Foreshadowing, when done effectively, serves several purposes, but it’s easy to go astray with it. Here are some tips to avoid the pitfalls:
Foreshadowing can be fun for a reader who likes to guess at endings: As an author, you must be careful to not give away too much. Some readers can guess correctly, and that’s okay, but you want most to later revisit the story in the hunt to find and interpret clues you’ve subtly scattered throughout.
But avoid direct or over-foreshadowing: If you are heavy-handed with foreshadowing, it can spoil an upcoming major plot twist.
Example: “If it gets any hotter, the energy grid might break.” Instead, try subtler variations, as in one hot day, the lights flicker on and off, portending the All is Lost moment to come.
Foreshadowing can be used when the plot twist is unusually big and could cause the reader to feel tricked by the outcome. Artful clues must be woven throughout to provide logic to the ending.
Example: Let’s say you have a pacifist character. In the end, she needs to shoot a bad guy. A reader might feel “tricked,” insisting that it’s not in her character, or skill set, to use a gun. But imagine her father is a member of the NRA and has a gun in the house. Imagine that as a child, our main character has been subjected to hunting trips. That’s all backstory, barely touched on, but through foreshadowing in the description of her father’s home, we can get hints about her history. Then, when the twist happens, we believe that she has access to, and the experience necessary, to use a weapon.
Foreshadowing can encourage the reader to keep reading: In slower parts, it can hint that bigger action is to come, compelling the reader to forge ahead.
Foreshadowing can offer the reader information that the character doesn’t know: This technique creates reader anticipation, increases suspense, and heightens concern for your character’s well-being.
Foreshadowing can mislead the reader: You don’t want foreshadowing that predicts a fake outcome you won’t deliver on, but you can use it to mislead the reader. Since foreshadowing is open to interpretation, you can nudge the reader the wrong way.
Example: If there’s a rope that hangs from the garage ceiling whenever a character works on his car, the reader might guess that the depressed character will hang himself with it. But when the character ultimately uses the rope to tie up a villain, he might get a boost of self-esteem from his own bravery, helping him overcome his depression. A surprise twist of foreshadowing!
Remember, this is the reaction you want from the reader through proper foreshadowing: “I missed that clue, but now it makes total sense why this story had to end that way!”