Writers in the Storm

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April 28, 2023

Effective Ways to Use Foreshadowing

by Ellen Buikema

Foreshadowing is a literary device used to hint at plot developments that don't happen until later in the story, and can be achieved directly by making clear statements, or indirectly using subtle clues.

  • Foreshadowing can be so subtle that it goes unnoticed.
  • Often foreshadowing can increase the sense of mystery by suggesting that some event might occur but not how.
  • Foreshadowing helps prepare readers for later scenes, builds a sense of suspense, and can help tie up loose ends.

Why Use Foreshadowing?

Writers use foreshadowing to prepare their readers to understand the plot as it develops. But it may also:

  • Encourage readers to focus on certain details.
  • Create a sense of tension.
  • Give scenes a special significance.
  • Create thematic connection between various scenes.
  • Connect a work's beginning and end.
  • Emphasize a character’s struggle against fate.

Consider the movie Die Hard.

John McClane moves toward to the Nakatomi Plaza to meet his wife for a Christmas party via a relatively calm plane ride. The writers wove the plane ride with cuts of a truck driving through LA traffic using a menacing music bed. This foreshadows the crossing of the paths, the meeting of John and the criminals at Nakatomi Plaza.

John McClane is barefoot, increasing the complications and risks. It was foreshadowed from the very first scene of the movie, learning about making fists with your toes, so that his bare feet seem like a logical occurrence.

5 Tips for Using Foreshadowing in Your Writing

Foreshadowing can be a tricky.

Here are some tips for achieving a fine balance of foreshadowing.

  1. Plan your story. You need to know where your story is headed before you can decide what to foreshadow, and how that will happen. It can help to wait until a later draft to include foreshadowing. Plan, revise, and plan more.
  2. Drop those breadcrumbs as early as possible. Foreshadowing right before an event can act as a “spoiler.” Give readers space. Make sure foreshadowing takes place long enough before the event so it’s not fresh information.
  3. Scatter those crumbs. When deciding where and when to foreshadow, be crafty. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Instead, distribute your foreshadowing throughout the story.
  4. Foreshadow in moderation. Don’t wear your readers out. Craft the right balance. This will encourage readers to look back through your story to find the clues you left.
  5. Enlist feedback. As the writer, you are closest to the story, you may think that the foreshadowing is perfectly clear—but another set of eyes can really help! Find a willing victim, I mean friends, fellow writers, and hand them your manuscript. Ask them if the clues were too many, too few, too obvious, or just right.

Literary Devices Similar to Foreshadowing

There are several literary techniques that overlap with foreshadowing.

 “If a gun is hanging on the wall in the first act, it must fire in the last.” —Anton Chekhov

  • Chekhov’s gun: is a writing tool often confused with foreshadowing. According to Chekhov, every element in a story should contribute to the whole, and each detail that “sets up” an outcome should “pay off” in some way. Eldred Bird wrote more on this topic.
  • Red herring: Unlike foreshadowing, which hints at something that will happen in the story, a red herring is designed to mislead and distract the reader. Red herrings are often used in mystery novels, with characters suspected of a crime turning out innocent.
  • Flashforward: A flashforward gives readers a glimpse at the future. This is different from foreshadowing, as you’re showing your readers what’s coming. Stories that use flashforwards develop suspense not from what will happen, but rather how it will happen.

Examples of Titles with Foreshadowing

The title of a story can be used to foreshadow plot events. Here are examples of titles that include foreshadowing:

Foreshadowing Examples

Some common elements used in foreshadowing can be found here

The following are examples of foreshadowing from well-known stories:

  • In The Fault in Our Stars, John Green tells readers what is going to happen to Gus: “Osteosarcoma sometimes takes a limb to check you out. Then, if it likes you, it takes the rest.” Much later, readers learn what that means.
  • Readers learn about life on a spaceship, The Australia, in Way Down Dark by James P. Smythe. The name of the ship foreshadows the twist of the novel.
  • Jane Fitch’s White Oleander, has Astrid describe her mother as beautiful, but every description has an element of danger. Her mother’s beauty is like ‘the edge of a very sharp knife’ and ‘her blonde hair, like a white flame.’  She refers to the Oleanders with their ‘dagger green leaves’ and ‘delicate poisonous blooms.’ By combining the beauty with danger as a metaphor for her mother, she foreshadows her mother’s actions. Every part of the oleander is poisonous.
  • Agatha Christie populates the train with people all connected to the victim, foreshadowing the revelation that the murder was a group effort in Murder on the Orient Express.
  • In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry’s discovery of the Mirror of Erised foreshadows his discovery of the Sorcerer’s Stone and the identity of the story’s villain.
  • In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, repeated references to books being banned and burned foreshadowed the destruction of books and knowledge.

