Writing Craft Vol. 3: Foreshadowing

(The thing about learning how to pick apart writing like this is that it’s very labor intensive up front, but you also understand how to do some really interesting things by default. Foreshadowing is one of those things! We just got done talking about summarizing, by the way. See the previous post for the example mentioned here from The Princess Bride.)


You can also summarize events of the future, as foreshadowing.

Foreshadowing can be obvious, as when Rugen and Humperdink summarize their plans, or it can be more subtle, as when Rugen says, “If you haven’t got health, then you haven’t got anything,” then proceeds to torture Westley to death.

The trick for foreshadowing is that you’re doing summary in reverse:

  • You give the key word or phrase.
  • Later, you give a detailed scene or description that fleshes out the event hinted at by the key word or phrase.
  • The key word or phrase is included in that description.

When the reader reaches the events foreshadowed by the summary, they will recognize them as being particularly significant to the story.

Here are some particularly good points where you can summarize events:

  • To show a transition between two states where nothing much happens, for example, an uneventful journey between point A and point B. The events at point A are summarized, and the events at point B are foreshadowed. This often happens between scenes or at the beginning of a scene or chapter.
  • To keep the reader on track with complex plotlines, for example, when a character gives a recap and says, “So what are we going to do next, huh?” This usually happens in the middle of a scene.
  • To remind readers of the context of an event before it occurs, for example, a scene that shows why a character is important before that character gets killed.
  • To lie to the reader. Often in a mystery, one character will sum up previous events incorrectly but believably to help disguise the solution. This usually happens in the middle of a scene.
  • To control the reader’s feeling of satisfaction at the end of a story. The ends of stories often summarize their own events and tell the reader how to feel about them; they can also foreshadow a future for the characters after the end of the events of the story.

The simplest way to decide where to put a piece of foreshadowing is to put transitions where the transition happens, obvious or tense foreshadowing near the end of a scene, and everything else (especially any misdirection) near the middle, where it’s not as noticeable.

Here’s an example of a “transition” summary (near a beginning):

Despite—or because of—all the drama that had happened during breakfast, Bob went to work, intending to do nothing more than to sit at his desk and handle a few of his emails.

Here’s an example of a “keep the reader on track” summary (before the next big event, so either in the beginning of a scene if the event happens in the scene, or in the middle of a scene, if the event happens after that scene):

“I’m not sure I want to see you again, after traveling fife hundred miles to see you, having you slam the door in my face, and sending your roommate out with her pet tarantula to scare me off. But okay, let’s do coffee.”

Here’s an example of a “context before the big event” summary (where the character dies):

“Son, you know I’ve been happy to have this chance to spend time with you before we attack the castle. I just want you to know I love you. I know I’ve let you down in the past. But I’ll make it up to you someday. I promise.”

Note that I don’t particularly recommend this technique; it’s pretty obvious! But it is effective. Put it in the middle of something if you want it to be slightly less obvious, or at the end of a scene if you want it to really stick out.

Here’s an example of a “lie” summary (which you will want to hide in the middle):

“When you put it all together, obviously, the murderer must have been Mrs. Jones! No one else could have flipped the light switch, used the clothesline to slide down to the first floor, then slipped in through the secret passage to the back of the staircase in order to replace the blanks in the gun with live ammunition in time. We have solved the case!”

This is the point where the famous fictional detective Poirot says something like, “Hastings, your intellectual processes always amaze me.” The thing is, though, it’s really hard to set this kind of misdirection aside!

Here’s an example of an “ending” summary (which is usually placed at the end of a story, but not always, if it needs to be hidden):

“You know what heppened to Lawrence? After everything that happened in New Jersey, he bought a bunch of weed and went to Nevada to ‘find himself’ out in the desert. Last thing I heard, he got arrested by the Air Force for waking up inside Area 51 naked, with no idea how he got there and a tattoo of some weird electrical circuits on his backside. But, you know. That’s Lawrence.”

I like to think of summaries as reader “check-ins,” where the writer checks in with the reader to make sure they’re enjoying the story in exactly the way the writer intended. A good summary is a powerful tool for understanding and memory.

Foreshadowing helps the writer make sure the reader stays on track with the story, like guide rails that set expectations (consciously or subconsciously) for the reader.

(Next, we’ll be talking about the basics of how to write setting. Haven’t we been doing that, you may well ask! But we’ve been talking about a lot of theory and not a lot of practical details, like where to put the details, how much of them to give, and how not to sound like blah blah blah…)

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