31 Days of NaNoWriMo Prep: Day 15 – How Do I Effectively Foreshadow?

Whoaaaa, we’re halfway there! Whoaaaaaa, prepin’ on a prayer!

I know I already used that pun for a different blog post a while ago, but, I mean, come on, it was perfect in this situation, too. You expect me to pass up a perfectly good reference just because I’ve used it before? Nope, not gonna happen.

Welcome to Day 15 of “31 Days of NaNoWriMo Prep”, which is the official (approximate) halfway point for the month. Only 16 more days until the writing begins! Today we’re going to be learning how to effectively foreshadow in your novel, something I know a lot of writers struggle with. The good news is, if you’ve been following along with this series, you’ll be in excellent shape to tackle this writing hurdle. If not, I suggest you go back and catch up here, with the blog posts, or here, with the corresponding YouTube videos over on my channel.

First things first: What is foreshadowing? Foreshadowing is the inclusion of hints throughout a novel or series about things that will be happening later in the story. The purpose of it is to either give readers all of the pieces necessary to guess a major plot twist or plot point, or to be so subtle that the reader won’t catch the foreshadowing until the big moment or reveal has already occurred, providing an “aha!” moment. With the first scenario, the reader should only be able to put everything together right before the plot twist or plot point is revealed to them. Readers like to be able to figure big reveals out before the main character, but it’s no fun for them if they figure it out too early and then they have to sit around for pages watching your main character stupidly miss every single clue that they already picked up on. The only time this would be okay is if you give your reader the answer, but then are successfully able to mislead them into second guessing themselves, so that the big reveal leaves them going “I knew it, but I thought I was wrong!” With the second scenario, sometimes the foreshadowing is so subtle that a reader won’t even catch it until they’ve reread the novel. This acts as a fun Easter egg for the reader, giving them incentive to read your novel more than once.

But why should you even bother with foreshadowing in the first place? Why do you want to help your readers figure out what’s going to happen before you reveal it, or provide them with an “aha!” moment? The main reason is that it keeps the reader actively involved with the story. Most readers love trying to put together a puzzle that an author has laid out for them. They see it as a fun challenge, and odds are that the challenge, if nothing else, will keep them engrossed in the story until the end.

So how do you know what to foreshadow, and how do you foreshadow those things? Well, do you remember that outline we made on Day 9? You should have planned out your plot twists and big, climactic moments with it, and those are the instances that you’ll need to foreshadow. Then, the goal is to find ways to drop subtle hints about them (key word: subtle). Let’s use our lord and savior J.K. Rowling as an example. If you don’t want Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows spoilers, jump to the next paragraph. Rowling was very effective in foreshadowing the fact that Harry was the final horcrux. The key was that she laid out the hints for us (giving Harry a scar, having his wand share the same core as Voldemort’s, giving the two of them a psychic connection, etc.) but didn’t really explain them to us, so it was nearly impossible for us as readers to put it together until she as the author was ready for us to figure it out.

This is how you foreshadow. You give the reader small clues and you don’t explain them. You make these clues just noticeable and suspicious enough that they sticks out in the reader’s mind, but not so much that the reader goes, “Oh, okay, so that’s going to be important later.” Figuring out the right balance between not foreshadowing enough and foreshadowing too much can be a bit of a struggle, and that’s where beta readers (which we’ll be talking about later this month) come in. You can ask them for their predictions, and if they guess your plot twist or big reveal too early, you know you’ve given them too much. If they get to the plot twist/big reveal and they say they never saw it coming, you may have given them too little. Remember, though, some betas will just be extra observant, and others will be extra unobservant. In the end, you’ve got to base it on what the majority is or isn’t able to figure out.

I’m going to use some more examples from the entire Harry Potter series to explain better what proper foreshadowing looks like, so if you don’t want spoilers, skip to the next paragraph again. The first example I can think of is Hagrid mentioning Sirius Black in the first chapter of book one. This is the very definition of Easter egg foreshadowing. He ended up being a major character in the series, but at the time it was just a random name dropped during a moment in the novel when the reader was just trying to figure out what the heck was going on. Another, more blatant example of foreshadowing was when Dumbledore was vague about what he saw in the Mirror of Erised in book one and his reaction to the potion guarding the fake horcrux in book six. Most readers were able to figure out that his dodging questions about his personal life and his negative reaction to the potion meant there had been something traumatic that happened in his life, but until Rowling was ready to reveal exactly what that traumatic moment was (his sister getting killed after being struck by a curse in a three-way duel, in case you forgot), there was no way for the reader to figure it out on their own. These are exactly the kinds of things that you could work into your own novel in order to make it richer and more engaging for the reader.

Obviously I’m utilizing foreshadowing in my series The Caspian Chronicles, laying out clues that go beyond book one and into books two, three, and four of the series as well. Foreshadowing for a series can be a bit more complex than foreshadowing for a stand alone novel, but not by much. The key is to make sure you’ve planned out the big moments in every single book of your series. You don’t have to outline every book fully, just enough that you know exactly what you need to foreshadow. I believe that series work best with foreshadowing that ties the books together, because it’s like the ultimate puzzle for your readers. They’ll think it’s cool that you offhandedly mentioned something in book one that shows up in book three or four as a major plot point.

Hopefully that cleared up any questions you had about foreshadowing and how to incorporate it into your novel. Keep in mind that you don’t have to fit in every bit of foreshadowing during the first draft of your novel. The first draft is where you’re figuring things out and really laying the groundwork for your novel. You can always go back later and add foreshadowing in once you know the exact layout of your novel. Also, remember that, if you’re writing a series, you don’t have to foreshadow everything in book one. You can spread foreshadowing throughout the other books, adding clues as you go.

And that’s it for today! Make sure you check back in tomorrow for Day 16, where we’ll be discussing showing vs. telling, aka the age-old struggle for writers.

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