Research Paper Writing Techniques Foreshadowing

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Creativity flourishes within a structure, and I have personally found that understanding the structure of story is the best way to help you grasp all the aspects of writing a novel.

In today's article, author K.M. Weiland (@KMWeiland) discusses foreshadowing, part of her book, Structuring Your Novel.

How do you explain the concept of foreshadowing?

So, it’s like this thing that happens before this other thing happens to let readers know that the other thing is going to happen. Tough, isn’t it? But for all that it can be a bit difficult to succinctly explain, foreshadowing is really a simple concept. We’re providing our readers with a hint of what’s to come in order to prepare them for the type of story they will be reading.

Sounds easy, right? But how do you decide what events need to be foreshadowed? And, further, how do you decide when to foreshadow? Unless you have the magic ingredient close to hand, you may find it difficult to find specific answers to either of these questions. But, lucky for us, we do have that magic ingredient, and it is story structure.

Once we understand the basic elements of structure (which I talk about in-depth in my book Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story), we can see how they fit together to create a solid story that works. Using that understanding, we can then further break down the smaller components of the craft—such as foreshadowing—and gain some specific info on how to put them into play.

What does structure tell us about what to foreshadow?

We use foreshadowing because it allows us to guide our readers’ expectations and prepare them (if only subconsciously) for big events down the road. So we already have part of our answer right there: we need to foreshadow big events.

But how do you know which events will be the big ones? Sometimes the answer to this question is a no-brainer. The big events are the ones we imagined right off when we got the idea for this story; they’re the ones we’ve been waiting all the way through the book to write. But sometimes—and especially if you’re not keen on outlining—you may not realize which events will end up being the big ones.

An understanding of structure helps us identify the major turning points in the story:

  1. The First Major Plot Point takes place around the 25% mark, signifies a major disruption in your character’s “normal world” up to now, and forces him into a phase of reaction.
  2. The Midpoint takes place around the 50% mark and rocks your character’s world again, but this time forces him to start taking charge and taking action.
  3. The Third Major Plot Point takes place around the 75% mark, signifies yet another disruption, this time distinguished as your character’s low point in the story, before he changes his mindset and enters the final stage in his character arc.
  4. The Climactic Moment takes place near the end of your story and is the moment in which your character finally does what needs to be done to reach his story goal and gain the thing he needs.

Every one of these points in your story will shake things up for both your characters and your readers. As such, you’ll want to make sure you’ve properly foreshadowed them by planting clues (or, at the very least, a corresponding tonality) early on.

What does story structure tell us about when to foreshadow?

Aside from the obvious fact that you have to plant your foreshadowing before you can pay it off, can we dig up any more specific guidance?

If you guessed the answer to that is, “Yes,” then you’re absolutely right. Foreshadowing comes in what I like to think of as two varieties: heavy and light.

Heavy foreshadowing plants a solid clue of what’s to come later on. This kind of foreshadowing needs to happen early in the book. Your First Major Plot Point needs to be foreshadowed in your first chapter. Optimally, your Climax will also get a dab of foreshadowing early on. All the other major plot points need to be foreshadowed in the first half of the book—and preferably the first quarter.

The first quarter of your story is your setup. This is where you’ll be introducing characters, settings, and stakes. It’s also going to be Foreshadowing City. You don’t want to give away any plot secrets, but you do want to give readers a sense of what’s coming. Dinosaurs? Time travel? A dark tragedy? A light comedy? Bring readers up to speed as soon as possible.

Light foreshadowing, on the other hand, happens just before the payoff arrives and is where you remind readers of the previous heavy foreshadowing. This foreshadowing will almost always be applied with a much lighter touch. A little tension or foreboding or a glimpse of a symbolic motif may be all you need to poke your readers wide awake and warn them that the something big they’ve been waiting for is about to happen.

Whether you plan your foreshadowing ahead of time, allow it to emerge organically as you write, or return to reinforce it during revisions, you’ll find that a solid understanding of story structure will help you plan it to its full advantage.

Do you use story structure techniques in your writing? Please do leave a comment or question below.

K.M. Weiland is the author of the epic fantasy Dreamlander, the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn.

She enjoys mentoring other authors through her website Helping Writers Become Authors, her books Outlining Your Noveland Structuring Your Novel, and her instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration. She makes her home in western Nebraska.

Filed Under: WritingTagged With: foreshadowing

Narrative Elements


What is it? | Why is it important? | How do I create it? | Self Check | Example | Foreshadowing Tip

What is it?

