Weather, like this fog, can foreshadow something ominous or hidden. Photo by Kate Ota 2019
Foreshadowing is much easier to add in the editing stages than in the first draft. The trick is deciding what to foreshadow, when to do it, and how. I’ve got some tips to help.
Two Major Categories of Foreshadowing: Plot Justification vs Artsy
I’ve seen others call these direct and indirect foreshadowing, but I prefer my terms since it clarifies why they are being used.
Plot justification foreshadowing is necessary for your plot to work. Maybe while finishing your first draft, you realize your character needs to be good at sword fighting for the ending to work. But you can’t have that skill randomly appear at the end or your readers will feel dissatisfied. Therefore, you need to plant that seed early with foreshadowing. It could be as obvious as having your character practice with a sword in an earlier scene, or as subtle as describing the fencing trophy in their living room. Checkov’s Gun is a classic plot justification foreshadowing rule. Prophecies also fall into this category, since they (often but not always) impact what the characters do in order to fulfill or avoid that outcome.
The more plot relevance something has at the climax, the more justification it needs earlier to feel satisfying.
What I call artsy foreshadowing is anything that hints at future events, but if removed, the plot still makes sense. To me, this is the harder of the two to include well. Events often foreshadowed this way are deaths, romantic entanglements, and plot twists to an extent. However, smaller events can be foreshadowed, too. I include artsy foreshadowing to deepen scenes or emphasize emotions or theme. It often gives a story the feeling of being cohesive and connected without being overt.
Example of Plot Justification Foreshadowing: In How to Train Your Dragon, it is critical to the climax that Hiccup knows dragons aren’t fireproof on the inside. Therefore, in an earlier scene where he’s surrounded by tiny dragons, he watches as one suffers a burn inside it’s mouth from another dragon’s fire. Without this scene, the solution to the climax—firing into the giant dragon’s mouth—would feel convenient and maybe even impossible.
Example of Artsy Foreshadowing: In the Great Gatsby, the narrator witnesses Gatsby reaching out to a green light across the bay. Later, the reader learns Daisy lives across the bay and Gatsby has been in love with her for ages. Without the green light scene, the reader still learns this. They still see he moved close to her in the hopes of meeting again. The plot still works. But the artistic moment emphasizes his desire and lets the reader know earlier that there’s something more to Gatsby than his parties. The green light is also a symbol, but I’ll cover adding symbolism another time since it’s a slightly different animal.
How to Insert Plot Justification Foreshadowing
Step 1: Identify what needs justification in the climax/conclusion
This includes skills, weapons, complications, and potentially characters or settings. The climax needs to feel surprising, but inevitable based on the MC’s choices. Foreshadowing allows that feeling of inevitability.
Step 2: Find two places to mention anything major, and one place to establish anything minor
For example, in Hunger Games, Collins showed us Katniss’s archery skill level in her hometown while hunting and while doing a demo for the Games judges. Then it became necessary in the Games. This gives you a three-beat pattern, which you can spread between the three acts, if you use that structure. Anything minor, especially justifying a later surprise, should have one mention so as not to attract too much attention.
Step 3: Write it in place
How to Insert Artsy Foreshadowing
Step 1: Identify what you’d like to foreshadow
Can be events, character traits, or themes.
Step 2: Identify how you will foreshadow artistically
The content of dreams, passing remarks, jokes, how objects and people are described, names, weather, and more can be used. This tends to be subtle. For example, foreshadowing death through someone’s dinner being burned. The death of a meal! Or by mentioning birds circling overhead like vultures. Symbols can often foreshadow, as mentioned before, so these choices can get very indirect. If you want your reader to know it’s foreshadowing, make it more obvious. If you want your reader to realize it was foreshadowing later, go for a more subtle choice.
For example, the classic scene in Star Wars V where Luke dreams he kills Vader, but under the mask is Luke. It foreshadows their connection, but if that scene wasn’t present, you’d still learn Vader was his father later. However, this scene is fairly direct for artsy foreshadowing. A more subtle example is Darth Vader’s name, since Vader in Dutch means father. (Not subtle if you speak Dutch or even German, where father is Vater, but it’s a long time between name reveal and parentage reveal, some viewers may have assumed it was a coincidence.)
Step 3: Find where to add artsy foreshadowing
Limit this to slower, character building scenes. Otherwise, it gets lost in action. (Except when it must be repeated, like a name.) Look for opportunities in Act 1 or early Act 2 to foreshadow the climax or ending, and look for opportunities in the first half of a scene or chapter to foreshadow something at the end of that scene or chapter. More than one thing can foreshadow the same outcome, so feel free to be creative and not repeat yourself.
For major events, I always recommend the three-beat: two foreshadows and then the outcome. Example: 1. Vader’s name, 2. Luke’s face in the mask, 3. Vader is Luke’s Dad. For smaller events, especially if foreshadowing within a scene or chapter, one mention will be enough. Too many artsy foreshadows could result in the reader being confused as to why all these details are important or they figure out a major plot twist early.
Step 4: Write it in place
Did these tips help you add foreshadowing to your project? Got any tips of your own? Let’s discuss in the comments!