My wife knew I would propose to her the day it was going to happen despite nobody having told her. She’d picked up on the clues, incredibly minute though they were. Based on tiny things that happened in the build up, she knew when it would occur. It was, kind of accidentally, foreshadowed.
Foreshadowing is the process by which we lay down these clues. We, as authors, have several accessories on our fancy utility belt, one of which helps give the reader warning signs in advance of what is going to happen; however, it is up to us to determine just how flashy we want those signs to be.
There are several ways you can properly foreshadow. Whether you’re making a standalone story or going for the long-game like Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere or George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire,” you’ll need to set some groundwork (and probably do so in chunks). I’m not going to list all the ways you can foreshadow, just some of my favorites, along with examples of how these techniques got pulled off (in novels and other mediums).
One method of foreshadowing is to introduce new conflicts. Set up a situation wherein a hero and an antagonist/villain are destined to meet. For a rather unorthodox example, it is foreshadowed that someone is going to break into Professor Elm’s laboratory in the Johto Pokémon when you see a mysterious person standing outside the lab grumbling about Pokémon. You know he is probably up to no good and will likely need to face him down the road.
In my opinion, the most fun way of foreshadowing is through dialogue. Dialogue allows you to essentially predicate a coming scene with but a few lines. Something as blatant as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Last Jedi stating, “You think what? I’m gonna walk out with a laser sword and take down the whole First Order?” works if it’s played in contrast with the situation. Granted, there are more subtle ways of going about this, but that helps you grasp one way of doing it.
You want your dialogue to clue your readers in on potential conflicts and situations (sort of tying it back to the first concept of new conflicts). Imagine you have two mentor figures talking with one another, and the two come into conversation about their apprentices. One gets defensive, stating that theirs is clearly better. This isn’t telling you directly that the two apprentices will collide but now you have a slight expectation of it happening.
Perhaps some of the finest foreshadowing regarding dialogue I’ve seen is in Brandon Sanderson’s aforementioned Cosmere novels, specifically The Way of Kings. The instance in particular that I’m thinking of, that is easier to spot, is the second prologue, wherein Szeth-son-son-Vallano faces off against Gavilar Kholin, and at the end of the chapter, Gavilar utters the line, “Unite them.”
We don’t know what this means, but Sanderson brilliantly brings it up over and over again for Dalinar, a Point of View character, to consider. Wisely, Sanderson brings it up with respects to Dalinar believing certain situations are what Gavilar was talking about. Maybe “unite them” means uniting the Brightlords of Alethkar. Maybe it means uniting all of Roshar. What if it means this, what if it means that?
Having the character guessing things based solely off of a line placed for foreshadowing is a wonderful way to keep readers guessing, too. Something I’ll touch on soon (ah, look at that, MORE foreshadowing!) is how important it is to handle the piece of information you’re hinting at. In this case, Dalinar has absolutely no idea what Gavilar is talking about, but if we’d seen it from Gavilar’s point-of-view, it wouldn’t be foreshadowing, it would be a future plot point.
What’s important about foreshadowing in dialogue is that it has to be vague enough for both the reader and the characters to be guessing, but specific enough for the reveal to arrive and for the reader to think “How did I miss that?” You don’t want it to be some incredibly vague line that, over the course of the story, never comes up until the last second. It’d be like, if during Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, Qui-Gon turns to Obi-Wan and says, “High ground.”
In that example, what do Qui-Gon’s words mean? It’s too vague, it can be applied to any situation where Obi-Wan has the higher ground. “High ground” is an obvious foreshadowing to Obi-Wan having the high ground, which means…I mean, it’s over, Anakin. He has the high ground.
But it’s not a warning, it’s not a prophecy, not even an indication of things to come. It’s just words.
In the example from Sanderson, though, “Unite them” has so much meaning for Dalinar as a character, and then for the world at large as well. It has massive implications so that it may apply to so many situations but also applies to Dalinar’s arc, too. Using dialogue as foreshadowing allows you to work with your character and your plot, which is the part of the greater purpose of foreshadowing.
Dialogue with foreshadowing, even with clever word choice, is also all about timing. Usually you’ll want to set up dialogue early on in the story, but the earlier you bring it up, the more times you’ll need to subtly remind the reader of it as the story progresses. These reminders can also play a role in impacting the reveal of the story’s theme.
But thematic weight is also important with respects to foreshadowing beyond just dialogue. For you see, there is yet another way with which one can foreshadow events: Visuals.
In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s potential fate is foreshadowed through his actions and his dialogue, yes, but it only becomes relevant when in connection with one of his traveling companions: Gollum. We see what Frodo can become: the gangly creature that talks about and obsesses with the Ring, something that Sam catches Frodo doing.
That one is, admittedly, a bit of a stretch, but it carries themes of greed and malice surrounding the Ring with it. Every step that Frodo takes toward destroying the Ring he also takes toward becoming the monster that whispers in his ear. Every step toward victory for the world is defeat for Frodo, and what is the journey of the Ring actually about? Frodo’s soul. This is foreshadowed by Gollum’s fate, cleverly matched with our desire for him to listen to Samwise.
