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Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.  
The red sky foreshadows a good day on the morrow.
photo: Linda Butler

by Linda C Butler

Foreshadowing is a writer’s technique to describe present events in such a way that they alert the reader as to what may happen in a later portion of the novel.  Present events introduce images or actions which suggest significant later events.  They may be a shadow of the magnitude of the later event. Foreshadowing occurs to some extent in most novels and can be as simple as a kiss, which suggests later lovemaking.  Foreshadowing can be an effective writing device to build tension and can be used many ways.

Weather is a common way to foreshadow events and create tension. Storms can suggest rising action and foreshadow dark or passionate events to follow. In the literary short story, The Storm, by Kate Chopin (1851-1904) she wrote about a woman’s passion at a time when women were not generally considered to have sexual desires. In the middle of a hurricane Chopin writes: “They did not heed the crashing torrents, and the roar of the elements made her laugh as she lay in his arms.”

Debbie Macomber in Dakota Home 1  uses a winter storm to foreshadow the passion that later occurs between Mandy and Jeb. Mandy says: “The storm—it came on so fast.” And later we learn: “As if they both realized at the same moment what a narrow escape they’d had, they clung to each other.”
Dreams or visions can be another method by which the author foreshadows the future.  The heroine may dream about the man she will marry.

Fortune Tellers sometimes reveal a future lover or foretell future events. Mary Balogh in No Man’s Mistress 2 is an example.  Viola was disappointed when she had her fortune told as the fortune teller said: “Beware of a tall, dark, handsome stranger.  He can destroy you—if you do not first snare his heart.”  It seemed to Viola that every woman received the same message so she dismissed it.  However, about the middle of the book she remembers the gypsy.  At the end of the book, as she dances her wedding waltz, she again remembers the gypsy and how her words came true.  The gypsy fortune teller is effective because it not only foretells the future, but it provides an arc from the beginning of the novel to the end.

Diaries can foreshadow the future as a heroine reveals her innermost thoughts.  Her thoughts may only be a yearning but the reader understands that her wishes may come true.

Wishes can also foreshadow the future. A protagonist may throw a penny into the wishing well, or wish upon a star.  The character may not really believe that the wish will come true, but the reader has a glimpse into what the person really wants, and so is not surprised when the event happens.
Dialogue is another tool used to foreshadow the future. Elizabeth Lyon, in A Writer’s Guide to Fiction 3, describes how characters can talk about an event in the future to build anticipation or possibly dread. “This form of foreshadowing is far more effective than surprise, where the reader’s emotions follow an event rather than build toward it.” She gives the examples of characters talking about “the birthday party”, “the launch” or “the invasion”.

Flashbacks are events in the past, but they may foreshadow a similar event to take place in the future, perhaps with more magnitude.

Story Descriptions/Imagery – In the literary short story, Barn Burning, by William Faulkner (1897-1962) there is a campfire scene with fire imagery, which suggests the later barn fire.

Story Action - In Darling Jenny by Janet Dailey, in the book Maybe This Christmas, Jenny and Logan, who do not like each other, have been travelling together and arrive at a cabin. The owner refuses to give up his bed and tells them to sleep on the quilts by the fireplace. Logan tries to convince him: “But you don’t understand. We aren’t married.”  The man replies: “Ya will be. I seen the way you two been lookin’ at each other.” 4 This comment foreshadows the time when Jenny and Logan will set aside their differences and fall in love.

Gossip – Julia Quinn successfully created a gossip column called Lady Whistledown’s Society Papers, and she started each chapter in a number of her books with quotes from this notorious lady who reported and speculated about activities in the “ton”. In The Duke and I, she opens Chapter 6 with the column: “...the Duke of Hastings mentioned no fewer than 6 times yesterday that he has no plans to marry...his half dozen anti-matrimony remarks were all uttered before he made the acquaintance of the lovely and sensible Miss (Daphne) Bridgerton.” 5 The reader now wonders what happened when he met this lady. The gossip foreshadows that there will be noteworthy events to follow.

Selective Knowledge – Sometimes a reader is given information that the characters are not aware of, or perhaps only one character has the information and it is hidden from the others.  The character with the information may know what is in the future, but the other characters do not.

In summary, foreshadowing is such an important literary tool to increase tension and to move the plot along.  It is a good tool for our writer’s toolbox.


1 Dakota Home by Debbie Macomber, MIRA Books, p 123
2 No Man’s Mistress by Mary Balogh Dell books, p 417
3 A Writer’s Guide to Fiction by Elizabeth Lyon, Penguin Books, p.138
4 In Darling Jenny by Janet Dailey, in the book Maybe This Christmas, Zebra Books, Kensington Publishing Corp. 2003
5 In The Duke and I by Julia Quinn, Avon Books, p101

(c) 2013 Linda Butler




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