5 steps to mastering the art of foreshadowing

Foreshadowing is one of my favorite literary devices. It’s so satisfying when pieces of a story that start off seeming small and insignificant come back later to play a larger role. And for the readers who can pick up on those details, it’s like the author is giving them a pat on the back for paying close attention to the plot.

Still, it’s not easy to incorporate foreshadowing into your writing. It takes planning and a great deal of thinking in advance, but the end result makes the extra effort well-worth it. After all, foreshadowing ties together plot details, and helps keep the reader guessing throughout your book. Because of how difficult it can be to utilize this writing technique, here are five steps to help you master the art of foreshadowing:

Plan in advance

In order to properly include foreshadowing in your story, it helps to know beforehand what you’re foreshadowing for. That’s one of the reasons I always draw up an outline for my book before I start writing. Not only does outlining help solidify other aspects of your writing, like character arcs; it also ensures you know which direction your plot is headed. This can only help when it comes to details — like foreshadowing.

Even still, there are many writers who prefer not to plan and decide to let their story run its own course while they’re writing. If this is your style, don’t worry: with one extra step in your writing process, you can still employ foreshadowing in your story. While you’re drafting your book, keep a notepad nearby and jot down meaningful scenes that have the potential for foreshadowing earlier on in the story. That way, you’re not tied down to an outline, but can return to the scenes later and still use this literary device.

No matter how you like to write your story, once you have your list of possible foreshadowing moments ready, it’s time to move onto the next step.

Choose what to foreshadow

It’s important to remember that not everything needs to be foreshadowed. Some things are best left as a surprise, and what you do foreshadow can’t be done so too heavily. If you drop too many hints alluding to your big plot twist, it won’t be much of a twist by the time the reader gets there. That’s why I recommend foreshadowing the events leading up to the climax, but not the climax itself. It’s necessary to lay the foundation that will play a part in the climax of the story — be it characters, setting, relationships or what have you — but you don’t want to reader to guess the big reveal too early on. It’s a delicate balance, but it’s important to maintain while you’re foreshadowing your work.

Conceal it, but not too much

Now that you know the plot seed you want to plant, where do you put it? First, let’s think big picture: where in the story would this detail make the most sense? It may be tempting to put it right in the beginning, but keep in mind that your reader is still getting acclimated to the characters, setting and plot as a whole. As usual, there’s no real right or wrong here; just make sure that you’re keeping your audience and the pacing of your book in mind.

Once you’ve found the right chapter or scene, it’s time to zoom in to a paragraph level. Foreshadowing works best in a place that’s not totally obscured, but that’s not too obvious either. If you tuck it in the middle of a paragraph, for example, readers might not pick up on it — you want to make it subtle, but not forgettable. If you’re worried about it being too hidden, one way to go is to make it the starting sentence of a new paragraph. Readers are more likely to remember it if you start it as a new thought, rather than at the end of a block of text.

Recall it subtly

Later on it the book, your foreshadowing will eventually come full-circle. When the time comes, you won’t have to worry about being discreet anymore — it’ll be time to reveal your plot point! You can be as blatant as you want. In fact, if you want to be sure your readers get it, you can have your characters mention it directly to jog your reader’s memory and ensure they make the connection.

Check with your readers

As writers, we have a tendency to get consumed in our work. It can be hard to tell if we did a good job foreshadowing or not. Although it may seem very obvious to the reader, that may be because we’re actually writing the book. The best way to find out how you did is to ask your readers. Check with your beta readers, critique partners, editors, and anyone else who gets to read your book to see if your foreshadowing was effective.

Adding foreshadowing is a great way to enrich your writing. When you take the time to properly incorporate foreshadowing into your work, you add depth and perspective that a smart reader will appreciate and enjoy.

This post was originally published on the author’s personal blog.


About the author

Avid reader and passionate storyteller. Author of The Scavenger.

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about the teacher

Avid reader and passionate storyteller. Author of The Scavenger.

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