Do you love a good murder mystery or thriller? Do you dream of creating a captivating and suspenseful book that will pull readers to the end and leave them tingling? Then you need to master foreshadowing.
If you answered yes, you probably realize that such a thing is no easy task. More than most any other genre, mystery novels, thrillers, and suspense stories invite the reader to actively participate in plot developments, using certain cues to predict outcomes.
That can be tough to accomplish.
The path to a finished product is full of pitfalls, but you can learn techniques to help carry you safely over them and complete a thrilling story you can be proud of.
Foreshadowing vs. Coincidence
When navigating the twisted path involved in writing a mystery, thriller, or suspense, one of the biggest challenges you’ll face is making everything that happens feel natural and inevitable.
A few days ago, my husband and I drove with a large group of friends to Frankfurt, Germany. After spending time together, we broke into carloads, each leaving at different times and taking different routes. As we passed an autobahn entrance close to home, a car merged directly behind us—a car filled with friends we’d parted from hours earlier.
I love when this kind of thing happens in real life, a coincidence.
But when it happens in a book, it feels contrived and unrealistic—like Toto pulled back the curtain to reveal the man pushing buttons. I don’t want my readers to feel manipulated, and I’ll bet you feel the same way about yours.
To avoid this kind of story pitfall, I needed to master the literary device of foreshadowing. Knowing what foreshadowing is, and how to use it to draw readers into a story, is crucial for making a story feel believable and entertaining.
Definition of Foreshadowing
It’s the antidote to coincidence and, skillfully done, prepares the reader for an upcoming plot twist without giving it away.
Readers are savvy people. They understand that everything in a story is there on a need-to-know basis and will thus figure in at some point.
Every significant object, person, or fact needs to be planted in the story before it can be credibly used. And all of these plot points must come into play or they buzz at the corner of a reader’s subconscious like an annoying housefly.
Remember Chekhov’s sage counsel when you think about pristine foreshadowing:
Activate your reader
The more a reader puts into a story, the more they’ll get out of it. You pull your reader into your book and make them an active participant by raising a major dramatic question and delaying the answer until the end, while threading in intermediate questions along the way.
In addition, you activate your reader by using all the techniques needed to accomplish strong elements of suspense:
- You pull the reader deep into the point of view character
- You make the reader care about your protagonist
- You progressively raise the stakes
- You deliver information in the proper order
- You create cliffhangers to bridge the gaps between chapters
- You pace your story correctly
- You use action to drive the story forward
These are the techniques that build suspense and hold a reader’s attention. Foreshadowing, clues, and red herrings are the breadcrumbs they’ll pick up along the way to feed and stimulate mental activity.
Why Does Foreshadowing Matter?
The key to avoiding readers who feel manipulated, is to build foreshadowing into your storyline.
For example, consider the movie Die Hard.
Screenplay writers chose to show John McClane moving in a logical pathway to the Nakatomi Plaza to meet his wife for a Christmas party. They interspersed these scenes with cuts of a truck driving through LA traffic accompanied by menacing music. When these two paths cross, it doesn’t strike us as coincidence that McClane just happens to be in the same building the villainous gang hits because it was foreshadowed that they would meet.
Also, did you notice how McClane’s being barefoot has significant impact on story events? See how this increases the complications and heightens the risk? He didn’t just coincidentally happen to take his shoes off. It was foreshadowed from the very first scene of the movie, making it feel like a logical occurrence.
Take a closer look at some of the types of foreshadowing you can use to build suspense and hold readers in your story.
10 Key Foreshadowing Techniques to Use When Writing
There are dozens of writing techniques you might use to foreshadow events in your story.
I’ve found that these ten clever foreshadowing methods work well when writing, and Suzanne Collins’s book The Hunger Games is a great case study to prove them.
Foreshadowing in The Hunger Games: Case Study
1. Emphasize Important Elements
Spend a bit more time on describing something that will later figure into the story’s plot. Readers will subconsciously understand that it will become important and they’ll anticipate seeing it pop up again.
For example, if your climactic scene will take place at a mill pond with a water wheel, when you introduce this setting earlier in the story, describe it—through your character’s viewpoint—with more detail than you would normally give in your descriptions. This sends a signal to your reader that the setting will play an important role in the story.
This also helps facilitate a faster pace at the climax because you’ve laid the groundwork ahead of time.
In The Hunger Games, the first time Katniss encounters the mockingjay pin is when she and Gale deliver strawberries to the mayor’s house on the day of the reaping. They speak with Madge, the mayor’s daughter, who wears the pin on her dress.
Collins doesn’t overdo the detail. Everything here is stark and sparse, imparting a bleak flavor to the day of the reaping. But she spends enough time on the pin to let us know it’s significant.
Referring to Gale, she writes:
“His eyes land on a small, circular pin that adorns her dress. Real gold. Beautifully crafted. It could keep a family in bread for months.”
The pin comes in again and again throughout the story. This use of foreshadowing lays down groundwork not only for The Hunger Games, but sets up theme and future events for the entire trilogy.
2. Name It
Naming an important detail up front makes the reader wonder about it. Which means they pay attention to it and probably will recognize it when it comes up again.
