Monthly Archives: December 2022

“No, Don’t Tell Me”: How & When Should We Use Foreshadowing?

Foreshadowing is a literary technique we can use in our stories that gives a preview or hint of events that will happen later. While many might think of foreshadowing for mysteries, this literary device can be used in any genre.

In fact, most stories need foreshadowing of some type to keep readers interested in what’s going to happen. That said, foreshadowing requires a balance. When used poorly, foreshadowing can make our story feel boring or predictable, but when foreshadowing is used well, readers will find our story more satisfying.

How Can Foreshadowing Make Stories More Satisfying?

While most aspects of writing contribute to readers’ sense of whether our writing is “strong,” foreshadowing helps create readers’ sense of whether we and/or our story have a plan, whether we’re going to take them on a worthwhile journey. In other words, foreshadowing can help create the sense that every element of the story has a purpose, that it’s all leading to a purposeful destination.

Hints of future story elements—even ones that just register with readers subconsciously—make story events fit into a sense of a bigger picture. While unexpected twists can make a story fun and avoid the feeling of being too predictable, foreshadowing can help a story hit the sweet spot of feeling inevitable-yet-surprising.

For example, imagine a final dilemma where a character faces a choice between two options illustrating the tug-of-war between aspects of their personality. If the story concludes with an unexpected twist as the character lands on a third option, the ending could feel like a cheat or an out-of-character decision – or it could feel like a brilliant way to resolve the story.

The difference between those reactions often comes down to whether the third option was foreshadowed at all, even in the most subtle, subconscious-registering way. A subtle foreshadowing can ensure that twist doesn’t feel like a cheat or out of character, and instead make it feel like the resolution was the point of the journey, adding to the sense of strong—and satisfying—storytelling.

Types of Foreshadowing

That said, before we can use foreshadowing effectively and find the right balance between leading readers along the storytelling journey and “spoiling” events, we need to understand more about foreshadowing as a writing technique. Different types of foreshadowing will fit our story at different times.

Some foreshadowing is direct and tells readers where the story is going. Other foreshadowing is more about subtle hints that are so indirect as to often be recognized only in hindsight.

Examples of Direct Foreshadowing

  • mention of a future event
  • show characters worrying about what might happen
  • a character declares that something won’t be a problem, which often hints to readers that the character will be proven wrong later
  • show or allude to tension that readers figure will eventually have to snap
  • a prophecy of what the future will bring
  • If we’re writing in normal past tense rather than the default literary past tense, we can directly say what’s to come, such as: He didn’t know it yet, but that would be his last night at home.
  • a flash-forward (often in a prologue or preface) showing events to come
  • mention of emotions or thoughts of what a character longs for (even subconsciously), clueing readers into what their internal arc or internal goal will be

Direct foreshadowing tells readers the what, but readers still read to learn the how.

Examples of Indirect Foreshadowing

  • show a lower-stakes version of the final conflict early, hinting at how the situation will play out later
  • show a prop or character skill in action earlier that will be important for the success of the final conflict (depending on how obvious the earlier incidence is, this type of pre-scene might be more direct than indirect)
  • show a threatening object, hinting that it will eventually be used (i.e., Chekhov’s Gun) (depending on how obvious the appearance is—background vs. close up, etc.—we might consider this a direct technique rather than an indirect example)
  • allude to something in a throwaway phrase, often burying the detail in the middle of a sentence and/or paragraph, letting readers skim over and forget about the hint
  • toss out a seemingly normal statement that will resonate with more meaning in future events later
  • use similes or metaphors to hint at hidden traits or situations
  • show a suspicious event, but have the viewpoint character believably decide there’s an innocuous reason, so readers don’t know the character assumed incorrectly until later
  • use symbolism, such as how crows and ravens around a character often foreshadow their death or how weather often symbolizes a coming change
  • use imagery and settings to create a certain mood appropriate to the later story, such as dread or creepiness

Indirect foreshadowing uses subtlety, subtext, and/or misdirection to hide the story’s future, with the truth becoming clear only in hindsight.

