. If someone is obsessing about germs, chances are, there is a deadly disease that may well come into play. If a parent stresses over a teen driver fastening his seat belt, chances are an accident is brewing.
A fourth way to foreshadow is to show the reader an object, as if by happenstance. The main character steps into the garage for a moment and sees the tire iron that should be in the trunk. Or perhaps it’s the spare tire, but oh well, she’s in a hurry, and what are the chances of getting a flat tire?
The object could be anything that will later have significance–a shopping bag, the garage opener, a fishing pole. The object might even be one that’s supposed to be there but is missing. The car seat or a credit card or cell phone.
Lastly, foreshadowing can be created with symbols, as the illustration from The Year The Swallows Came Early showed. The symbol may be common and easily recognized–a bank of clouds, an albatross, a rose bud. Or it can be something the author infuses with meaning as Ms. Fitzmaurice did with the See’s candy.
Foreshadowing is a powerful tool. It prepares the way for events to take place, it creates suspense, and it may help reinforce a story’s theme.
What are your thoughts? Is foreshadowing mostly invisible to you? Do you realize after the fact what the author has done? Do you have any examples of great foreshadowing or stories that needed a good dose of foreshadowing to make a plot point work?
See Harvey Chapman‘s “Five Examples of Foreshadowing in Fiction” for further illustrations.
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This article first appeared here in July 2012.