How to Use Foreshadowing

How to Use Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing is a necessary part of any well-executed story. So what is it and how to use foreshadowing to best effect in your story? If we sift foreshadowing down to its simplest form, we could say it prepares readers for what will happen later.

At first glance, this may seem counter-intuitive. Why would we want readers to know what’s going to happen later in the story? If they know how the book turns out, doesn’t this mean they’ll have no reason to read on?

Actually, finding out “what happens” is only one reason readers keep reading (and, of course, this desire is no longer a factor at all when it comes to re-readability.) Rather, one of the most crucial incentives for a reader is the promise of a good journey. Therefore, the point of foreshadowing is to prepare readers for what happens later in the story. Not tell them, just prepare them.

Foreshadowing’s great strength lies in its ability to create a cohesive and plausible story. For example, if readers understand it’s possible someone in your story may be murdered, they won’t be completely shocked when the sidekick gets axed down the road. If, however, you failed to properly foreshadow this unhappy event, readers may feel unpleasantly jarred. They can feel the author has cheated them out of the story they thought they were reading. They would think your foreshadowing had, in essence, lied to them so it could trick them with this big shocker.

Readers don’t like to be cheated, lied to, or tricked. And that’s where foreshadowing comes into play.

The Two Halves of Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing, Part 1: The Plant

We can break foreshadowing down into two parts. The first is the plant. This is the part where you hint to readers that something surprising and/or important is going to happen later in the book. If the bad guy is going to kidnap the good guy’s daughter, your plant might be the moment when your hero notices a creepy dude hanging around the playground. If your heroine is going to be left standing at the altar, your plant might be her fiancé’s ambivalence toward the wedding preparations.

Depending on what event you’re foreshadowing, the plant can be blatant or subtle. Subtle is almost always better, since you don’t want to give away your plot twists. But at the same time, your hints must be obvious enough that readers will remember them later on.

Usually, the earlier you can foreshadow an event, the stronger and more cohesive an effect you will create. The bigger the event, the more important it is to foreshadow it early. As editor Jeff Gerke puts it in The First 50 Pages:

Basically, you need to let us in on the rules. If the climax of your book is going to consist of getting into a time machine and jumping away to safety, we had better have known in the first fifty pages that time travel is possible in the world of your story.

Foreshadowing, Part 2: The Payoff

Once you’ve got your plant in place, all that’s left is to bring the payoff on stage. If you planted hints about kidnapping, jilting, or time travelling, this is the part where you now get to let these important scenes play out.

As long as you’ve done your job right with the plant, you probably won’t even need to reference your hints from earlier. In fact, you’re likely to create a more solid effect by letting readers put the pieces together themselves.

But you’ll also find moments (usually of smaller events that were given less obvious plants) that will benefit from a quick reference to the original hint (e.g., “George, you big meanie! Now I understand why you wouldn’t choose between the scarlet and the crimson for the bridesmaids’ dresses!”)

The most important thing to remember about the payoff is that it always needs to happen. If you plant hints, pay them off. Just as readers will be confused by an unforeshadowed plot twist, they will also be frustrated by foreshadowing that excites them and then leads nowhere.

Foreshadowing vs. Telegraphing

The trick to good foreshadowing is subconsciously preparing readers for what’s coming without allowing them to guess the ins and outs of the plot twist. You don’t want your hints to be so obvious they remove all suspense. In her October 2012 Writer’s Digest article “Making the Ordinary Menacing: 5 Ways,” Hallie Ephron calls this “telegraphing”:

When you insert a hint of what’s to come, look at it critically and decide whether it’s something the reader will glide right by but remember later with an Aha! That’s foreshadowing. If instead the reader groans and guesses what’s coming, you’ve telegraphed.

Some clever readers will undoubtedly be able to interpret your hints, no matter how cagey you are. But if you can fool most of the readers most of the time, you can’t ask for more than that.