The key to this technique is balancing the mystery of the named object or event with more matter-of-fact detail, allowing it to stand out and spark curiosity without burying the reader under an exasperating mountain of enigma.
For example, here’s the opening paragraph of Shirley Jackson’s story, “The Lottery:”
The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o’clock; in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 26th. But in this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o’clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.
Do you see how simply naming the lottery gives it significance and raises questions? Jackson makes a mystery of the lottery but sets it amid prosaic detail so that it stands out all the more.
I feel like “The Lottery” was a clear inspiration for Suzanne Collins when she wrote The Hunger Games. Like Jackson, Collins mentions the Reaping in the first paragraph of the story, and our senses warn us she’s not talking about a simple farm harvest. When she names the Cornucopia, we intuit that it will play a significant role in upcoming events.
And of course, the very title The Hunger Games names and foreshadows an ominous experience ahead.
The Reaping isn’t just any event—it’s the whole arena driving the main plot line.
3. Details in Dialogue
Weave foreshadowing into dialogue between characters or put it in a viewpoint character’s inner monologue as they puzzle through a problem or worry about a future event. Use this method to influence the reader’s thoughts and foreshadow important story points.
This can be as simple as a statement like: “George is coming home tomorrow.” Or, “I’ll call you when that package arrives.”
You might also couch it in a threat: “You’re going to wish you never said that.” Or, “Someone ought to shoot you for what you’ve done.”
The Hunger Games contains many examples of foreshadowing delivered in dialogue. One of these occurs when Gale, speaking about the twelve districts, says,
“It’s to the Capitol’s advantage to have us divided among ourselves.”
Like the mockingjay pin, Katniss’ experience of plants and berries repeatedly comes into play. One of the most potent instances occurs near the end of the novel when Peeta has gathered a handful of berries, waking a memory in Katniss:
My father’s voice comes back to me. “Not these, Katniss. Never these. They’re nightlock. You’ll be dead before they reach your stomach.”
This bit of memory immediately saves her and Peeta and foreshadows their future salvation as well.
4. Mirror Moments
This is an effective foreshadowing tool you often see when a story is framed by “bookends,” meaning that events at the very beginning foreshadow the climactic scene, maybe resulting in failure up front and the reversed, mirror image of success in the end.
But you can use it on a smaller scale as well—in a flashback, a flash-forward, or by holding up a mirror to reflect and foreshadow something happening in the story. Sometimes it starts with a smaller image whose reflection grows.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss recalls a significant memory when she was starving, discouraged, and about to give up:
Young Peeta, the baker’s son, burns a couple loaves of bread and throws them to Katniss, earning himself a beating but providing a turning point in her life.
He sacrificed for her then, foreshadowing that he will sacrifice for her again. As many times as it takes.
Worth mentioning, also, is the obligatory recounting on Reaping day of the rebellion that spawned the beginning of the Hunger Games. This foreshadows the uprising that will eventually bring an end to the barbaric practice.
5. Narrator Reveal
This can range anywhere from having the point of view character state outright that something in particular is going to happen, to the POV character making a partial revelation that raises more questions than it answers. In either case, readers hang on to see how events unfold.
For example, one of the witches in Shakespeare’s MacBeth tells us early on: “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.” A piece of direct foreshadowing letting us know that evil is on the way.
I can think of several instances of this in The Hunger Games:
As the Everdeen family prepares to attend the reaping, Katniss thinks about how difficult this must be for Prim—her first time. She comforts herself with this thought: She’s about as safe as she can get, since she’s only entered once.
Oh, the irony!
The beautiful thing about this example is the way Collins twists it for dramatic tension. She lets readers know that Katniss has her name in the glass ball twenty times, and Gale forty-two times, making it clear the odds are not in their favor.
Because we instinctively know the way story works, we already know Katniss is going to the games. But Collins throws a curve ball when she has Effie Trinket draw Prim’s name instead. This adds a nice twist, both to the story and to our hearts as we see Katniss sacrifice herself for her sister. Great character reveal.
Near the end of the story, Katniss reflects on the bloodthirsty nature of the games and vows she’ll never let her children’s names go into the ball. At the time, she believes that’s because she’ll never have any children, but it foreshadows another path to the same result.
6. Character Traits
One way you can foreshadow a conflict is by developing your main character and giving the reader glimpses of how that character is on a collision course with an opposing force. Of course, this applies to secondary characters as well.
In The Godfather, Sonny Corleone’s aggressive behavior foreshadows future events in the movie as his lack of restraint leads to dire consequences, including his own death.
In The Wizard of Oz, many of the characters’ traits are foreshadowed in the beginning and brought to fruition as the story unfolds. For example, Miss Gulch is clearly portrayed as a witch, farmhand Zeke encourages Dorothy to be brave, and Hickory insists that someday they’ll erect a statue of him, foreshadowing their roles in the land of Oz.
In The Hunger Games, when Katniss and Peeta first arrive in the Capitol, Effie compliments their table manners, remarking with disgust that past tributes had no manners and ate with their hands. At which point Katniss drops her fork, eats with her fingers, and wipes them on the tablecloth, signifying her rebellion against the Capitol.
