foreshadowing's number one job

Foreshadowing’s #1 Job in Your Story

This week’s video reveals a simple but often overlooked function of foreshadowing that all writers should be aware of.

Video Transcript:

As you may have noticed (or maybe not) I’ve taken almost a six-month break from the video posts. So starting this week, I’m pleased to say that I plan to return to my old every-Wednesday schedule for the videos. And today I want to talk about foreshadowing.

So what’s there to know about foreshadowing—really? Basically, it’s nothing more than an early hint of something important that’s going to happen later in the story.

But here’s the really crucial thing to understand about foreshadowing—and I think it’s something we often overlook, despite its simplicity. The whole purpose of foreshadowing—its #1 job—is to tell readers there’s a plot twist coming. Now, on the surface that may seem totally non-intuitive. After all, the last thing we want is for readers to figure out what’s going to happen in the story. That’s the whole point of a twist, right?

But here’s the thing about plot twists—or any other momentous moment in a story. Plot twists that come out of nowhere and completely blindside readers are not satisfactory. And they’re not satisfactory for two reasons.

Reason #1:

The first is that this lack of preparedness in the readers means the twist has a very large possibility of being rejected. It will fail to seem like a logical progression of events or even something that would reasonably happen in a story of this type.

Reason #2:

The second reason is that if we’re not preparing readers—mostly on a subconscious level but also slightly on a conscious level—to anticipate, to look forward to a surprising twist, then we’re missing a huge opportunity. We want readers to know something good is coming up; we just don’t want them to know what it is yet.

And probably the easiest way to do this is to simply tell readers there’s a secret and leave at that. If you can get readers looking forward to your big plot reveal, then your foreshadowing has accomplished its #1 job with flying colors.

Tell me your opinion: How are you foreshadowing your story’s most surprising moment?

Foreshadowing's #1 Job in a Story

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Thanks, I find all of your postings to be very helpful. I only hope that I do a good job at using them. Keep up the good work.

  2. Lorna G. Poston says

    Great video and great tips. Welcome back! 🙂

  3. Great video. Good to see you’re back to a weekly video schedule.
    Foreshadowing can be tricky because you hate to give the story away too soon, yet you don’t want the big reveal to come out of nowhere. I make a point of leaving key breadcrumbs for the reader during the editing phase of any manuscript so no one is that surprised at the end.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The key to foreshadowing is three-fold: building the suspense by letting readers know something is coming, offering them substantial clues so the reveal doesn’t come out of nowhere, then misdirecting them so they don’t figure things out too soon. And it is tricky!

  4. This is why you can’t just drop Godzilla into your story.

    What I mean by that is, you want a plot twist to be exciting and surprising. Godzilla is certainly exciting, and if you’re writing, say, a Victorian-era period piece, he’s sure as hell surprising. But if all you had to do was be exciting and surprising, every writer would just drop Godzilla into their novel every time they want a twist or dramatic turning point. You can’t do that. You need to set up your payoffs. You need to foreshadow, so that your twist or turning point emerges directly from the progression of your narrative.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Spot on. It’s never about surprising readers. It’s about fulfilling their expectations.

  5. Siegmar Sondermann says

    Finally back on screen.
    Have been waiting for ages.

    Concerning foreshadowing, it really is a tricky task.
    Particularly, if I want to stay put in the protagonists skin throughout the story.
    I guess it will pay off, if I give foreshadowing special attention when outlining my stories.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The trick is to try to sync the reader’s understanding of the story with the protagonist’s. If the protagonist senses something coming but isn’t able to figure out what, readers will be right there with him.

  6. This explains pretty well why people groan rather than gasp at a lot of M Night Shymalan’s “plot twists.”

    My favorite plot twist is the ending of the original Planet of the Apes. It didn’t necessarily tell you to expect a surprise, but there was still subtle foreshadowing throughout the whole film. You didn’t know there was a puzzle, but you still had the pieces ready for the big reveal.

    The Burton remake on the other hand…totally out of left field. A twist that elicits a “huh?” or “what?” is a bad sign.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yep, we want to blow readers minds, not muddle them.