Foreshadowing vs. Foreboding

Foreboding—that skin-prickling feeling that something horrible is going to happen—can be a useful facet of foreshadowing. By itself, foreboding isn’t specific enough to be foreshadowing. Unlike the plants used for foreshadowing, foreboding is just an ambiguous aura of suspense. Jordan E. Rosenfeld describes it in Make a Scene:

[F]oreshadowing … hints at actual plot events to come, [but] foreboding is purely about mood-setting. It heightens the feeling of tension in a scene but doesn’t necessarily indicate that something bad really will happen.

Foreboding is useful in setting readers’ emotions on edge without giving them any blatant hints. But when it comes time to foreshadow important events, always back up your foreboding by planting some specific clues.


Most authors have so intrinsic an understanding of how to use foreshadowing that they plant it and pay it off without even fully realizing that’s what they’re doing. But the more conscious you are of the technique, the better you can wield it. Using this basic two-part approach to foreshadowing can strengthen your story and your readers’ experience of it.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! When was the last time you decided how to use foreshadowing in your story? Did you do it consciously or unconsciously? Tell me in the comments!

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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. Usually unconsciously. I’m a pantser from the word go, so often I find myself “following up” on minor details earlier in the book that turn out to be foreshadowing. Then I’ll go back in edits and strengthen them.

  2. Nothing wrong with that. Sometimes we can actually achieve a more organic foreshadowing when we’re filling in the payoff as we go. But, at the same time, we can often achieve a tighter effect by then going back and strengthening the original plant.

  3. For my novel, a major character dies at the end. I went back after I’d written the first draft and added bits of foreshadowing so it wouldn’t be so jarring.

    I recently read a book written in first POV where the character kept thinking things like, “Looking back, we should’ve known that this choice would have horrible consequences…everything was about to go wrong…this was the last day things would be normal,” etc. For me, that was overkill. Yes, prepare me for something to happen, but don’t repeatedly beat me over the head about it.

  4. If the POV character was saying the “looking back” line *before* the payoff, then, yes, that’s definitely overkill. We want to poke readers in the right direction, but we never want to overplay our hand. Mystery reigns!

  5. Mine was a mix of both conscious and unconscious. After my 1st draft, I went back and added some foreshadowing, and streghtened other parts to keep the story flowing.

  6. That’s how it often happens. We don’t always know what we’re foreshadowing until later when the event actually happens.

  7. Would you say that Foreshadowing/Payoff in a novel is like Setup/Payoff in a movie?

  8. Yes, setup/payoff in a film is basically the same as plant/payoff in a novel. In fact, the terms are pretty interchangeable. Both refer to fulfilled foreshadowing.

  9. Hi K.M.

    Oooo, this was a lovely post to read and one that is very reassuring to me. I’m now half way through my first fiction book and I have left a few little clues here and there throughout my story. It’s nice to read that I’m on the right lines for this. (Pardon the pun, of course).

  10. By the time we’re done with a first draft, we’ll usually discover plants that we never properly paid off – or vice versa. It’s rare to get foreshadowing completely solid on the first try. Not until that first draft is finished will we have a total understanding of which areas need to be either strengthened or diminished.

  11. I think in in the three manuscripts so far it has been a mixture of conscious and unconscious foreshadowing – but I’ve become more intentional about it as I’ve developed as a writer.

    I like where you say “Some clever readers will undoubtedly be able to interpret your hints, no matter how cagey you are. But if you can fool most of the readers most of the time, you can’t ask for more than that.”

    One of the beta readers on my first manuscript was totally surprised by the ending (though happy because of the foreshadowing), another predicted one element but not the other while another told me it was “predictable”. So I’m wondering – did I “telegraph” rather than “foreshadow” – maybe I need to misdirect a bit more (as well as foreshadow).

    Which brings me to a question – what do you think about misdirection or red herrings in a plot. For instance in my current manuscript – a taste for chilled nuts is important to fingering a villain – so that is a subtle thread throughout the story and I give an indirect hint that it might be who it is but also other broader hints that it may be someone else (who is in fact innocent). I also give other foreshadowing as well. All of which comes together in a climatic scene. So how legitimate is misdirection?

  12. If you’re writing a mystery, you’re able to get away with much more misdirection than you would be able to in other genres, simply because that’s the name of the game. But you still have to play fair. You can get away with lots of subtle clues, but anything blatant has to be addressed later on – if only by having the protagonists follow up on the lead and run it into a justifiable dead end.

