“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” – Anton Chekcov. This quote ultimately leads to foreshadowing. Throughout the entire first quarter of your book, you should be planting small lines, actions, and thoughts that lead to the events later in the book (or series).
First, to give one of my favorite examples of excellent and subtle foreshadowing. In The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf is introduced as a wise figure. In the scene, Frodo is upset that Gollum is still alive to torment him, and the following exchange occurs:
Frodo: It’s a pity Bilbo didn’t kill [Gollum] when he had the chance.
Gandalf: Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that die deserve life, and some that live deserve death. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not bee too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play, for good or ill, before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.
Not only did Gollum ultimately guide Frodo to Mordor, his biggest role (and ultimately the one Gandalf’s comment is foreshadowing) takes place after his betrayal. When Frodo finally reaches Mount Doom, he ultimately finds himself unable to destroy it, as it has gained power over him. Only the struggle with Gollum leads to the destruction of the ring, an event that Frodo nor Gandalf can ultimately see.
I think it’s best to start with what to avoid when foreshadowing. Don’t foreshadow or allude to a possibility if it’s not actually foreshadowing something that will happen. Leaving the readers with so many desires to be fulfilled and then not executing them will leave them feeling confused. It’d be like Shakespeare beginning Romeo & Juliet with the fateful line “From forth the fatal loins of these two foes, a pair of star-crossed lovers take their life.” If he had ultimately let the lovers live, the readers would be left feeling robbed of a promised experience/strife. Also, don’t let foreshadowing give too much away. If you ultimately give away the endings of all plot twists through foreshadowing, your readers will be left bored. An example of perfectly walking the line of how much information to give is the prophecy in Game of Thrones:
When the red star bleeds and the darkness gathers, Azor Ahai shall be born again amidst smoke and salt to wake dragons out of stone. There will come a day after a longsummer when the stars bleed and the cold breath of darkness falls heavy on the world. In this dread hour a warrior shall draw from the fire a burning sword. And that sword shall be Lightbringer, the Red Sword of Heroes, and he who clasps it shall be Azor Ahai come again, and the darkness shall flee before him.
This prophecy hits all the perfect marks. Although it tells us future events, we still don’t know who the prince is. Fans continuously come up with new theories all the time. This foreshadowing gave the readers just enough that they want to see it happen, but not letting them know who it is and adding to the angst of the situation. The only way that this foreshadowing could be ruined is if the white walkers end up defeating everyone and no one makes “the darkness” “flee before him.” Also, there’s enough going on in the series, that knowing the white walkers don’t win isn’t the only ending piece we want to know. We need to know who lives, who dies, and most importantly: who ends up on the Iron Throne (…or if it’s destroyed). That is, after all, the first major ending piece that was introduced to us wanting to know in “A Song of Ice and Fire”.
Finally, don’t foreshadow something not important. It’d be like J.K. Rowling foreshadowing hints about Moaning Myrtle instead of Mad-Eye Moody in the Goblet of Fire. Except being present when an important scene took place, she as a character served no purpose, and foreshadowing is better used elsewhere.
When trying to foreshadow, you first have to decide what’s important enough. This means before you start, you first have to have everything at least outlined. If you’re writing a series, if possible, have a general idea of how you want the overarching plot to end. That will in turn help you plant your foreshadowing early on. This is exampled in “the prince that was promised” first being referenced in A Clash of Kings (in a scene that wasn’t in the TV series), when the late Prince Rhaegar Targaryen appears to Daenerys in one of her visions in the House of the Undying in Qarth, stating that his son “is the prince that was promised, and his is the song of ice and fire”. (While this could be interpreted as revealing that Jon is the prince that was promised, the vision is erred in that Rhaegar is talking to his wife Elia about their son Aegon – not Lyanna, Jon’s mother. This, again, leaves wiggle room.) This reference to a prophecy that wasn’t relevant until later in the book series makes it well-placed and more of an ‘ah-ha!’ moment when it became more central to the white walker threat.
Next, decide how you want to do it. First, this decision is very genre-specific. Prophecies, for example, tend to be strictly fantasy – except for Star Wars, that somehow got away with it. Often, it’s through character dialogue, like the earlier example with Gandalf. Or how in “Little Red Riding Hood”, the mother is concerned for Red’s safety, foreshadowing the appearance of the wolf. These can come more full-circle, as well, like in Avatar. Grace says, “I’d die to get a sample,” referring to the Tree of Souls. Later, when she’ wounded and the bring her there to try but fail to save her, before she dies, she says, “I should get a sample.” In the cinema world, the most famous of this method is Obi-Wan telling Luke Skywalker that “Darth Vader killed his father”.
It can be also through descriptions or random facts that you teach your readers about your world. Or, better said as ‘name but don’t explain’. A good example is how J.K. Rowling references Hagrid’s motorbike having been owned by Sirius Black, a character that obviously becomes much larger two books later and on.
Another method is to foreshadowing form of the setting, like when this opening line of Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” foreshadowed an early death: “The leaves fell early that year.” The perhaps overused version of this is using rain at a funeral, although weather can be an excellent tool to symbolize future events. For example, when someone comments on a possibility, using the weather at the moment of foreshadowing instead of during the actual scene. In this group also falls showing physical signs before the actual result. This is a good reference to Anton Chekcov’s quote from earlier. This is like J.K. Rowling describing Dumbledore’s shriveled and black hand before we knew about horcruxes.
Lastly, I’m going to answer ‘when is the best time to foreshadow’? If in a standalone book, my general answer is the first 25% of the novel. The main reason for this is because this is largely when you’re building up the plot and subplots, and it’s easy to subtly and gracefully insert your foreshadowing. This doesn’t mean you can’t later, but be careful – your readers have started piecing things together and it might give away more than you intend.
For a series, there really is no fits-all answer. My only suggestion is that depending on the length of your book, start small and build up. George R. R. Martin didn’t tell us what the ‘prince that was promised’ was past the name until Stannis Baratheon’s main entrance into the series later on. Additionally, if you’re going to give away something as large as that the white walkers fail, for example, make sure that you’ve set up enough other points that the readers will want to know to give them the drive to finish and see how it all turns out.
When done correctly, foreshadowing can be used so that when your readers pick up your book for the second time, they’re thinking “oh shit, how did I miss this?” It’s a great tool when used properly. Feel free to leave comments below of either your favorite foreshadowing moment in literature or a way you’ve used it in your own books!