Craft · Feature · Roundtable

Roundtable #11: Foreshadowing

Note: This post is done in a roundtable style where members of Writer’s Block Party discuss a topic together.

Moderator & Editor: Amanda Foody

QUESTION ONE: What do you define as foreshadowing? Is it a clue? Is it one of those “…” cliffhanger lines? Easter eggs about what is to come?

ASHLEY: I think foreshadowing is a really broad term. It can be one character telling another that the woods are dangerous, and then when they have to inevitably go into the woods, the reader expects something dangerous will happen. Naming the woods “The Forbidden Woods” is another way to foreshadow, because there’s obviously a reason they are forbidden.

KATY: I wrote a post that kind of talked about different ways to use foreshadowing. But there are honestly too many to name. Anything that hints at what’s to come and that you can look back at in a new light once you’ve finished the story. There’s also a huge spectrum of how much your foreshadowing gives away, and I think you can do less or more based on what you’re trying to achieve. One of my examples, one of the most well-known stories in the english language, is Romeo and Juliet, which literally gives away the end of the story at the very beginning!

AXIE: Foreshadowing is one of the best weapons in the writer’s arsenal. It can be used subtly or not. In all honesty, every sentence could be foreshadowing if you really wanted it to be!

ASHLEY: Yeah I feel like anything you do that sets something up is foreshadowing, but I guess there is probably overlap between that and world building/plot/etc. Direct, explicit hinting versus indirect groundwork. It’s anything that actively works towards a reveal.


QUESTION TWO: Why do you like foreshadowing as a plot tool?

KATY: I actually love this question because it’s something I think about a LOT. There’s a balance, I think, between keeping your reader on their toes with your plot twists, and letting them make predictions about what will happen. I think foreshadowing is the way we writers strike this balance. We want them to expect certain things, and depending on the specific needs of the story, either have those expectations met (i.e. a couple getting together in a romance) or have them undermined or reversed. So foreshadowing is the main way we get readers to set their expectations initially, and let those expectations change and shift throughout the story

ASHLEY: As a reader, I want to be fully engaged in a story, and foreshadowing does that. It makes the reading experience more rewarding. As a writer, I think it’s a really good way to set up expectations for the reader, to hook them and keep them interested.

AXIE: I think it’s super fun and I love how satisfying it is when the foreshadowing pays out later. I also believe in the “book should come full circle” idea, so that the first chapter foreshadows the last. I love the idea of playing with reader expectation. Experienced readers know intuitively what foreshadowing feels like, and it’s fun to predict what might happen or be surprised by the twists.

ASHLEY: Yes, Axie, I agree about books coming full circle! I like books that have symmetry and end in a way that echoes the beginning.

KATY: I think the key is that foreshadowing engages the reader — it gets them to start thinking and guessing and thus getting more invested in whether those guesses pan out.


QUESTION THREE: Speaking of playing with reader expectations, how do you balance foreshadowing with the concern it will make the upcoming plot twist too obvious?

AXIE: It’s always a risk, but I personally think it’s better to foreshadow than not because it’s very dissatisfying for a twist to appear that hasn’t been laid out before – readers don’t like to feel tricked.

ASHLEY: It’s definitely difficult to foreshadow in such a way that isn’t too obvious, but also isn’t too subtle so the reader misses it entirely. It’s a hard balance to strike, and it’s particularly hard when you, the writer, knows what you’re foreshadowing: something might feel obvious to you, but could totally go over the reader’s head. That’s one reason CPs are great! They can let you know if the foreshadowing is heavy-handed, or if it has too light a touch. And I agree with Axie–the worst thing you can do is lie to a reader (unless, of course, you have an unreliable narrator). You want to give the reader the benefit of the doubt.

KATY: I totally agree that CPs are a huge part of this revision process — and fresh eyes can especially help tell you when a twist worked, because someone who’s already read it will see the twist coming and will read those pieces of foreshadowing differently. For me it just takes a LOT of revision, to figure out how to leave those hints but pull back on giving it ALL away. Throughout the story, you want to have alternate possible explanations for certain pieces of foreshadowing (why did this character do this? what did that character mean when they said that?) but when you put all those pieces together they should point toward the real answer. Almost like putting together clues in a mystery!

AXIE: Yes, it’s best to rely on CPs to see if you’ve struck that balance. There are also “twists” that readers are supposed to guess and “twists” that they’re not. I think foreshadowing for the twists they’re supposed to get can be less subtle – part of the fun of reading is guessing/predicting what might happen. Then there are of course the “twists” that aren’t supposed to be surprising (see: every Harry Potter book). J.K. Rowling is the queen of foreshadowing and twists, as we all know.

KATY: I think a lot of people were surprised JK Rowling started writing mysteries after Harry Potter, but to me it makes total sense — the HP books are all kind of mysteries at their core! And I think that’s what makes her so good at foreshadowing. She approaches it like a mystery writer.

QUESTION FOUR: The clues that JKR lays throughout the books totally blow my mind! Since we’re already on the topic of books, are there any other books you think make really strong use of foreshadowing?

KATY: Honestly I like the way the graphic novel series Saga does this. The whole story is framed from the POV of the child, so as she’s telling us this story she’ll sort of foreshadow certain plot events, and then when we finally hit those plot points, the actual execution ends up being something a little different than what we expect

ASHLEY: Yeah, I mean Harry Potter obviously come to mind (though I have some * issues * with the last book). But you have to respect the long con, because it’s hard enough doing it in one book let along several. And Code Name Verity does it really well, too, in a different way. Like, re-reading it, I realized that everything that was going to tear my heart into pieces was foreshadowed from the beginning.

KATYCode Name Verity also has a unique framing! I think with framing you can do a lot of interesting foreshadowing things you otherwise can’t.

AXIE: I think you can look at any first chapter and see foreshadowing. *reaches for bookshelf* Example, in the first chapter of Cindy Pon’s Want, the protagonist kidnaps a rich girl for money and they have a lot of chemistry and challenge one another – you can guess that she’ll come back later in the book, and that he’ll change and grow through his connection with her.


QUESTION FIVE: Are there certain instances where you wouldn’t find foreshadowing to be as effective?

KATY: Because our definition of foreshadowing is so broad, I would say I think you nearly always need it in some capacity. This goes back to what Axie and Ashley. were saying–if you have a huge, unexpected twist in your story, the impact is greater when it doesn’t come out of literally NOWHERE. You need to lay SOME groundwork for the twist to be as satisfying and effective as you want it to be.
ASHLEY: I definitely think foreshadowing is necessary for any reveal or twist, BUT there are maybe times when indirect foreshadowing is all you need? Like direct foreshadowing could be too heavy-handed.
If you have any thoughts to add about foreshadowing or your favorite books with twists and turns, let us know in the comments below!

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