  13. I chart arcs for my foreshadowing. As the story progresses, information is introduced until the payoff is reached. This is one aspect of writing I greatly enjoy. The process is similar to telling a joke by setting it up then giving the punch line (which I also enjoy doing).

    Some arcs do little more than deepen the story world or characters while others prepare readers for significant plot events. Often scenes seem pointless, but later in the story, in retrospect, the purpose becomes clear — an aha moment.

    An example is one arc I worked on today involving medicinal plants and how the protagonist learns about them. Another arc is about a character the protagonist decides is the village’s Master Alchemist. Those two arcs intersect when the protagonist learns the alchemist uses the medicinal plants to make the magic-like medical salve that relieves pain, stops bleeding, prevents infection, and promotes healing. He had had multiple occasions to use the salve, but had not known from where it came. Aha, now he knows.

    I also enjoy the Dragon’s fascination with shiny objects encountered during the adventure. This culminates with the protagonist visiting the Dragon’s lair and discovering a huge hoard of shiny objects. Aha, that explains why the Dragon often says, “Ooh, shiny. May I have it?”

    I am having too much fun.

  14. The comparison between foreshadowing and joke telling is apropos. In both instances, we’re priming the readers’ attention, then delivering the goods.

  15. My stories run on character arcs not outlines so foreshadowing is a biggy with me. I’ll often start with a sort of impressionistic shadow of what the character is going to go through and build the reader through it to the conclusion. I also make extensive use of back shadowing using and event to hint at a characters past that will later be revealed in the novel. I find that by hinting that a certain event is nostalgic or painful for a character without telling why prepares the reader for the backstory that is to come later. This also keep backstory from being boring to the reader, they want to know WHY holding a baby is so bittersweetly awkward for Roddy and so they stay interested when he tells Eric about his stillborn sister and early relationship with his now estranged brother. If I had started with Roddy dumping his past on Eric the reader would have gotten bored and read something else.

    My favorite method of foreshadowing is deja vu. I like to give my characters an experience that seems unimportant but that holds a clue for the future and then to repeat the experience on a different scale and setting to jolt the reader into understanding the earlier hint.

  16. You raise a good point in that even things that happened *before* the story proper sometimes need to be foreshadowed. If the backstory is a big secret that will later be revealed in a way that will dramatically affect the plot, it too needs to be foreshadowed.

  17. Thank you thank you thank you
    This is exactly the article I needed at exactly the right time.
    Did I say thank you yet?

  18. Glad you enjoyed it!

  19. The first sentence of my memoir foreshadows the rest: I hate boys’ games.

    It foreshadows the tag game opening scene, my father’s abuse (beginning with the hide the soap game), and then other games as I grow older and begin the healing process.

    This is a wonderful post. I added it to my useful manuscript helps folder

  20. I love it when opening lines function as foreshadowing for the entire novel. It allows them to be a door, of sorts, opening onto the book itself.

  21. Great clarification of terms. Very helpful.

    In my period YA adventure I have the hero (a fourteen year old boy) show off his skills of sleight of hand early on. And it’s those same skills which save the day at the end when he switches an item, which then helps to condemn the bad guy.

  22. As a reader/viewer, it always makes me insanely happy when a skill featured early on is the same skill necessary for the hero to conquer in the climax. It shows a great story awareness on the author’s part.

  23. Can a character itself be a foreshadowing? For now my book is split in two simultaneous stories which will meet in the end – a la Two Towers. I have teased a bad guy in one side and I am about to throw hints (of that very same bad guy’s arrival) in the other. So it’s not only an event that I am foreshadowing but the character himself. Does that make sense?

  24. Yes, definitely makes sense. If readers understand something about Character #2’s motivation and particularly if they get the sense of the inevitable motion that is carrying him toward an intersection with Character #1, then his very presence is a foreshadowing plant.

  25. What an excellent article! Thank you so much! I’m realizing that lack of foreshadowing is one of the problems with my first novel (which didn’t sell.) When I go back to revise it someday, I’ll definitely be keeping that in mind.

