As so well defined by The Fiction Dictionary, foreshadowing is a literary technique in which the writer gives the reader a subtle hint of some important event that will occur later in the story — it helps the reader develop expectations about what’s going to happen. The important event is often surprising or shocking.
The example The Fiction Dictionary gives of foreshadowing is from Flannery O’Connor’s story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The story seems like the depiction of an ordinary, even uninteresting, family trip. But the foreshadowing helps prepare the reader for the tragic ending. The foreshadowing is such that I, as a reader, felt uneasy. I knew something bad was going to happen.
In Of Mice and Men George’s killing of the dog foreshadows his killing of Lennie. The first killing sets a tone and direction and thus prepares the reader for what comes later.
Here’s how I introduced foreshadowing in Chapter 19 of Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies:
Think of foreshadowing as hinting. To foreshadow an event in a novel is to give earlier hints that it might happen. Great writers such as Shakespeare, Dickens, and Faulkner all use foreshadowing, whose purpose is twofold: to involve the reader more in the story by creating anticipation and suspense, and to make the events to come seem more plausible.
Foreshadowing adds richness, tension, and depth to a story. When the foreshadowed events happen, they feel more profound or important because it appears that some cosmic force had underlined their importance by “warning” us they are to come. It’s as if Zeus, looking down from Mount Olympus, takes a giant red pencil and “underlines” certain life events, be they words, actions, or even the weather. This makes it seem that what happens was meant to happen.
Books which lack foreshadowing seem so much more “on the surface” than books in which events are intricately bound to future results through foreshadowing.
Here’s another piece of advice I give writers in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel:
But if you’re thinking that you’re required to foresee and insert foreshadowing from the beginning of your story — at a time when you’re worrying about character, plot, setting, and dozens of other things — rest assured that foreshadowing is often added during a rewrite. Once you’ve reached the end of your first draft, you know where your story started, where it ended up, and how it got there. Now’s the time to ponder which events you want to foreshadow (to make them more anticipated, and to make them more plausible) and how you want to accomplish that.
Narrative, dialogue, and stream-of-consciousness thought can all be used to foreshadow. I most often use the narrative to foreshadow, but I’ve also used dialogue and character thoughts.
As I wrote Sound Proof, my second mystery novel (the one featured in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel) I had a lot of fun with the foreshadowing, employing it from the first chapter onward. I used it not only to hint at what would happen at the book’s climax, but also to make the minor character villain more plausible.
Although foreshadowing is usually thought of as a technique in fiction, it’s also used in literary nonfiction. Any story that has a strong plot can make use of foreshadowing, the anticipation of future events — if not their exact nature, at least their general outline.
In Jack and Larry: Jack Graney and Larry, the Cleveland Baseball Dog, I used the fact that baseballs can take “good hops” or “bad hops” to foreshadow the sad events that occurred before the eventual triumph. By the repetition of “bad hops,” I wanted readers to know something bad would happen in the story, sooner or later.
One of the wonderful things about foreshadowing — wonderful for both writer and reader — is that it makes readers anticipate: makes them want to know more. And what writer in the world wouldn’t be thrilled with readers wanting to know more about his/her story?
Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies provides information and how-to advice on many different aspects of writing fiction— mystery fiction as well as other fiction.