Foreshadowing in a story is an important tool to the writer. As we’ll see in more detail below, foreshadowing is quite simply the act of promising to readers some form of conflict.
Conflict, as you may well know, is so important to storytelling, that some describe it as the heartbeat. As the Hungarian playwright Lajos Egri put it:
“Conflict is that titanic atomic energy whereby one explosion creates a chain of explosions”
When it comes to including conflict in our stories, it’s necessary to first foreshadow it. There needs to be a hint of a coming event—a conflict. There is no day without night, a spring without winter.
Perhaps the greatest example we can take to illustrate the meaning of foreshadowing is to look at the situation we’re in globally at the moment.
All over the world, in the United Kingdom and the United States, in particular, we’ve seen division sewed among the masses. These groups of people actively oppose each other. Though this in itself is conflict, it foreshadows an even greater event that we hope never arises.
Below, we’ll take a look at the definition of foreshadowing in a story and look at why it is used and the effects it can have.
We’ll also look at examples of foreshadowing and how to foreshadow conflict in your own stories too.
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Foreshadowing is a literary tool that writers use to hint or indicate the conflict that is yet to come in the story. It’s useful in creating suspense, intrigue and unease, as well as promising action to your reader.
In short, foreshadowing is the promise of conflict.
Conflicts are obstacles or challenges our characters have to overcome to achieve their ultimate goal (the end of the story). These conflicts can be people (like antagonists), physical obstacles (like being enslaved), or mental challenges (like anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder).
Stories thrive on conflict. Let’s take Lord of the Rings as an example. In the Fellowship of the Ring, from the moment the group set off from Rivendell things go wrong.
- Spotted by Saruman’s spying crows
- Attacked by Saruman’s magic as they try to cross the mountain
- Attacked outside Moria by the giant octopus
- Attacked in Moria by goblins and the Balrog.
I won’t say the next point to save spoilers. But the point here is that the story is riddled with conflict. And that keeps us engaged.
So when it comes to foreshadowing in a story, it quite simply is all about teasing, intriguing and promising your readers that conflict is coming.
Foreshadowing is used in stories for various reasons, some of which include:
A story without a promise of conflict runs the risk of boring readers. So by including foreshadowing, you can keep your reader engaged and entertained.
When we foreshadow conflict, it has the effect of creating suspense. This nervous excitement that readers feel is the consequence of hints and promises of what’s to come.
We’ll look specifically at suspense shortly. Before we do I want to discuss some other effects of foreshadowing in a story, namely building tension.
There is a difference between suspense and tension. Tension has an emotional impact. It can cause stress and exhaust us. In our lives, we actively seek to relieve ourselves of it. The impact is similar when we read. Too much tension exhausts us.
While suspense also relates to a state of anxiety, it’s fleeting, and often it’s sought out. When we talk about being held in suspense we often relate it to a good experience. But again, too much suspense can cause fatigue.
As with many things in life, finding balance is important. But bear your reader in mind. If you’re writing a mystery novel, suspense and tension may be more desired.
How Does Foreshadowing Create Suspense In A Story?
Foreshadowing has the power to add dramatic tension or suspense to a story. It does this by building a sense of anticipation of what may happen next, or what conflict may come to light in the pages and chapters to come. It helps prepare the reader for the events to come.
As writers, we know everything that happens and the reasons why. We don’t want to share that information with the reader. Not right away, at least.
There are two approaches to foreshadowing and the use of each depends on what you’re trying to achieve.
First, there’s direct or overt foreshadowing. With this approach, the conflict within the story is clearly suggested to the reader. We can see an example of this type of foreshadowing in Lord of the Rings with Sauron and Saruman both building armies. This is a clear suggestion of a great battle or number of battles, which comes to fruition.
The second type is indirect or covert foreshadowing. With this, we want to drip feed details into the story. Little and often. Each one is a piece that reveals a tantalising fragment, but not enough to bore, rather to excite.
How do we foreshadow then?
- Dialogue – One of the most important tools to a writer is dialogue. Provided you don’t get too obvious or give too much away, dialogue can be used to reveal interesting details that can foreshadow conflict. Depending on how you chose to use dialogue, it could be a form of direct or indirect foreshadowing.
- Example – a conversation between two watchmen in the local tavern about the news of some patrols disappearing. It just so happens that our main character is heading in the same direction. This suggestion that something may happen is an example of foreshadowing in a story.
- Things Aren’t Quite Right – this is my name for those curious little details we enjoy including in our stories. The subtle clues that help to build a suspenseful atmosphere. This would be useful for more indirect foreshadowing.
- Example. Our main character searches her house for her keys. She notices one of her pictures has fallen over on the shelf. It’s never happened before. The stand for the frame is firm and near new. Something isn’t quite right here. What’s going on? We’re promising conflict.
- Prologues – Prologues can be a controversial literary device, sometimes used to dump information into a story in ungratifying ways. However, if used well, their effect can be quite powerful. In respect of foreshadowing in a story, a prologue can be used to set out intrigue and potential conflict to come. This would be an example of direct foreshadowing.
- Book titles and chapter titles – to help make promises and suggestions of conflict to come, you can drop hints in the title of your book or in chapter titles too.
Foreshadowing In Short Stories
As Lajos Egri suggested, there should be a foreshadowing of conflict from the off, and this is even more applicable to short fiction.
Often restricted to 5,000-7,000 words (on average), it’s so important to make every word count. To not dally on points and keep the story moving toward its conclusion.
And that’s where foreshadowing can help.
With its power to intrigue and create suspense, a clever promise of conflict is powerful.
I think back to HP Lovecraft’s short stories. He had a great knack for building up a tale slowly but packed with suspense, always foreshadowing the great conflict that you dance through the pages to uncover.
Definitely check out his short fiction. You can download it for free on Amazon.
Writer’s Resource – A Free List of 200 Short Story Publishers
Foreshadowing can be simple or it can be quite elaborate. When it comes to looking at an example or foreshadowing in a story, it helps to look at the more simpler instances so that we can build a foundational understanding.
One of the best and most straightforward examples comes from Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. The story opens with this line: “The leaves fell early that year.” This foreshadows an early death.
In Shakespeare’s MacBeth, the emergence of the witches is considered to be an omen of bad things to come.
In the fantasy genre, we see in Game of Thrones the appearance of the Red Comet, also called the Red Messenger or Red Sword. It’s construed in different ways. By some, it’s a harbinger of victory. For others, it foretells death and bloodshed.
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If you enjoyed this guide, you may like these ones too:
- Examples Of How To Use The 5 Senses In Writing
- What Exactly Is Prose In Writing?
- When Do You Know To Rewrite Your Story?
- Another guide on Foreshadowing
- What Is Foreshadowing? A guide by Oregon State University
If you need any more help with foreshadowing in a story, please get in touch.