A more well-known, and yet more mysterious, example occurs in Season 2 of Game of Thrones, when Daenarys is having her vision at the end of the season and reaches out for the Iron Throne standing in a room of either snow or ash. Cleverly, there are two readings of this season with two thematic implications, both fitting for her character:
First, that she will eventually reach the throne but not take it. She instead prefers to be with a family who loves her. Her pursuit of the throne is not her ultimate goal: an accepting, loving family is.
Second, it is either snow or ash that falls upon them. This is a brilliant visual as part of the story being set up: as we know from the Prologue of A Game of Thrones, the Others are coming, and they will bring a devastating winter with them. If the room is full of snow, then this winter may be here, and Daenarys may rise from this long night as queen. Or, it could be ash, because, as we know, Dany wants the throne back, and she has been taught the Dothraki ways of conquest. Not to mention, she is a Targaryen, who can control dragons. Dany has recently acquired dragons. If Dany so chose, she could have the dragons torch the Red Keep, and she’d walk among the ashes toward the throne and take back her claim at last.
Visual storytelling remains one of the most important tools we have as writers. It is a way to display themes and convey emotion. We don’t want to say, “And Dany walked into the room, and knew that one day, she would claim the throne.” While that is technically (bad) foreshadowing (and bad writing), isn’t it far more interesting to describe her walking up, amidst the snow/ash, and then leave? Like, what does that mean? Does she want it or not?
One last method of visual foreshadowing is known as Chekhov’s Gun, wherein the rule is: if a gun is shown at the beginning of Act 1, it must be fired by the end. In Lord of the Rings (films) you can also call it Aragorn’s sword: if the sword is shown in the first movie, you know it’s going to be reforged in the third movie.
Bring It All Home
Now, you may be asking yourself: what if my readers guess correctly? What if I’ve laid all these super clever hints and my audience guesses correctly before the reveal? Doesn’t that mean my story will suffer?
It means you did everything exactly right.
Imagine, if you will, that you’re promised that sometime this year you’ll be gifted something pretty big. Then you notice that the person giving you the gift has gone to car shops, has been talking a lot about cars, has been asking how you like your current ride. Then the day comes, and they give you a gift and it’s…an essential oils diffuser. Despite all the promises of a car that you cleverly picked up on.
I guess they just wanted to subvert your expectations!
Look, some readers are just more clever than others. But honestly, when I’ve guessed something right, I enjoy seeing things play out how they’ve been foreshadowed. And if I haven’t guessed it at all but everything builds up neatly and makes sense? Cool, how doesn’t like some fun twists?
Because here’s the thing: My wife knew when I was going to propose. She saw all the clues. She knew when it would happen. But when I got down on one knee and asked her, she lit up and exclaimed, “Oh my God, yes!”
It didn’t matter that she knew. It didn’t matter that she’d guessed correctly, or that she’d picked up on the hints. If anything, she got more excited for what would eventually happen: we’d be engaged, and soon, married.
You’re disappointing your readers by wildly subverting expectations if you fear readers will able to deduce what’s going to happen. Here’s an infallible logic about people: We all want to be proven right. So if they guess correctly? Fantastic! Now to deliver on your promises.
And as I hinted at before (*wink*), be careful about how you foreshadow. You want lines or visuals to be given to characters who do not understand (which may lead to the audience not understanding). Taking things from the POV of a character clued in on the secrets of the mystery doesn’t make sense. You need the POV character to be the one left to pick up the trail.
However you choose to go about it, ensure that what you’re foreshadowing is indeed important, and does indeed make sense. I recommend making an outline of sorts for the hints and clues throughout the story so that way you can drop them in as you see fit.
And remember these three key things about foreshadowing:
Introducing a conflict foreshadows that some sort of resolution is coming with the characters involved, even if they don't want to be. It leaves the readers guessing how things can end, so carefully weave in ways to maintain suspense.
Using dialogue: This can be prophecies, words of warning, or just things that people say in conversation that carry thematic and relevant weight to a plot or character arc.
Visual cues notify the reader of scenes or moments that are to come (some people call these pre-scenes) or will give them reason to pay attention should some visuals stand out as relevant based on things previously shown.
However you foreshadow, just remember: Do NOT be afraid of your readers figuring it out. Embrace it, so that by the time you’ve laid all your clever clues, you know what it's time to do?
Meet Sean Donovan
Sean is a Fantasy writer and Brand Ambassador for The Writer Community. He’s been writing ever since he could pick up a pencil. Sean studied Creative Writing at the University of Central Florida. He has published a few Fantasy and Weird Fiction short stories.
When he isn’t writing, he’s often hanging out with his wife, be it binge-watching another crime thriller or going for a nice walk and talking about whatever comes to mind. Currently, he’s working as a full-time Technical Writer. If he isn’t with his wife, working, or writing, he’s either reading or wishing it was football season.
You can connect with Sean on Instagram @seanscribes.