Ask the Editor #5: Foreshadowing

In this Ask the Editor, I explain why everyone should use foreshadowing and how to get started.

Foreshadowing is the seeding of information about coming events before the events occur. To some extent foreshadowing is simply making sure that your readers can make sense of what is to come.

You might foreshadow to:

  • Create a false idea of an outcome.
  • Allow the reader to solve a mystery with the protagonist.
  • Create a sense of irony later in the story.
  • Indicate what details will be important later.
  • Foster a particular feeling or mood.
  • Draw attention to important themes.
  • Make the events later in the work feel organic, as though they occur as a result of prior events.
  • Create a mystery to solve.

Examples of Interesting Foreshadowing

Star Wars is one of the most aggressively foreshadowing and symbol laden creative works I’ve ever seen; which is why I’ve used it as the sole source of examples for this post. (Of course it doesn’t hurt that it is probably the creative work with which I am most obsessed.)

Before the revelation of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader’s relationship, there is heavy two-part foreshadowing:

First they establish the mystery of Luke’s father. Everybody keeps bringing up Luke’s dad and how he wasn’t awesome. Didn’t it make you wonder about Luke’s mystery father?

  • In A New Hope, Aunt Beru says, “Luke’s just not a farmer, Owen. He has too much of his father in him.” Uncle Owen replies, “That’s what I’m afraid of.”
  • In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda worries about Luke saying “Much anger in him… like his father.”

The second part of the foreshadowing of Luke’s scary dad is that Luke may become him.

In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke sees his own face under Darth Vader’s mask in a vision.

Later in the same film Luke loses his hand and has it replaced with a mechanical hand, echoing his father’s replacement of his natural self with machines. Luke’s missing hand also foreshadows the loss of Darth Vader’s hand during Luke’s eventual rejection of the dark side.

How to Use Foreshadowing

If you have completed a detailed prewrite, you should take the time to examine it, looking for any surprises, changes in tone, major events, or overarching themes that you might want to highlight.

This is a good time to plan out your foreshadowing. For example, if you know that your book or chapter will have a somber tone, you can reflect that in the weather, attitudes of animals or characters, or things your characters may say early in the chapter or novel. Add a small note in your prewrite to remind yourself that foreshadowing for x belongs there.

More concrete foreshadowing can be done at this time too. If you know that a knife is the significant clue, you should put some time into crafting a reason that the clue is overlooked, and insert a note about it into the relevant space.

If you didn’t take time to do a prewrite, you can always insert or beef up foreshadowing after your first draft is complete. Just as a prewrite user would, examine your work for the same kinds of major events or themes and make sure that you’ve built the right foundation for them.

One Last Argument for Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing makes a work feel literary and polished. It lets the reader know that you have a plan for the end of the book and that it will wrap up smoothly. Most importantly, it can take work for which you didn’t have a good pre-write or plan and make it feel planned.

Foreshadowing will force you to look at the important symbols, themes, characters, and events in your novel and spend some time thinking about them in depth. Even if you’re not interested in writing literary fiction, making sure that all your events make sense is time well-spent.

In the next Ask the Editor: Getting Started

If you have a question for Ask the Editor, leave a comment below.

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