What is Foreshadowing?

Foreshadowing is the act of hinting at possible outcomes of a story, sometimes well in advance of the end. It can even be included right at the beginning of the story. However, foreshadowing can be tricky because if it’s too much or too obvious it can spoil our ending by revealing it too soon. It’s all good a well crafting a careful twist only to have sledgehammer foreshadowing to spoil it.

There are many different ways to insert foreshadowing such as; symbolism, implication through action or an answer/question that sets the foundation for something later. These things can be as obvious or subtle as we want, as long as we’re making them obvious or subtle on purpose, they can even be so subtle that a reader doesn’t notice them until they reread our book and get the added enjoyment of seeing something they didn’t before.

When I say ‘obvious’ foreshadowing I do mean it can be clear in the sense that it could, for example, be a question asked which can go unanswered and appears innocuous at the time then takes on greater meaning later. Perhaps think of it as The One Ring effect: in The Hobbit The Ring is a magical ring that turns the bearer invisible, then in The Lord of The Rings the ring is revealed to be far more important than just an invisibility spell. We may say the foreshadowing of this is Gollum’s obsession with the ring which in The Hobbit we might put down to him being alone in the cave with only the ring for company, like Tom Hanks’ character in Cast Away with Wilson the ball.

Can we be sure that JRR Tolkien deliberately foreshadowed the importance of The Ring? Given his methodical approach to writing he could have or it could have evolved organically. We don’t always build the foreshadowing into a story, we might not even realise it’s there until we’re editing because our minds can make subconscious connections as we work. Whether we plan or not we can use elements of both methods for our foreshadowing because one is not better than the other, nor are different writing styles mutually exclusive. We may write the story without planning and then plan out where we want to add foreshadowing, or we may plan and then discovered unintentional foreshadowing, or we may use a different method entirely.

Foreshadowing can help strengthen our story by adding layers, some readers with see it and others won’t, or some people will pick up on somethings and not others and vice versa. It’s also part of what makes rereading enjoyable for some people, other people don’t enjoy rereading, because by rereading they can hunt out the little clues we left with their knowledge of what it yet to come. Sometimes readers may even interpret foreshadowing in things we didn’t intend which is part of the enjoyment of reading and writing.

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Published by Jesse

I'm a writer and academic specialising in fantasy fiction and creative writing theory. I'm allergic to pretentiously talking about fiction and aim to be unashamedly ‘commercial’. Surely all fiction is commercial anyway, or what’s the point in publishing it?

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