3 Tips for How & When to Use Foreshadowing

Tip #1: Usually, Foreshadowing Should Be Avoided When…

  • we’ve already foreshadowed the event, as we don’t want elements to feel repetitive
  • the event is unimportant, as the payoff won’t be worth the setup (exception: using it for non-anticipatory reasons, such as the setup and payoff of humorous details)
  • we’ve already foreshadowed related events, as readers don’t want to know how everything will play out

Tip #2: Direct Foreshadowing Can Be Beneficial When It…

  • establishes reader expectations, as meeting reader expectations makes our story more satisfying
  • makes events seem credible, as by establishing the possibility, readers will be prepared to accept the events
  • uses foreshadowed motivations to make characters seem more logical, as they’ll seem less like puppets to the plot
  • increases a story’s sense of foreboding, tension, or suspense, as readers might not know what exactly is going to happen, but they know it’s going to be bad
  • increases a story’s sense of anticipation, as readers will want to know what happens
  • makes readers more invested, as they try to guess how the story will play out
  • helps us delay events until best for the story and reader anticipation, while still letting readers know that more interesting stuff is coming in the story soon
  • makes readers feel like they have a relationship with author-us, as readers interact with our writing to guess outcomes

Tip #3: Indirect Foreshadowing Can Be Beneficial When It…

  • gives readers a sense of closure or gives our story the feeling of tying up loose ends
  • creates a sense of the story being deliberately woven together with a surprising-yet-inevitable ending
  • makes readers feel more satisfied, like seeing the final piece of a puzzle fit and finally glimpsing the bigger picture
  • provides a richer experience for readers by creating layers and parallels
  • avoids making the ending feel contrived or solved by waving a Deus Ex Machina wand, and instead makes events feel natural to the story
  • gives readers the satisfying feeling of “Wow! I can’t believe I didn’t see that coming” rather than the angry or betrayed feeling of “WTF? That came out of nowhere”
  • increases emotions, such as making a tragedy more tragic by having the character (and reader) realize the tragedy could have been prevented if only they’d known earlier how X was significant
  • prevents readers’ frustration when they’re purposely kept in the dark with lies, instead making them think they could have guessed with truths that are simply hidden.
  • gives repeat readers something new to enjoy, as they put together new connections on a reread

Use Foreshadowing, but With Purpose

Whether we’re using direct or indirect foreshadowing, the idea is to set up details, events, and concepts in our story that we later pay off with consequences, growth, change, etc.

Foreshadowing—setups and payoffs—creates echoes in our story that make our story feel more crafted, more purposeful, more deliberate, and more confident. All of that makes our story feel more meaningful to readers—and thus more satisfying. *smile*

Have you read stories with foreshadowing? Did the technique work for you (and why or why not)? Have you written stories with foreshadowing, or have you struggled to know how to use it (or find the right balance)? Can you think of other situations when foreshadowing would be beneficial or harmful? Do you have any questions about foreshadowing?



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Writing Antagonists Readers Can’t Help But Like

There’s a dirty little secret among many of us readers: well-written antagonists get our blood pumping. When a scene come along with them in it, well, we lean closer. Grin a little more. Not because we’re a bunch of budding psychopaths and this is some alter-ego role play–okay, maybe a little–no, it’s that deep down, there’s something we like about them. Maybe even admire.

What now? you say. How is that possible? He (or she) is the baddie, after all!

Indeed. And we know it. But just like a protagonist, the antagonist can have something special about them too. It’s not a hollow quirk, catch-phrase, or great sense of style that draws us in. No, it’s something deeper, something attached to their identity or life experience. We see this part of them and relateto it because it reminds us of something we’ve seen or experienced in our own real-world journey.

Is relatability only for protagonists?

A lot of airtime is devoted to building a relatable protagonist because it makes the character accessible to readers in a meaningful way. Relatability is a rope that ties the two together – in some significant way, readers see the hero or heroine is like them. Maybe they’ve both felt the same thing, been in the same situation, experienced the same heartache or sting of failure. This common ground helps a bond of understanding and empathy to form, and the reader becomes invested in what happens to the character. They root for the protagonist and care what happens to them.

We don’t see as much written on the subject of relatability when it comes to the antagonist or villain because writers are supposed to nudge the reader into the protagonist’s camp, not the antagonist’s. Unfortunately, though, this can send the wrong message about the importance of our darker characters, leading to some writers glossing over their development so they end up with cliché, yawn-worthy villains.

