How Story Structure Creates Foreshadowing

How do you explain the concept of foreshadowing?

So, it’s like this thing that happens before this other thing happens to let readers know that the other thing is going to happen.

Tough, isn’t it?

For all that it can be a bit difficult to succinctly explain, foreshadowing is a simple concept. You’re providing readers with a hint of what’s to come in order to prepare them for the type of story they will be reading.

Sounds easy, right? But how do you decide what events need to be foreshadowed? And, further, how do you decide when to foreshadow? Unless you have the magic ingredient close to hand, you may find it difficult to find specific answers to either of these questions. But, lucky for you, you do have that magic ingredient, and it is story structure.

Once you understand the basic elements of structure (which I talk about in-depth in my book Structuring Your Novel), you can see how they fit together to create a solid story that works. Using that understanding, you can then further break down the smaller components of the craft—such as foreshadowing—and gain some specific info on how to put them into play.

What Does Structure Tell You About What to Foreshadow?

Foreshadowing allows you to guide your readers’ expectations and prepare them (if only subconsciously) for big events down the road. So you already have part of the answer right there: you need to foreshadow big events.

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But how do you know which events will be the big ones? Sometimes the answer is a no-brainer. The big events are the ones you imagined right off when we got the idea for this story; they’re the ones you’ve been waiting all the way through the book to write. But sometimes—and especially if you’re not keen on outlining—you may not realize which events will end up being the big ones.

An understanding of structure helps you identify the major turning points in the story:

1. The First Plot Point takes place around the 25% mark, signifies a major disruption in your characters’ Normal World up to now, and forces them into a phase of reaction.

2. The Midpoint (or Second Plot Point) takes place around the 50% mark and rocks your characters’ world again, but this time forces them to start taking charge and taking action.

3. The Third Plot Point takes place around the 75% mark, signifies yet another disruption, this time distinguished as your characters’ low point in the story, before they change their mindsets and enter the final stage in their character arcs.

4. The Climactic Moment takes place near the end of your story and is the moment in which your characters finally do what needs to be done to reach their story goals and gain the Thing They Need.

Every one of these points in your story will shake things up for both your characters and your readers. As such, you’ll want to make sure you’ve properly foreshadowed them by planting clues (or, at the very least, a corresponding tonality) early on.

What Does Story Structure Tell You About When to Foreshadow?

Aside from the obvious fact that you have to plant your foreshadowing before you can pay it off, can we dig up any more specific guidance?

If you guessed the answer to that is, “Yes,” then you’re absolutely right. Foreshadowing comes in what I like to think of as two varieties: heavy and light.

Heavy Foreshadowing

Heavy foreshadowing plants a solid clue of what’s to come later on. This kind of foreshadowing needs to happen early in the book. Your First Plot Point needs to be foreshadowed in your first chapter. Optimally, your Climax will also get a dab of foreshadowing early on. All the other major plot points need to be foreshadowed in the first half of the book, preferably the First Act.

The first quarter of your story is your setup. This is where you’ll be introducing characters, settings, and stakes. It’s Foreshadowing City. You don’t want to give away plot secrets, but you do want to give readers a sense of what’s coming. Dinosaurs? Time travel? A dark tragedy? A light comedy? Bring readers up to speed as soon as possible.

Light Foreshadowing

Light foreshadowing, on the other hand, happens just before the payoff arrives and is where you remind readers of the previous heavy foreshadowing. This foreshadowing will usually be applied with a lighter touch. A little tension or foreboding or a glimpse of a symbolic motif may be all you need to poke your readers wide awake and warn them that the something big they’ve been waiting for is about to happen.

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Whether you plan your foreshadowing ahead of time, allow it to emerge organically as you write, or return to reinforce it during revisions, you’ll find that a solid understanding of story structure will help you plan it to its full advantage.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How have you used story structure to create foreshadowing in your story? 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.

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