On The Table Read, “The Best Book Reader Magazine in the UK“, author JJ Barnes explains how to write foreshadowing in story and the impact it has.
Written by JJ Barnes
Foreshadowing is the technique of hinting to your audience where your story is going, without actually telling them. It works to make your story flow and feel planned and prepared. It makes the climax feel more satisfying.
Too Much Or Too Little Foreshadowing
Your use of foreshadowing needs to be subtle. Don’t write hints and clues like giant arrows, pointing to the end. It needs to be done carefully. Heavy handed foreshadowing ruins the surprise and makes your story feel predictable.
Foreshadowing needs to blend into the story. Every hint you put needs to be part of the story in and of itself. If you shine a light on it so it stands out from the rest of your story unnaturally, it’s too obvious. It reads like a giant sticker has been slammed onto the page saying “PAY ATTENTION TO THIS!”
However, if you use too little foreshadowing then your story will feel unprepared. Plot twists that have no foreshadowing building to their arrival feel unreal and like a last minute plan. They don’t feel real.
You need to make sure that your hints have enough of a light shone on them that when you reveal your ending, it reads to feel like you intended it from the beginning. But, despite all feeling like it’s been built to, you need to surprise your audience with a sense of not seeing it coming.
Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone
The ending of Harry Potter And The Philsopher’s Stone (SPOILERS) by JK Rowling is hinted to from the start. The moment Harry meets Professor Quirrell, the foreshadowing begins.
Professor Quirrell has the strange smelling turban, and he has been travelling recently. It is Professor Quirrell who announces the arrival of the troll. It’s Professor Quirrell that Snape talked to in the forest, and Harry dreams about Professor Quirrell’s turban talking to him, telling him to transfer to Slytherin.
However, all of these hints have been masked. Snape acts as the perfect red herring, and the foreshadowing blends into the rest of the story. When Quirrell is revealed to be in league with Voldemort, you’re surprised, but not shocked. It makes sense. You’ve been lead there from the beginning without realising it.
Edit It In
Editing is the perfect time to construct your foreshadowing. I wouldn’t advise obsessing to heavily about foreshadowing in your first draft. Your first draft is about getting the story out, and finding your ending. But once you’ve got to the ending, then you can go back to the beginning the lay the groundwork.
How To Write Foreshadowing
When you look at your plot twist or your climax, look at any objects, information or places that are relevant. Any weapons or tools that they need to use to accomplish their goals. Anything at all that is used in the climax needs to be present earlier in the story. Reference it clearly and carefully, but without shining a light on it.
Say your character uses a gun that was hanging on a wall, don’t have them obsess for a long time about what a fascinating gun it is without context. Any observation of the gun needs to be part of a wider conversation, or a description of the room as a whole. That way, when they pick the gun up and use it at the end, your audience know it’s there already. It doesn’t feel like you’ve just shoved a gun up there last minute.
Go back through your story, and weave references to all the key information in. Allow your story to consume the hints as part of the whole, so they don’t stand out, but they’re still present. The first time your audience read your story, the hints shouldn’t stand out. But the second and third time, they should notice the signposts and enjoy seeing that the crafting is there from the start.
Alternatively, when you’re working on your climax, pull references from the beginning of the story to use. If your character observed a gun on the wall as part of the description of the room and the people who live there, then use it. Don’t invent new objects to use if you’ve already referenced perfectly good ones earlier in the story.
The best and neatest foreshadowing, in my opinion, comes in the form of a Narrative Triplet. It’s literally a triplet of references to something key to your story, with the final coming in the climax.
For instance, in the film Spider-Man Into The Spiderverse, the three beat that builds to the climax is The Shoulder Touch. In the first instance, Uncle Aaron teaches Miles to touch a girl on the shoulder to flirt with her. In the second instance, Miles uses the shoulder touch in a failed attempt to flirt with Gwen, and loses control of his powers whilst he does it. The third time he uses the shoulder touch, it’s in battle against The King Pin. He uses it with his powers successfully, and it helps him overcome The King Pin to get victory.
The two previous uses of the shoulder touch were absorbed into the story. They made sense in the story in and of itself, without a light being shone on it to expect something later. They built the story, and gave context to his relationship with both Uncle Aaron and Gwen. So, when he uses it at the end, it’s even more satisfying, and makes total sense that he’s got that in his toolbox of moves to use.
The Impact Of Foreshadowing
By taking the time to foreshadow the end of your story, you are communicating to your audience that you have crafted this story with care. Revelations through your story that have been built to are more satisfying, and make your story more entertaining.
Editing foreshadowing into your story tells your audience you knew exactly what journey you were taking them on. That you were fully in control, and built this story with their pleasure in mind.
It doesn’t matter that you had to go back into your story to edit it in rather than doing it from the beginning. Nobody sees that first draft but you. Your audience will benefit from the foreshadowing and effort, no matter how it got there.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose
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