One of the best elements that you can add to your book is foreshadowing, which is dropping clues for your readers so they don’t get to that awesome plot twist and immediately think, “Where did that come from?”
In that situation, the reaction you want is “OMG, yes!” or “I knew it! Mind blown.” And to get it, you need these tips!
Make It Believable
The first rule of foreshadowing is to use it believably.
Even unbelievable twists designed to turn your plot on its head benefit from this rule, because if the twists come out of nowhere you will not get the impact you want.
The best foreshadowing is something casual. A mention of a character’s fear in a low-key conversation, or a key item listed in their possession among other everyday items like it’s no big deal. Only later does that fear or key item come into play and reveal its significance.
When doing this, you also need to give the reader some credit that they’ll remember the fear or the key item, and not hit them over the head with the information. Readers are smart and they notice things, even if it’s only subconsciously.
Use It For Tension
Tension is an important ingredient in a book and will keep the reading flipping those pages.
One way to add tension is with the kind of foreshadowing that pops a little question here and there for the reader, such as why the MC wears pink on Wednesdays, or why that throwaway line of the MC’s best friend not liking spicy food will come back around in unexpected ways later.
You need those little foreshadowing hooks to add the tension and to exploit the reader’s need to find these things out.
Always Turn It Into A Payoff
Readers like payoffs. If something happens in your novel, they want to see it resolved—good, bad or ugly.
Foreshadowing is the same. There needs to be a reason you’ve mentioned that your MC spent time on a boat as a kid and knows how to tie a rope. If the foreshadowing doesn’t amount to anything and you introduce all those loose threads without tying them up at some point (either in the current book or a future book if it’s part of a series), all you end up doing is frustrating the reader and complicating your story unnecessarily.
Think of it like a question: you’ve asked it, and it deserves to be answered.
If you’re worried that foreshadowing something and then paying it off will be boring, throw in some doubt.
That envelope slipped in the MC’s mailbox with the threatening note inside looks just like the one he saw on his co-worker’s desk, but it’s also used throughout the entire office, including by the mail boy who knows everything about everyone and always stares your MC down.
If you foreshadow something that can have multiple outcomes/payoffs and gives your readers cause to doubt the most obvious answer, you’ll be using foreshadowing for one of its strongest purposes.
Don’t Go Overboard
As great as foreshadowing is, like everything, too much of a good thing just doesn’t work.
If you’re dropping too many hints, the readers will put together your reveals halfway through the book which doesn’t make for a great read for anyone.
Also, if you’re foreshadowing everything, it will get tiresome. Ration your foreshadowing to the major twists or the ones that will have the most impact.
Space It Out
Where you place your foreshadowing is also a craft unto itself.
You want to get it in early so it’s ticking away in the reader’s brain, but you don’t want it so early that they forget it by the time it gets to the reveal. You also don’t want to foreshadow something and then have it happen on the very next page, which will totally rob the foreshadowing of its tension.
Find the right balance. Foreshadow the final chapter reveal in the first chapter, but slip in a subtle reminder halfway through. For example, that knife the MC put into their pocket on the fifth page, accidentally nicks them on the one-hundredth, before they finally use it to escape the villain’s clutches during the final chapter.
Don’t Let It Overwhelm You
Knowing how great foreshadowing is and what it can do for your story can lead to some doubt about whether you can pull it off. If you’re worried about foreshadowing right and it’s crippling your writing process, remember that you can plant the foreshadowing any time, during any draft!
In fact, it’s probably easier to foreshadow after you’ve written everything and know the full plot. That way you can work in your clues at the right places and know for sure that everything falls into place.
What’s the best foreshadowing you’ve come across, either in a book or movie? I’d love to see your answers in the comments!
— K.M. Allan