Antagonists should be as developed as protagonists.

They should have understandable motivations (for them), have a history that shows what led them down the dark alley of life, and an identity, personality, and qualities that make them a tough adversary for the protagonist to beat. The more dedicated, skilled, and motivated the antagonist is, the more of a challenge they will be, leading to great friction, tension, clashes, and conflict.

So, just as we want to show readers a protagonist’s inner layers and give them ways to connect and care about the protagonist, we should encourage readers to find something good or relatable about the antagonist so it causes the reader to be conflicted. They may not agree with the antagonists’ goal or how they go about getting it, but maybe they understand why this story baddie wants what they want, or they admire certain qualities they have.

When readers are torn over how to feel, they become more invested in the story.

Life is not always black and white, is it? So it’s okay if a tug of war goes on inside them over who is right and who is wrong in the story, or if they care enough about the villain to hope they will choose to turn from their dark path, and redemption may be possible.

So how do we make an antagonist relatable?

Common human experiences, especially ones that encourage moral confliction, are a great way to show readers they have something in common with the antagonist. For example, consider temptation.

Haven’t you ever been tempted to cross a moral line?
Did you ever want to make someone pay because they deserved it?
Have you ever ignored society’s rules because they don’t make sense, are unfair, or were built to benefit a select few?

Temptation is something we’ve all felt, and wrestle with. Sometimes we remain steadfast, other times we give in. So having a darker character be tempted in a way readers relate to will cause them to identify with the antagonist’s mindset.

Another way to use temptation is to get readers to imagine the what if, which can be another area of common ground:

  • What if you could easily let go of guilt and do what feels right for you?
  • What if you could break the law for the right reasons and serve a greater good?
  • What if you could go back in time and erase someone who really deserves to be erased?

This can work well if you tie the antagonist’s desire to embrace the dark side because of a past trauma. For example…

  • Maybe they do whatever feels right because they were enslaved by a cruel master as a child
  • They break the law because those who make them are corrupt and entitled
  • They go back and erase someone because that person killed their beloved and unborn child

Can’t we all relate to these dark motivations just a little? Don’t they help us understand where the character’s behavior is coming from? We may not morally agree with what the antagonist does, but we do feel some connection to them.

And I’m convinced this last one is the key because antagonists and villains have an Achilles heel: their role. As soon as it’s clear they are cast as the Bad Guy or Gal, readers put them in a box. They must be a jerk, a sore loser, a narcissist, someone who’s all about power and control. They must be unlikable.

And I don’t know about you, but when the antagonist or villain turns out to be exactly those things, I’m disappointed. Why? Because it’s expected: good guy faces off against typical bad guy, good guy wins. Yawn.

Relatability makes it okay to like the antagonist, even though they do bad things.

So, to recap and offer a few more ideas…

Craft a backstory that’s as well-drawn as the Protagonist’s. As the author, you need to know why they’re messed up and take the dark path. Use a past tragedy to help readers understand what led them to their role. Maybe you can even reveal this in a way that causes readers to wonder if they would be any different had they been in the antagonist’s shoes. 

Give them a credible, understandable motivation. Even if their goal is a destructive one, they should have a good reason for wanting it. (For ideas on what this could look like, check out the Dark Motivations in this database.)

Give them a talent, something helpful or interesting. Just like a protagonist, your antagonist likely is skilled in some way. What talent or skill will help them achieve their goal? And you can always make this an interesting dichotomy, like an antagonist with a talent for healing who takes in hurt animals but lacks the same empathy for humans. 

Give them a quality or trait that is undeniably admirable. It’s easy to paint a villain as being all bad, so skip the cliché and give them a belief they live by. Maybe they keep every promise or hold honestly in the highest regard and so are always truthful, even if it makes them look bad. Of course, the dark side might be that they don’t suffer lies of any kind, and punish them severely.

Make them human. Sometimes writers can go on a “power and glory” tear and forget their antagonist is as prone to “Average Joe” problems as anyone else. Does their roof leak, do they have visitors show up at an inconvenient time, do they get sick?

Antagonists can have a hobby or secret, struggle over what to do, or regret words said in haste just like the rest of us. So while you highlight their dark ways and volatile emotions, remember to also show how in some ways, they’re just like anyone else.



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