Foreshadow and Backshadow
What Are They and How to Use Them
by Joe Moore
Most authors know about flashbacks and
how they allow us to convey backstory while the scene usually
remains in the present. Itís a common technique in the writerís
toolbox for filling in the important history of a character or other
elements in the story.
This article is about a cousin of the
flashback called foreshadowing, a technique that also deals with
time. Just about everyone is familiar with foreshadowing, although
few know about a companion technique called backshadowing. Both work
well when used discreetly.
Letís start with foreshadowing. Itís the
planting of hints and clues that tip off the reader as to what may
come later in the story. For example, a character who is destined to
die in an automobile accident 10 pages from now could complain about
the icy condition of the roads as the weather gets worse.
This technique can add dramatic tension
by building anticipation about future events. Foreshadowing can also
help make believable what could otherwise be outlandish or
extraordinary events. For instance, if something in a characterís
background is foreshadowed (sheís afraid of heights), then the
reader will be prepared when a set of circumstances occur that cause
the character to come close to panic as she climbs out onto a ledge
to talk down a jumper. Or when a passenger is called upon to make an
emergency landing of a commercial jet, itís at least within reason
to accept it if it was foreshadowed that the passenger is a former
Navy fighter pilot.
There are many types of foreshadowing
including direct, subtle, atmospheric and global.
Direct foreshadowing is just that; a
direct piece of information that is revealed to the reader about a
Her plan was to pick the lock on the
rear entrance, disable the alarm and disconnect the camera feeds
before grabbing the jewels.
Subtle foreshadowing is not so obvious.
It can be small crumbs of information that, when added together,
He reached for the red coffee cup but
hesitated, knowing that particular color always meant failure.
Atmospheric foreshadowing usually deals
with the elements surrounding the character and how they might
reflect a mood or situation.
She crouched behind the wall and watched
the clouds move across the moon and blot out the stars. The darkness
would surely bring death.
Global or ďspoilerĒ foreshadowing is
usually found right up front, either at the beginning of the book or
the start of a chapter.
It never occurred to him that by the end
of the day, he would shoot and kill five people.
So if thatís foreshadowing, but what
the heck is backshadowing?
Itís usually an event that has already
occurred but affects the future. A Salem witch is burnt at the stake
on page 15, while hundreds of years and many pages later, a woman
realizes that her new Salem, Mass. apartment has a strange burning
Another common use of backshadowing is
to start the story with the ending, then shift back to the beginning
with the reader in full knowledge of the outcome but no idea how it
Thatís how I wound up dead on a
beautiful fall evening. But Iím getting ahead of myself. Letís back
up and start at the beginning . . .
The reader doesnít have to spot the
foreshadowing or backshadowing when they occur, but they should be
able to see their significance later. The key to the success of
using both is to be light-handed and discreet. Happy writing!
Joe Moore is the international bestselling co-author of THE PHOENIX
APOSTLES, THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY, THE LAST SECRET, THE HADES PROJECT,
and THE 731 LEGACY. His thrillers have been translated into 24
languages. Joe is president emeritus of the International Thriller