In one of my writing/editing tips on Tumblr, I mention the importance of foreshadowing in the supernatural genre. Foreshadowing warns about events soon to come, and it often builds tension. But finding a good balance can be difficult. You want to tease your readers, giving them a sneak preview without giving away too much of the information. So here are some tips for tackling foreshadowing to provide the optimal level of suspense without overdoing it.
In your initial draft, you might already have a few elements of good foreshadowing, particularly if you outlined your piece before you wrote it. But during the revision process, this is where you need to step up your game, because how well you weave in hints, backstory, and other elements can set your story apart from others in the genre, whether it be horror, crime, mystery, thriller, or even standard fiction. All genres use foreshadowing to some degree, but method I usually suggest for adding it in, especially for supernatural books, is layering.
Any of you who have viewed my bio on Twitter know that I’m an advocate of writing layers. And while it doesn’t work well for everyone, I’m one of those writers who likes to start with a solid skeleton then build from there. For me, it’s the easiest way to add multiple dimensions to the environment, characters, and even plot. I also use it when editing others’ work, because it’s a very effective way of separating each layer and enhancing them to strengthen the overall structure of the story.
Although foreshadowing elements are often at the beginning of a story or chapter, it’s beneficial to weave more in throughout. A great place to drop a few hints are during moments of casual activity, when readers might overlook the detail. This keeps the hints subtle while still being in plain view of the ongoing action. This works particularly well for supernatural stories, where you’ll likely keep the final outcome hidden from the reader until the very end. And if you want to give readers a stronger hint about an upcoming event, a good way to achieve that is to call attention to the element of foreshadowing either multiple times or in multiple ways, spread out over several pages or chapters. This makes its use intentional without being overt.
One of the hardest things to achieve in foreshadowing is balancing the information given. Most of us can recall a few stories that we’ve been frustrated with, where it was easy to figure out the outcome way before it happened. And it’s even more irritating if the main character was slow on the uptake.
Knowing when and how much information to disclose is the trick to balancing elements of foreshadowing. You, as the writer, are going to know every detail of the background story and characters. However, the reader doesn’t need to. Especially for close third, first person, or other limited perspectives, the best approach is usually divulging small bits of information here and there as it relates to the ongoing action. This gives the reader an inside look without getting bogged down by huge info dumps.
The Hunger Games series has great examples of this. One instance that springs to mind is when Katniss is given the mockingjay pin. It is introduced as a reminder of her home, but it later symbolizes the districts’ revolution (and her leadership of it). It’s a prime example of an object being used to hint at future plot points.
Direct vs. Subtle
Foreshadowing elements can either be direct or subtle. Direct foreshadowing is usually placed at the beginning of a story, predicting flat-out what might happen. The story itself portrays the journey of the events leading up to that conclusion. Older literature in particular favors this method of foreshadowing, including many of the classics. Shakespeare is very well known for in fact, the most famous instance being the opening lines from Romeo and Juliet. Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is another prime example of direct foreshadowing.
Modern books primarily use a subtler approach. In the Harry Potter series, for example, Rowling uses Harry’s scar as a precursor to the events that follow, making it and the events surrounding it a very prominent part of the overall plot. She then wove in other details, such as the tea leaves and Professor Trelawney’s prophecy, to further hint at the idea that he would one day die.
But there are many authors of the thriller and horror genres in particular who like to incorporate incredibly subtle foreshadowing, sometimes even reading leaders astray as a means of creating tension. (Think Jeffery Deaver and Stephen King.)
When clues are planted to deter readers from the true plot, they are known as red herrings. Red herrings work well for any genre, but they are used most frequently in crime, mystery, horror, and supernatural books. As both a reader and a writer, I find red herrings to be the most enjoyable kind of foreshadowing. Twists and turns are enamoring for many readers, drawing them in and making the book an irresistible read. I adore books like that myself. But writing them is certainly a challenge.
When it comes to writing great red herrings, it all comes down to planning. You’ll often find them at the crux of subplots and even at the climax of the overall plot, giving you one last “Holy crap!” moment before everything is revealed. The best books incorporate them in a way that will convince readers that they are the undoubtedly the truth, usually driving them with circumstantial evidence until new proof comes into play.
No matter what your take is on foreshadowing, supernatural books thrive on the one thing that foreshadowing always creates: tension. Without it, you’re left with an incredibly boring mashup of ordinary events and ordinary characters. And good supernatural stories are anything but.