  26. Somehow I knew you were going to write this article.

    Seriously, though. My favorite foreshadowing is accidental. I’ll add something to solve an immediate problem, then later find I can call back to it as an even more useful device. Magic.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes! It’s amazing how our subconscious weaves those little clues without our even knowing it sometimes.

  27. I have a question. My WIP is about a group trying to stop a murder. At the climax, my characters realize that the target of the killer is different than the one they originally thought. My editor felt disappointed, that there was a build up to the assassination of the original person, with no resolution of sorts. But all my beta readers loved the twist.
    Is it important to foreshadow the twist? Or is that the point, to take the reader by surprise?

    • There should be some indication of the switch, but not enough to give it away. Any time a story includes a twist the reader should be able to go back and review the clues and realize they did, in fact, point to the events in question.

      You want to tell the reader what’s going to happen, but in such a way that either direction would have made sense.

      • “You want to tell the reader what’s going to happen, but in such a way that either direction would have made sense.”
        Thanks for this.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, it is important to foreshadow the twist. The trick is to do it so subtly that readers only recognize the foreshadowing in hindsight. You might find the tips in this post on plot twists helpful:

    • There are a couple of scenes in my MS where you see things from the point of view of the killer. But you don’t know until the climax, who the true target is. When you go back and look at the scenes, everything falls into place.
      Would you say that’s foreshadowing the twist?

    • And is that enough? I mean, I know you haven’t read my MS, but that’s really the only foreshadowing that I’ve done for my twist.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        If everything falls into place at the end without jarring readers, then you should be fine.

  28. Think of foreshadowing as setting up a punchline, but without the humor. (Although I often foreshadow humorous payoffs, as well as the more serious variety)

  29. Recently I have been foreshadowing a lot for events in my book’s sequel, (as well as for events within the same book)…. My problem right now is how to let out hints that people will remember in the second book, without them in the meantime thinking that I have just “forgotten” about about that particular strand.

    Currently my strategy for that at present is to make sure that I subtly drop the hint again close to the book’s end, so that it can be clear that it is part of a bigger picture later on, not just that I’ve forgotten about it among the other many plot threads… Should that serve my purpose, do you think?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Good plan. There are two types of foreshadowing: light and heavy. Heavy foreshadowing offers direct clues. Light foreshadowing is just subtle clues that may be missed on the first reading, but which will fall into place later. You want a nice mix of both, but light foreshadowing is enough until you get by until you’re close to the actual event you’re foreshadowing.

  30. I wanted to share my case against foreshadowing. First off I want to make a distinction between giving the reader information that will be relevant later in the story and hinting at events to come. As far as the term foreshadowing is used to mean the former, I agree with whats been said, it should be artfully done. However I think that should not be called foreshadowing, it’s just the conveying of information. What events might potentially occur could be inferred from this information but thats where the art comes in, you need reduce the audience’s ability to do suss that out.

    To me foreshadowing means hinting at events to come later in the story. The argument that this “prepares” your readers might have held water 100 years ago but I believe in 2015 it has become a hinderance to modern storytelling. As a reader I can’t stand these hints thematically or otherwise, they always make the story less interesting and completely suck out the magical sense of unpredictability. When i find the few I miss upon rereading or rewatching I wanna gag. Unlike dramatic irony, symbolism, motiff, allegory, etc., this device does not impart any satisfaction to me when reflecting on a story.

    People are reading and watching more stories than ever and we know how they work, we’re not insulted or affronted by the reveal that the murderer is the storyteller, we are insulted and affronted that you think we need coddling, nudging and winking. We like new, we like totally unexpected, we’re not gonna riot, in case you havent noticed we are pretty open.

    So lets lay off this obsolete method and crack the echo chamber open, foreshadowing is bad.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Although I definitely get where you’re coming from, I think we’re going to have to respectfully agree to disagree on the concept that foreshadowing is outmoded. It’s true there are certain things that have been foreshadowed so often and in so many similar ways, that their foreshadowing can practically be taken for granted. But a complete lack of foreshadowing ends up creating stories that lack continuity, resonance, meaning–and, often–sense.