We also come to know that Katniss is not the forgiving type and that she will fight to the bitter end for what she perceives as justice.
It’s foreshadowed in the development of her character.
7. Character Relationships
Let interactions between characters point toward a certain conclusion, foreshadowing future events.
This brings to mind the beginning of The Matrix, when Neo’s jerk of a boss comes down hard on him, accusing Neo of thinking the rules don’t apply to him, that he’s special, that he must make a choice.
In Psycho, we’re treated to a foreshadowing of the true relationship Norman Bates has with his mother when he assures Marion Crane that his mother is “as harmless as one of those stuffed birds,” referring to a bit of taxidermy.
Batman’s future relationship with the Joker is foreshadowed in Batman Begins when Lieutenant Gordon shows him a playing card left by the new menace in Gotham City and says, “Take this guy—armed robbery, double homicide, and a taste for the theatrical. Like you. Leaves a calling card.”
In The Hunger Games, Katniss’s fierce love and protective attitude toward her sister foreshadow her volunteering as tribute in Prim’s place.
And we know Peeta will put Katniss’s safety before his own in every circumstance. This bond foreshadows the relationship Katniss will have with the rebels, as a whole.
They will protect her to the death.
8. Throwaway Details
Throwaway details are when your character does or says something that seems inconsequential in the moment, but in hindsight gains greater significance. Not a lot of attention is called to it, but readers may page back to that moment and say, “Aha! Now I see what it meant.”
This is seen in The Hunger Games when Peeta casually admits:
“I do the cakes,” meaning that he does the cake decorating in the family bakery. This foreshadows his skill at camouflage which comes in handy later in the story.
And then there’s Katniss’s remark early in the story: “Plants are tricky. Many are edible, but one false mouthful and you’re dead.” This foreshadows more than one event to come, including the climactic berry moment.
Symbolism can provide an artful and powerful means of indirect foreshadowing. You might include something in your story that alludes to future events, or suggests what might happen, in an indirect manner.
When Andy Dufresne ends up in prison in The Shawshank Redemption, the prison warden comes to visit him in his cell. Spotting Andy’s Bible, the warden nods approvingly, admonishing him that, “Salvation lies within.” At the end of the movie, we discover that Andy’s salvation truly did lie within, as he’d hollowed out the pages of the good book to conceal the rock hammer with which he dug his tunnel to freedom.
There’s a lot of symbolic foreshadowing in The Hunger Games.
We’ve already mentioned the mockingjay pin and the bread Peeta threw to Katniss, signifying his sacrifice and her survival. But there’s also the dandelion Katniss saw sprouting through a crack beside the burnt bread. To her, it was a sign of hope, a good omen that meant she could make it.
A few more examples include the Cornucopia full of valuable goods, yet in reality a deadly trap. Like the Capitol itself. And the melody Rue taught the mockingjays to signify the end of the day. That tune would someday signify the end of the Capitol.
10. Surprising but Inevitable
This method involves a series of subtle hints that a reader may, or may not, pick up on. Either way, after the foreshadowed event occurs, they’re able to flip back through the pages and see the indicators that made it feel surprising yet inevitable. Like Chekhov’s gun.
In the movie Jaws, Chief Brody trips over a scuba tank on board the Orca and Hooper warns him that they’re combustible. Quint remarks: “Yeah, that’s real fine expensive gear you brought out here, Mr. Hooper. ‘Course, I don’t know what that bastard shark’s gonna do with it. Might eat it I suppose.” This points down a logical path to the shark’s eventual destruction.
There’s a scene in The Hunger Games where Katniss has to impress the Gamemakers but they pay her little mind, focused more on the feast laid before them—including a roast pig with an apple in its mouth. Infuriated, she sends an arrow straight into the apple, skewering it against the wall and riveting their attention.
This foreshadows a pivotal later scene where she must destroy the food stores of her rivals. This time her arrows send down a whole rain of apples, setting off a series of explosives, vaporizing the feast.
Foreshadowing is About Setup
Remember, a great deal of foreshadowing registers on a subconscious level with the reader. Sometimes it happens that way for the writer, too. Don’t discount the power of your own subconscious when describing a setting or developing a relationship.
This is as true for short stories as it is for novels, TV shows, films (Darth Vader, anyone?), or even a series like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books—which literally set up major plot points for book seven in book one.
Adding the literary technique of foreshadowing to your writer’s toolbox is important for any writer hoping to write engaging plots without obnoxiously convenient plot twists.
Using the ten clever foreshadowing methods in this post will help you do just that.
How about you? Do you love catching on to a bit of foreshadowing in the stories you read or watch? Tell us about it in the comments.
Look at your story in progress. Consider how you can use one or more of the techniques we covered in the article and write a scene with foreshadowing. If you prefer, you can borrow one of these prompts:
- Kieren is in the forest, hunting the fox who attacked his sister.
- Penelope realizes her neighbor Stan has been stalking her.
- Jennifer plans a solo trip into the wilderness.
Remember to build foreshadowing into the scene. If you’d like to share your work in the comments, you might also include a short explanation about what your foreshadowing signifies.