Writers, Are You Missing an Opportunity to Foreshadow?

One of the early stories I wrote, I had a character who received a family heirloom from his mother early in the story. Then in the remainder of the story, we never hear about this family heirloom ever again. Looking back now I wished I could have tied the family heirloom to an event later on in the story.

Your story might have many moments like this as well: where a character, item, or place is introduced only to be completely forgotten about in the succeeding chapters.

Those are missed opportunities for foreshadowing. The item didn’t create tension in any way, and if you want to write a page-turner, you’ll have to. Yes, maybe it lets the character know a bit about his mother, it was a vessel for backstory or even a flashback, but it’s not foreshadowing.

There is a term Chekhov’s Gun, a concept introduced by Anton Chekhov which says, if you show a gun in act one, the gun needs to go off by the last act. There needs to be a payoff. That is foreshadowing. It sets the stage and prepares the readers.

If an event at the end doesn’t have a setup (such as a foreshadow), it can be jarring. For example, if I did the opposite; if I wrote that the solution to all the character’s problem was to trade his family heirloom for a million dollars, but the heirloom was never introduced. Then the story doesn’t make sense.

An effective foreshadow links two events together like a joke. A setup and a punchline.

The thing is, a good foreshadowing isn’t obvious to the reader. While reading my story, the reader can assume that the heirloom was simply an inheritance that he will treasure. However, in the third act, the heirloom will return and saves the day.

Nevertheless here is what you need to do when incorporating foreshadowing into your story.

  1. Outline first, make it subtle, don’t force foreshadowing into a story that doesn’t need it
  2. Give some distance between introducing the subject of the foreshadowing and when it is revealed. You want the readers to be aware, but not have it close enough so that they can connect the dot themselves.
  3. There must be a payoff: If there is a gun in act one, it needs to go off at some point in the story…

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