Foreshadowing is one of the essential tools in a writer’s toolbox. It allows the writer to tease the reader with hints of what’s to come, building suspense and anticipation. Foreshadowing, when done well, offers suggestions of future revelations and events that will whet the reader’s appetite and encourage them to continue reading. If you’re too heavy-handed with it, however, you may reveal too much too soon, giving away the ending. If readers already know the ending, they may lose interest in finishing your book. So how do you foreshadow effectively to build anticipation without being obvious? Here are some tips:

Use Foreshadowing Sparingly

There’s no need to foreshadow every event in the book. This becomes tedious and diminishes the effectiveness of the times when it used as a portent of something genuinely momentous in your novel. If you’ve thought of a clever way to foreshadow an event, ask yourself whether it’s something that will make a fundamental change in the character’s lives or is a relatively minor moment. 

Decide How Obvious It Should Be

Foreshadowing can be blatant, clearly stating that something is going to change. In other situations, foreshadowing may be so subtle that the reader doesn’t consciously realize it’s a “clue” until they’re done reading and look back to think, “Wow, I should have seen that coming, but now I understand.” It’s the difference between a clear warning and a mere hint. Two kinds of foreshadowing that are commonly used are Direct and Indirect.

Direct Foreshadowing

These are usually clear statements that explicitly tell readers what’s going to happen. This could be someone telling the heroine that her ex is getting married. Readers know a wedding is in the future but won’t know how the heroine will react and how the characters will be affected. The journey to the wedding is the suspenseful feature. Direct foreshadowing is definite.

Indirect Foreshadowing

Readers may miss the subtlety of indirect foreshadowing until the end of the story. Rather than knowing what will happen, they have an “Aha!” moment later, where they may think, “So that’s why he refused to drive her to the airport,” or “Oh, so she was protecting her child. I missed that entirely.” Indirect foreshadowing focuses on hints of a possible outcome, not a foregone conclusion. Indirect foreshadowing is a possibility.

Make Sure There’s a Pay-Off

Foreshadowing isn’t effective unless there is an emotional pay-off for the reader, whether the emotion is surprise, anger, disbelief, joy, or sorrow. Foreshadowing whether someone will be home when the hero arrives at their door (“I had no idea whether she would be home. I should have realized the odds were against me.”) isn’t necessary unless the story will change dramatically based on her presence.

Don’t Force It Foreshadowing

Many novel writers don’t know exactly where the story will end up or how it will get there. This can make it challenging to foreshadow as you’re writing. Don’t force yourself to try and throw in any foreshadowing because you feel like it needs to be there. You can always go back later and add foreshadowing after the fact once you know the resolution of your story and have tied up any loose ends. 

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