By Lindsi McIntyre
A scene pauses for a moment on a scrap of paper tucked beneath a chair.
A hero feels uneasy as the last-ditch plan against the villain is set into motion.
Foreboding music plays as a young woman takes a shortcut through the park late at night.
All of the above are examples of foreshadowing, which is a literary device that allows writers to hint at future events without hitting readers over the head. When done right, readers are given the information they need for understanding the story, yet they’re none the wiser. Foreshadowing adds layers that wouldn’t exist otherwise.
Foreshadowing has many uses, but I’m going to focus on three effects it can create as demonstrated by the popular Hunger Games trilogy.
1. Building Tension
Foreshadowing warns readers that the situation is about to get messy for their favorite characters. This can be achieved by a character asking what could possibly go wrong—which happens in almost every horror movie ever. Or the foreshadowing can be more complex, such as showing the main character’s trusted “friend” destroying vital intel without sharing it with his teammates. The goal is to lay the groundwork for imminent complications.
In this form, foreshadowing serves two purposes. It indicates upcoming conflict and hooks readers as they realize that trouble is in store for the main character. A win-win.
Book one of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy introduces Katniss and the tribute selection process. Katniss has been repeatedly adding her name to the pot in order to feed her family, so her chances of being chosen are high. Since Prim is her primary reason for living, losing her would be devastating. Inevitability hangs over Katniss like a shadow.
From page one, we readers knew that no matter how hard Katniss tried, she couldn’t avoid the Hunger Games. Her fate had already been sealed. Her attempts to help her family would be her downfall, though we weren’t sure exactly how the catastrophe would unfold. All we could do was flip pages while gnawing our fingernails in apprehension.
2. Setting Up Important Plot Twists
The best plot twists are unveiled far in advance, unbeknownst to readers. Foreshadowing the plot’s outcome so that it’s still surprising is an essential, and often difficult, skill for writers to learn. However, mastering it is worth the effort.
Plot twists that appear out of nowhere leave readers feeling cheated. That’s where the concept of Deus ex machina originated from. Betrayals, secret pasts, and solutions to problems don’t fall from the sky in real life. Neither should it happen in fiction.
Readers need to be able to reread previous chapters and ask, “Why didn’t I foresee that? The evidence was there all along.” If they can’t, the foreshadowing is either weak or absent. Some readers might guess the story’s conclusion before they reach it, but making them feel clever is better than causing disappointment.
Early in the Hunger Games, a “dead” district is mentioned. District Thirteen had the gall to rise up against the Capitol and was destroyed. Later on, we discover that District Thirteen was never dead and had been forced into a stalemate with the Capitol. They went on to cause the Capitol’s defeat at the end of the trilogy.
I have to admit, I expected the plot twist with District Thirteen, but that didn’t bother me. On the contrary, I was excited to see how it would play out. And when District Thirteen became the catalyst that stopped the Capitol’s reign of terror, I rooted for them. The twist was effective because of the foreshadowing Suzanne Collins wove into the story.
3. Misleading Readers
Influencing readers to believe that they’ve figured everything out (when they haven’t) is a more complicated type of foreshadowing. It requires writers to practice bait and switch, laying falsehoods alongside the truth.
A simple application of this technique would be to have the main character accept a lie so fully that she never questions it. Since readers are inside her head, they have no reason to doubt her thoughts. Then, toward the end of the story, you reveal that the narrating voice was the source of error.
Or you could try a more advanced method, such as the red herrings Agatha Christie planted in her novels. She ensured that the true culprit was visible from the beginning while distracting readers with other suspects. She foreshadowed the villain, then disguised him with fake clues pointing elsewhere.
In either case, the goal is to convince readers that they can predict the denouement, only for you to debunk that later. However, although this is one of my favorite strategies, it needs to be handled with care. The truth shouldn’t be completely concealed. You want readers to be thrilled by the deception, not disgruntled and confused.
In Mockingjay, Gale devises a plan to use a bomb with two sets of detonations. The first would lure in medical personnel to aid the injured, and the second would kill those personnel, crippling the enemy’s morale and forces. When the rebels were winning during the final battle with the Capitol, this tactic is enacted on both the Capitol’s people and the district’s own men.
Readers expected this and could only dread the aftermath as Prim dives into the blast zone. Katniss assumed that Snow was behind the bomb, and so did we. When she charged in to confront him, we followed her blindly, mirroring her anger. But something didn’t jibe. How did Snow come up with the same idea as Gale?
Collins wanted us to think that Gale’s bomb foreshadowed Snow’s scheme, but in reality she was alluding to the ulterior motives of District Thirteen’s leader. Coin wasn’t interested in saving lives, but in ruling over the Capitol and Districts. She was the true antagonist of Mockingjay, hidden in plain sight all along.
The Power of Foreshadowing
Foreshadowing is a versatile writing technique, and it’s fun to experiment with. Whether you’re signaling future conflict, setting up a killer plot twist, or trying to mislead readers, foreshadowing will help you achieve your intent.
How do you feel about foreshadowing? Which stories have pulled it off expertly? Have you read any books lately that feature the methods above? Was the foreshadowing effective, or did it need improvement?
Lindsi McIntyre is a linguaphile from Texas who hopes to use her words, both written and spoken, to bring glory to the Lord Most High. When not writing, she can be found within the pages of a good book or watching the latest episodes of her favorite TV shows—and drinking way too much tea while doing both. You can check out more of her work at http://linzauthor.com.