One of the main tools in a writer’s bag of tricks is foreshadowing. Every horror novel ever written uses it to some degree.
Foreshadowing is when you give the reader clues about things that will happen later. There are three main reasons to use foreshadowing. First, to prepare the reader for a big reveal. Second, to prepare the reader for a shift in tone. Third, to connect sections of the story together.
It is not an element of the story like an inciting incident or the villain. Instead, it is a tool you use to hold the story together.
Think of it like glue. You can connect the different elements of a story by inserting clues here and there.
If a character is going to be killed by a ghost, you have to give the reader a hint so they are ready for it. They need to know that ghosts are real in this universe, and they need to know that the character has done something that would anger a ghost.
Without these hints, the story will seem disjointed and the ready will not be immersed in it.
By incorporating hints and clues in early scenes, you can build anticipation and tension. This is important in any story but especially horror. You need to build tension so you can release it all at once in a jump scare, or let it simmer in a slow-burn horror story.
Foreshadowing is also necessary to help the reader understand events. If you are going to introduce some sort of device that kills monsters, the reader has to be ready for it.
If in act three the hero produces a medallion that destroys ghosts, it will make your story seem cheap and poorly thought out. But, if you revealed the medallion in act one, in an offhanded way, then when it shows up in act three it seems natural.
By using foreshadowing like this, you set up the reader’s expectations about where tension will arise in the future.
Use foreshadowing in slower, less dramatic scenes to create intrigue and suspense. Then, when the action happens, the reader is ready to accept it.
Foreshadowing is used to make unexpected events believable. It is not needed for things that seem natural and likely to happen, so use it sparingly, like spice.
The Purpose of Foreshadowing
The first reason to use foreshadowing is to make sure that there is a satisfying payoff for the narrative.
In most stories, something unexpected must happen. But when it does, it can’t be too farfetched or you will break the spell you have painstakingly crafted.
Your reader has an emotional investment in the story. If the ending of the story doesn’t make sense or doesn’t “fit” right, then the story feels like a waste of time and is rejected.
You can solve this by giving hints about the ending in earlier scenes. That way when you make the reveal, it seems fitting. It makes sense according to the logic of your story. The reader feels rewarded for their investment.
This doesn’t just apply to the story as a whole, it can also be used for sub-plots and mini-stories within the greater story.
The second reason to use foreshadowing is to prepare the reader for a tonal shift.
Suppose you want your story to take a dark turn. If you just change the mood randomly, it will surprise the reader and not in a good way.
You have to let the reader know what’s coming so that they know what type of story they are investing in.
Before your story takes a dark turn, you need to give the reader a taste of it, just to let them know what’s coming up. If a major character is going to die, you could prepare the reader by writing about a family member who died and how devastating it was.
That way, the shift in tone feels natural and the reader will accept it.
The third reason to use foreshadowing is to connect scenes together.
It is very easy to make a story that feels like a lot of disjointed and random scenes cobbled together.
We don’t always write chronologically, we tend to write whatever scene is in our head at the time. That’s perfectly fine, but if we aren’t careful, the overall story becomes sporadic.
The solution is to add little tidbits of information about later scenes into the earlier scenes. This way the reader has some expectation about what’s coming and the earlier scenes naturally dovetail into the later ones.
Just a few sentences here and there will glue the story together and make it much more satisfying to read.
If your characters are going to escape a zombie horde in a helicopter, make sure the audience is aware of the possibility that a helicopter is in the vicinity. Also, make sure they know that someone can fly it.
This makes the narrative flow better and when the characters are airborne, the reader is not scoffing at the convenience of it.
Some Examples of Foreshadowing
This is probably the most common method of foreshadowing. The principle of Chekhov’s gun states that every element in a story must be necessary and there should be no false promises. All unnecessary elements should be removed.
This idea comes from Anton Pavlovich Chekhov a Russian playwright from the late 1800s. He said that if you describe a gun in the first act of the story, then it should go off in the third act.
In a horror story, if your protagonist comes across a voodoo ritual, then there should be some zombies later. If someone finds a crucifix in their attic, then they better use it to ward off vampires or ghosts later on.
The Death Notice
When you explicitly say that a character will die and they do.
An example of this kind of foreshadowing would be when you end a chapter by saying, “that was the last time he would see her alive.”
It is a heavy-handed way of letting the audience know that something bad is going to happen. It creates tension and grips hold of the reader’s attention.
Another way to use this method is by having an event in the story proclaim that someone will die. It could be a doctor giving a medical diagnosis or a fortune teller revealing that someone is cursed.
The death notice is a plot device that causes us to question what the protagonist will do with their remaining time. This can be the underlying motivation for the character.
It can also be used on a side character. If another character dies, it can provide the motivation for the hero to seek revenge.
Miniature Scale Foreshadowing
This is where a small-scale version of a later event happens.
An example might be where a character creates a small-scale model of a guillotine and shows how it would behead a doll. Later, a person is trapped in a real guillotine and has their head cut off.
