Foreshadowing: Types & Techniques
Why is it that the best plot twists always seem to make sense but you never could have predicted them? Foreshadowing is a literary device that makes use of tiny, seemingly irrelevant pieces of information woven into the fabric of a story. These previously missed aspects of writing come back for the readers and characters later in the story when it turns out those pieces of information were actually clues, hinting at a plot twist or big reveal. This isn’t just important for mystery writers. All good stories have plot twists (an unexpected solution to a problem or an unexpected problem with a solution) and these twists need to be hinted at in some way to make them believable. This week’s post focuses on foreshadowing well, including the two types of foreshadowing and the many ways you can foreshadow.
Direct vs. Indirect
Pretty much every type of foreshadowing falls into one of these two categories. Direct foreshadowing is also known as overt and indirect is called covert.
Direct: The narrator having an inexplicable pit in their stomach is an example of direct foreshadowing, because your reader knows what that means—something bad is going to happen. Prophecies, dreams, and warnings do the same thing by telling the reader and characters to be afraid. Of course, you could always shake things up and prove the prophecy wrong, but this usually doesn’t happen.
Indirect: Indirect foreshadowing is more subtle. Perhaps your character is casually reading the newspaper. They describe three articles, and one of them turns out to have information that becomes important by the third act. Or, a mentor seems to phrase a simple sentence awkwardly only for your protagonist to later realize that they understood the warning incorrectly. The difference in these examples is that your reader and characters didn’t know what the articles meant (or that they had any impact on the plot) until it was referred to again.
Chekhov’s Gun: This is probably the most well-known type of foreshadowing. It’s the idea that any details you give over the course of the story will make an impact later on. This originates from the mindset that if your characters are in a room with a gun hanging on the wall, someone is going to shoot the gun before the end of the book. It doesn’t have to be a gun, of course. A character’s background, a minor character, and a painting could all have severe implications on later aspects of the book. Basically, this technique says that if you reveal some abstract piece of information to the reader, you should make use of it. Don’t make false promises. However, this does not always have to happen.
Red Herrings: A red herring is basically a false Chekhov’s Gun. It’s a misleading piece of information that turns out to either mean something unexpected or not come into play at all. We see a gun on the wall of the room, but we don’t pay much attention to the rope it hangs by. That is, until the character strangles their enemy to death. We spend the entirety of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (SPOILER ALERT) waiting for Sirius to be caught, but at the end, we find out he was actually the good guy.
Symbolic: This one is a bit harder to tie in easily, and it’s definitely harder for your readers to predict your plot twist based on your symbol alone. Basically, your character might see a candle in the dark and not think very much of it. Soon after, they find help in the form of a character, a clue, or something else, helping them get out of the problems that have engulfed their life. The candle was a symbol for hope, and it soon turned into something more important.
Title: Titles are the very foundation of books, at least in the eye of the reader. They open a book expecting to find out what the title means. Some authors reveal this in the very beginning, but others withhold this information until the end of the book. This can keep your reader invested as they try to find out what the title has to do with the book. It’s especially exciting if the connection is completely unexpected.
Character Traits: That one character that refuses to go near water throughout a book—they’re a mermaid! Who would have known? A character is never around at night. Of course, they’re the villain (or the hero). If your character is going to save the day at the end of the story by making a bomb, make sure your readers know they’re a really good engineer early in the story or show them reading books and taking classes. Basically, add small details to your characters’ personalities to make sure your readers understand any plot twists you bring up later.
Good foreshadowing tells the reader what will happen and makes them forget about or ignore the warning, until the big reveal. Use the many foreshadowing techniques and a mix of direct and indirect foreshadowing to slowly reveal the plot of your stories.
What foreshadowing techniques do you use most often? Let me know in the comments!