Foreshadowing is an effective device for nearly any type of literary work and most forms of storytelling media. This includes poetry, novels, TV, and the movies. Here are some examples of foreshadowing from these forms of art.


  • The bleak, late night setting in Poe’s The Raven.
  • In Amy Lowell’s poem, A Fairy Tale, the unbidden guest foreshadows the presence of an evil figure.


  • "It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what." —Atticus. In To Kill a Mockingbird Atticus explains courage to his children while foreshadowing the outcome of his legal case.
  • The symbolic and real pain of Harry’s scar in the Harry Potter series.

Television and Movies

  • Stanley Kubrick used recurring images of blood pouring from elevators, foreshadowing the future violence in Stephen King’s The Shining.
  • At the beginning of the last episode of the Breaking Bad series, Walter White looks through the glove compartment of the car he stole to go back to New Mexico. A cassette tape, El Paso by Marty Robbins, falls out.

The lyrics foreshadow the final outcome for Walter.

“I saddled up and away I did go, riding alone in the dark. Maybe tomorrow, a bullet may find me. Tonight, nothing’s worse than this pain in my heart”.

Walter’s death is foreshadowed as he begins the drive, riding alone, to rescue Jesse Pinkman.

Do you use foreshadowing in your writing? What is your favorite tale that uses foreshadowing?

* * * * * *

About Ellen

Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents, and The Adventures of Charlie Chameleon chapter book series with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works In Progress are The Hobo Code, YA historical fiction and Crystal Memories, MG Magical Realism/ Sci-Fi.

Find her at https://ellenbuikema.com or on Amazon.

Image by Joe from Pixabay

18 comments on “Effective Ways to Use Foreshadowing”

  1. I find foreshadowing difficult. Too much, or not subtle enough and it becomes obvious. Too little and it might as well not be there.
    But I will continue trying!

  2. Yeah, foreshadowing can be hit it miss sometimes. As the writer you tend to overthink it.. and the reader, the observant meticulous reader, will be anticipating it. But this is all part of learning and mastering our craft. Very good tips..and wonderful examples. 👏

  3. Interesting concepts. I'm new at all of this and appreciate the chance to consider all of the tools available to me. Thank you. Barbara

    1. Hi Barbara,
      After writing this article I kept finding foreshadowing in TV programs. It was annoying. Ha.

      Foreshadowing is a great tool to use with a light hand, in my opinion.

  4. Again, excellent post.

    I use foreshadowing throughout my stories-some, as I write, and some, going back to and old scene when I see a new need.

  5. Hi Ellen,

    I can appreciate your suggestion to add foreshadowing later in the editing process. Sometimes adding those clues at the end is so rewarding - like putting a star ornament at the top of a Christmas tree after decorating it.

    Thanks for this clear and descriptive post.


    1. Hi Kris,

      I love the way you think, star on top of the tree. Right after I read that comment my mind immediately went to ice cream toppings. HA. Must be that sweet tooth acting up.

      I'm glad that the article is clear!

  6. Hi, Ellen. Foreshadowing is a fun tool to use. I've done this long enough that most of my foreshadowing is seeded by my "muse." For example in writing the final book in my trilogy, I worried that my primary character's arc was too extreme and readers would be put off. A writer friend pointed out that this arc was foreshadowed by a mentor character in the first and second books. Love it when it looks like I planned it.

  7. One of the best and simplest foreshadowing I've read is from John Irving's "The World According to Garp". Garp and Roberta are playing sword fighting with Garp's children, Duncan and Walt. Duncan slays Garp and Garp slays Duncan and they have a long, dramatic, funny death scene. Walt, the younger boy, starts to whine and says, "Why can't I die? I never get to die. I want to die too."

    Quick, easy and powerful.

  8. Great post, Ellen. As a reader, I find that I need multiple small reminders of things, just slipped in casually, to build the internal picture I need to both see and /feel/ the important elements of the story.
    As a scifi writer, this is why I hate info dumps. What's the point of bludgeoning the Reader with a truck load of information...that they will NOT remember?
    Cheers. 🙂

    1. I hear you! Novels that introduce a plethora of information upfront are not my favorites. I don't like having to page back to find who is who.

      Breadcrumbs good!

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