There are many many different ways to foreshadow in your novel — which can leave a writer feeling a little spoilt for choice. To help you pick the perfect foreshadowing scene for your book, I’ve put together a list of some of my favourite devices, as well as some examples so you can see them in action.
Example: A spaceship picks up an unusual reading that quickly disappears. The crew search the scanners but find nothing. Perhaps it was a misreading?
HA! Unlikely! This is a novel after all.
The Captain finishes her shift and goes back to her quarters thinking all is fine.
Later in the night, the spaceship is attacked.
Every scene in a novel serves a purpose. The pre-scene acts as a little teaser of what is to come. An unfinished moment. A leap not taken. The drama that fizzles out before it’s given a chance to ignite, telling the reader that the worst is yet to come.
Example: When his alarm went off at 6 am, Henry was already awake. He pulled off the damp sheets and stepped into the shower, letting the water cool his hot skin. With shaky hands, he buttoned his crisp white shirt.
The reader can assume that Henry is going to work. We may not know why he is nervous about going in today but we have a good idea that the day is going to be bad.
This single scene creates intrigue, tension and suspense in the story, making your reader what to keep turning those pages to find out what Henry is scared of.
Nervousness and ‘bad feelings’
Characters often know more than they let on, especially to the reader. Use their emotions, concerns or ‘bad/gut feelings’ to tell your reader that something bad is about to happen.
“I have a bad feeling about this.”
“What are you talking about? We’re nearly there.”
“This just all seems too easy.”
“Of course it’s easy, we’ve been planning this for months.” Eli bites his lip and shakes his head.
“No. That’s not it. Something isn’t right.”
“I didn’t come all this way to back out now. What we need is just on the other side of this door. If you’re that nervous, stay out here and keep watch. I’ll be in and out before you know it.” Eli nods and positions himself behind a large spider plant in the corner.
Jon sneaks in and finds the documents he was looking for sitting in the top draw if the desk. He laughs to himself, thinking of Eli out in the hallway shaking like a leaf behind the spider plant.
When he steps back out into the corridor, Jon sees a man pointing a gun to Eli’s head.
As the reader we’re surprised. We knew that the heist wasn’t going to go as smoothly as our protagonist believes (creating suspense) but we did not anticipate that Eli was to be the one to get caught.
The Unfinished Story
A princess is lost and never found. A family is murdered and the killer was never discovered. A sword that only the ‘true king’ can wield is placed in a stone.
Whenever a story with an unfinished ending is told in the story, we have a pretty good idea of what is to come.
The protagonist will uncover the mystery, find and save the lost princess or pull the sword from the stone and become king.
History Always Repeats Itself
This method of foreshadowing is closely related to your worldbuilding, making it particularly effective in fantasy and sci-fi. However, though well-suited to these genres, it can be used effectively in all styles of fiction.
Example: The children of a dysfunctional family grow up to have children of their own. Over the course of the story, they make many of the same mistakes their parents made — e.g. leaving children alone in a supermarket, not turning up to the dance recital. This ultimately leads them to see their parents in a new light and finally forgive them.
Long fantasy example coming… I just couldn’t help myself.
Once upon a time, there lived a beautiful queen. She ruled the land justly and was adored by all her people. Everyone except her younger sister. Suspicious of her younger sister’s jealous and ambitious nature, the queen summoned a witch from the nearby wood. The queen asked the witch for a spell that would keep her and her kingdom safe, so the witch cursed the crown preventing any who murdered the ruler wearing it to suffer an untimely and just death.
Angered at her sister, the young princess left in search of a crown and kingdom of her own. Years later, the princess wrote to her sister to tell her that she had married the king of a neighbouring kingdom. Overwhelmed with happiness, the queen invited her sister and her new husband to her castle to celebrate.
The princess accepted the invitation and travelled home with her new family. The queen quickly fell in love with her sister’s new stepson, the handsome prince, and the two were wed within the week. On their wedding night, the prince killed the queen and the princess killer her husband. As her sister was not murdered by her own hand, the princess was free to take the crown and rule both kingdoms.
Fast forward 100 years, (the start of our novel) and the rivalry between three young princes become heated when the king of that same kingdom dies, leaving the eldest to take the cursed crown. Just a few months later, the new king falls in love with a beautiful woman working in the palace library. Is this new king in danger? History hints that he is.
As we have already established, every scene in a story is important. If the reader is told about a past event, it must be of some significance to the current story, either providing background information, foreshadowing future events or both.
A witch tells expecting parents of their child’s destiny to finally kill the dragon in the mountains.
A girl’s horoscope says that a friend will soon betray her.
This type of foreshadowing is pretty self-explanatory and is most regularly used in fantasy, sci-fi, YA, middle grade and contemporary fiction.
Call the Kettle Black
Example: When I got the call that morning, I knew the day wasn’t going to go as planned. My brother only called when he was in trouble.
Though less subtle than the other foreshadowing techniques mentioned, this one certainly gets the job done. The reader knows that the brother is going to ask for help, and if reading stories have taught us anything, it’s going to be bigger than anything he has ever asked for before. We’re intrigued.
Now that you’ve got a clear idea of what type of foreshadowing you want to use in your novel, why not check out these top tips for executing it like a pro?
This article contains affiliate links. This means that I will earn a small commission on purchases made through these links, at no extra cost to you.