  31. This is a great article. I’m definitely going to have to read this again at a later date.

    By the way, the audio version attached at the end is the wrong one. It discusses your post about stealing ideas from other authors— which was also very helpful, but a bit confusing at first since I was expecting the audio for the foreshadowing article. 😛

  32. D.E. Blackman @dblackman79 says

    I started my novel with big event where the assumed hero was presumed killed. 40 pages later, he not only survives his attack but he saves the day. My writing partner hates it because the reader has 40 pages of learning about a guy that they are sure is going to die.
    But then he doesn’t so I think it’s brilliant!

  33. Tom Zampano says

    What modern authors can you suggest for examples of foreshadowing?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hmm. You know I’m coming up totally blank for specific examples at this moment. But pretty much *every* book features foreshadowing. Pick an author you like and, as you’re reading, start looking for instances early on where the story is appropriately set up for later events.

  34. Hannah Killian says

    Okay, so would my MFC character’s brother’s attempt to save her in the beginning of the story and failing, serve as foreshadowing for when he succeeds in saving her later in the story, but dies afterwards?

    Likewise, would it be the same for the LI’s dad being slightly overprotective when the LI was a young boy and in the climax when the LI is about to be killed, his dad saves him, but then he dies afterwards?

    Or do I need more foreshadowing?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Foreshadowing is as much about tone and how you present events as anything–but, yes, both of these are very nice framing events that bring things full circle.

  35. Hi everyone,

    I have read your post and comments. They are fabulous because I thought i am the only who faces this alone.

    I liked everything here. Thank you. That is amazing. I will start writing a diary.

  36. Good evening,

    I would like to say thank you for your post.
    I have been facing this problem since I was a schoolgirl. I am teaching English at university and I am confused about what is happening in my life. I study a lot before i go to teach students how to write. Usuly it is ielts writing tasks. And writing is the weakest point of mine.
    Your post helps me a lot. I read comments and they gave me a feeling that i am not alone among people who want to wrote a diary or a book. I am also followi other writers on pinterest. I am very happy.

  37. so helpful!

  38. What’s your opinion on foreshadowing across books in a series? For instance in a fantasy series, lets say that there’s a weapon that will be focused on in the second book yet is introduced in the first. Would it be a “violation” of Chekov’s Gun for it to appear on page (briefly and hopefully subtly) in the first book but not be really featured until the second?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That can definitely be done successfully. But you probably don’t want to make *too* big a deal of it in the first book. You want readers to remember it and maybe think about it after the first book is done, but you don’t want them going, “Hey! What about…”

  39. I loved this post! I’m one of those readers who sees every bit of foreshadowing waving like a red flag and has the entire story figured out by the halfway mark, whether i want to or not. 😛 Not many plants sneak by…I thoroughly enjoy being surprised by a plot twist at the end and then realize that it was indeed foreshadowed but so subtly that the plants blended in. It’s an art to do that!

    I really hate, though, the instances where i have a sense of foreboding and am on the edge of my seat for most of the story…only to have nothing happen. Lots of suspense for no reason. I do not enjoy suspense to begin with, but especially when there is no payoff after all that sweating. I watched the movie Leave No Trace relatively recently, and while it was a good movie and i recommend it, I felt slightly cheated at the end. They could have dialed back the suspense some as their ending didn’t really pay it all off.


  1. […] If we sift foreshadowing down to its simplest form, we could say it prepares readers for what will happen later in the story.  […]

  2. […] “If we sift foreshadowing down to its simplest form, we could say it prepares readers for what will happen later in the story.”  […]

  3. […] to catch readers off guard. In order to do that, you have to properly set up the twist. You have to predict it just enough to make it all make sense after the payoff. But you can’t tip your hand too […]

  4. […] Achei um texto incrível de K.M. Weiland que traduzo livremente para vocês. O original pode ser encontrado no endereço: […]

  5. […] Two great articles this month: All About Foreshadowing in Fiction and How to Use Foreshadowing. […]

  6. […] One of my favourite writers, K.M. Weiland, explains foreshadowing the best in her article How to Use Foreshadowing: […]

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