Foreshadowing is a way of indicating or hinting at what will come later. Foreshadowing can be subtle, like storm clouds on the horizon suggesting that danger is coming, or more direct, such as Romeo and Juliet talking about wanting to die rather than live without each other. Sometimes authors use false clues to mislead a reader. These are called "red herrings," and they often appear in mystery writing. Foreshadowing can also be considered a literary device, but we have treated it as a narrative element because of its association with storytelling

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Why is it important?

Foreshadowing adds dramatic tension to a story by building anticipation about what might happen next. Authors use foreshadowing to create suspense or to convey information that helps readers understand what comes later. Foreshadowing can make extraordinary, even fanciful events seem more believable; if the text foreshadows something, the reader feels prepared for the events when they happen.

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How do I create it?

Create foreshadowing by placing clues, both subtle and direct, into the text.

To create foreshadowing in fiction or non-fiction,

  • Give the reader direct information by mentioning an upcoming event or explaining the plans of the people or characters portrayed in the text:

    "As the Lincolns rode to Ford's Theatre on 10th Street, John Wilkes Booth and three conspirators were a block away at the Herndon House. Booth had devised a plan that called for the simultaneous assassinations of President Lincoln, Secretary of State Seward, and Vice President Johnson. Having learned that morning of Lincoln's plan to attend the theatre, he had decided that this night would provide their best opportunity."

    —Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals

  • Place clues in the first few sentences of a story or chapter to indicate the themes that will be important later:

    "I was six when my mother taught me the art of invisible strength. It was a strategy for winning arguments, respect from others, and eventually, though neither of us knew it at the time, chess games."

    —Amy Tan, "Rules of the Game"

  • Portray characters' subtle reactions to objects in their environment to show that those objects might play an important role in the upcoming action:

    "[The men] stood together, away from the pile of rocks in the corner, and their jokes were quiet and they smiled rather than laughed... Bobby Martin ducked under his mother's grasping hand and ran, laughing, back to the pile of stones. His father spoke up sharply, and Bobby came quickly and took his place between his father and his oldest brother."

    —Shirley Jackson, "The Lottery"

  • Use changes in the weather or mood to hint at whether good or bad fortune will follow:

    "The night was still. I could hear his breath coming easily beside me. Occasionally there was a sudden breeze that hit my bare legs, but it was all that remained of a promised windy night. This was the stillness before a thunderstorm."

    —Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

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Self Check

Ask yourself these questions to recognize and understand foreshadowing:
  • Are there phrases about the future?
  • Is there a change happening in the weather, the setting, or the mood?
  • Are there objects or scenic elements that suggest something happy, sad, dangerous, exciting, etc.?
  • Do characters or the narrator observe something in the background that might be a hint about something to come later?

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"Young Goodman Brown came forth at sunset into the street at Salem village; but put his head back, after crossing the threshold, to exchange a parting kiss with his young wife. And Faith, as the wife was aptly named, thrust her own pretty head into the street, letting the wind play with the pink ribbons of her cap while she called to Goodman Brown.

"Dearest heart," whispered she, softly and rather sadly, when her lips were close to his ear, "prithee put off your journey until sunrise and sleep in your own bed to-night. A lone woman is troubled with such dreams and such thoughts that she's afeard of herself sometimes. Pray tarry with me this night, dear husband, of all nights in the year."

—Nathaniel Hawthorne, "Young Goodman Brown"

Are there phrases about the future?Yes: "put off your journey until sunrise and sleep in your own bed to-night," "tarry with me this night, dear husband, of all nights in the year."
Is there a change happening in the weather, the setting, or the mood?The sun is setting, and Faith's worries create a mood of apprehension.
Are there objects or scenic elements that suggest something happy, sad, dangerous, exciting, etc.?The "wind play[ing] with the pink ribbons" seems like a happy image, but then Faith whispers sadly, and she expresses fear.
Do characters or the narrator observe something in the background that might be a hint about something to come later?There are no particular objects that seem significant here, but Faith's anxiety about her husband leaving on this night hints that something bad might happen while he's away.

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Foreshadowing Tip

Foreshadowing often appears at the beginning of a story or chapter. Keep an eye out for signs of potential conflict between characters. Look for signals that things might not be what the initially seem. Pay close attention to any details that seem unusual or have particular emotional significance. These might be clues about what is to come.

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