    • I’d suggest that M. Night Shyamalan’s twists are actually fantastic examples of foreshadowing. He plants the seeds throughout the story, often from the first scene, and pays them off at the end. They’re surprising, but also organic, and once revealed it’s difficult to see how the truth could have been anything else.

      (As it happens, only two Shyamalan films, The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, have traditional twist endings. The reason he’s become so known for them is that they were both so striking and well-designed. But that’s another discussion.)

  7. I need to think about doing this more. I know I put little tidbits throughout the story as I go along, but I really need to invest in foreshadowing in the editing stages. Thanks for the reminder!!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is one major advantage of outlining. If you know what big events are going to happen later in your story, it’s much easier to drop hints early on.

  8. Great to see you back KM. I was interested to hear your take on foreshadowing, it has given me something concrete to work on. But… how would you use foreshadowing in a first person present tense (FP-PT) POV? The narrator/protagonist isn’t aware of the upcoming plot twist. I feel I’m limited to symbolism and metaphors that the protagonist subconsciously uses e.g. later in my WIP the protagonist is on a badly damaged ship in stormy weather so I’ve used waves, oceanic terms and stormy metaphors. Have you any other suggestions for foreshadowing in FP-PT?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      One of the thing I was just blown away by while annotating Jane Eyre was the author’s mastery of foreshadowing–and this is in a first-person story. Never underestimate tone and mood for setting up foreshadowing, and there’s also nothing wrong with the old “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” line (although maybe with a slightly different phrasing 😉 ). I actually posted along these lines last week.

    • AFM, you don’t have to limit yourself to symbolism and whatnot. I had a shocking ending in my own WIP (it shocked ME). However, I reviewed the situation and realized I had set up the character for her heroic sacrifice. How did I set her up? Throughout the story, I’d made it clear there was only one thing a person could do if caught in a particularly fiendish trap: make a heroic sacrifice. I even have the character advise someone else to make that sacrifice if he’s caught in that situation.

      Because my character was so vital to the good guys’ success, the reader might figure she had “plot immunity.” *I* sure thought she had immunity! So, when the end came, and the character was caught in that trap, the reader realizes there’s only one thing she could do. I’d already established that she’d do the right thing, no matter what it cost her, because I’d shown her suffering the consequences of her prior commitment to doing the right thing.

      So, consider what your FPC (first person character) knows, because what the FPC knows the readers will know. Does she know that the ship has been badly maintained? Maybe at one port the engineer is escorted off because he’s a sloppy drunk. Maybe her sister in Boston taunts her with text messages about Carnival Cruise ship disasters, but your FPC thinks she’s safe because she’s sailing with Norwegian Cruise Lines instead. Maybe she can’t sleep nights because she can hear the engines wheeze, and maybe dinner is punctuated by the lights going out periodically.

      Suppose she turns on the radio and hears of an earthquake in the Indian Ocean while she’s cruising Bali. Perhaps she notices a passenger who’s having flashbacks of surviving the Boxing Day Tsunami. When the ship’s engine catches fire and they’re trapped in the path of a new tsunami … the reader will accept this could happen. They won’t think you pulled the outcome out of thin air.

      Obviously you wouldn’t beat readers over the head like I’m doing 🙂 Just let the FPC know enough for the readers to know that the twist you’re executing could actually happen.

      • A Fettered Mind says

        Thanks Jamie,

        All great suggestions and your example is good. I am cautious, too, about being too heavy handed. I will definitely give it a try.

  9. Foreshadowing is a fine line. Done wrong, and it looks sloppy. Done correctly, and magic happens. Great post on how to do it properly.

  10. Excellent advice! This is something I like to add in later drafts, once I know for sure what’s needed and where.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s amazing sometimes how our subconscious brains seem to know to add foreshadowing for things we haven’t even written yet. But, yes, eventually, we do sometimes have to go back and sow it in earlier in the book.


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  2. […] Foreshadowing’s #1 Job in Your Story, from Helping Writers Become Authors: Foreshadowing is important to any story. It helps prepare a […]

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