This kind of foreshadowing is good to prepare the reader for something outlandish to happen.
If something that is too implausible or unrealistic happens, the reader won’t buy it. But if you show them a smaller version of it early on, then they are fully prepared to accept the larger version when it happens.
This is where the author describes something that you would not normally pay attention to.
Suppose a man is sitting on the train. He is reading from a tablet and checking around to see who else is on the train. He is wearing overalls. A crucifix hangs from his neck. He scrolls through his tablet and reads about DIY electric generators.
In the description above there are several details that seem out of place. Why is the man wearing overalls? Why does he wear a crucifix? Why is he reading about electric generators?
These are all examples of irregular description. Each of these details foreshadow something that will happen later.
Irregular description is one of the most common ways of foreshadowing. It makes it easy to create questions in the reader’s mind and draw their attention to certain events.
When a character behaves in a way that is out of character with no explanation. The reason is revealed later.
This is similar to irregular description but refers to actions. Suppose a man walks into a bank. He goes up to a teller, requests a withdrawal, and thanks the teller. Then he hands her an apple and leaves.
Why did he hand her an apple? The reason will be revealed later.
Irregular action makes the reader curious and grabs their attention. It is used for the same reasons as irregular description but tends to create more drama.
There is no clear rule about when to use irregular description over irregular action. But irregular description will often suit a slow-burn narrative, while irregular action will often suit drama and fast-paced narratives.
Use symbols to foreshadow events. This is often a more subtle way of foreshadowing. Symbolism is generally suited to foreshadow the themes of a story over actual events that will happen.
In symbolism, an unrelated event or object represents something that will happen later.
A great example of this is in William Friedkin’s movie The Exorcist. It is about a girl who becomes possessed by an evil spirit and Father Merrin, a priest and one of the last exorcists, has to defeat the spirit in a lengthy ordeal.
In an early scene of the movie, Father Merrin is in the middle east at an excavation site. His assistant believes they have found the remains of an evil cult.
As Father Merrin looks around, he hears the sound of animals growling as the wind howls. He sees two dogs fighting savagely against the lonely backdrop of the windy desert.
It is a creepy scene and it perfectly symbolises the spiritual battle he is about to undertake.
Prophecies, visions and dreams. These are obvious foreshadowing.
Shakespeare used prophecy a lot in his plays. Beware the Ides of March, and all that. If one of the greatest writers of all time used it, then you should use it too.
It is a simple device to set up. Just have a fortune teller or a psychic tell a person that something bad is going to happen.
It is also useful to have your protagonist dream about events. You can also use an omen to warn them of events and tie it into symbolism.
When using prophecy to foreshadow, it is best if the protagonist receives an incomplete warning. If they know that something will happen, but are not sure what it means, you create curiosity in the reader.
For example, let’s say that a man bumps into a gypsy fortune teller. The fortune teller says, “don’t ride the train or you will lose something you have forgotten about.”
What does that mean? Why will riding the train cause him to lose something? What has he forgotten about?
The incomplete prophecy is intriguing. You have to read more to find out the answer.
When you foreshadow something ominous and it turns out to be something pleasant.
This is a bait-and-switch. You suggest that something bad is going to happen. But when it comes time for the reveal, something good happens to the protagonist. This leaves the reader feeling all warm inside.
When writing horror, too many times people make it bleak and hopeless. A good story has contrast.
If you are writing about terrible events happening to somebody, it is good to throw in a pleasant surprise once in a while to give the reader some breathing room.
This won’t work for all types of horror but just keep in mind that you want to add contrast. Every story needs it to some degree.
The pleasant surprise works particularly well in horror comedy stories. It is a good device to use when writing stories for Halloween or other fun projects.
A classic way to use foreshadowing is to tie the inciting incident of the story to the climax. This is coming full circle.
The inciting incident is the part of the story at the beginning that causes the protagonist to act.
For example, suppose someone’s grandfather dies and leaves a will stating they must spend the night in an old house to inherit it. Legend says the old house was home to a cult that worshipped the devil.
This is the inciting incident that provides the motivation for the rest of the story.
To come full circle, the climax must be a direct response. In the example, the climax may be a showdown between the protagonist and a devil-worshipping cult.
Many stories use this method. It is the most direct way to tidy up your narrative and it clearly lets the reader know what they are investing in.
Don’t make it too obvious at the beginning what the climax will be. But give enough information to let the reader know what they are getting into while making them curious to find out more.
Foreshadowing is a great tool. Every horror writer needs to master it.
To write without understanding foreshadowing is like a haunted house without a ghost. It looks right, but something is missing.
Horror writing needs foreshadowing so the reader will accept the unplausible events. Zombies, ghosts and serial killers need to be forewarned or they will seem out of place and cheap.
Once you get the hang of foreshadowing, you will be able to write just about anything and the reader will accept it. Happy writing.
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