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. It’s a common technique in the writer’s 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.
Let’s start with foreshadowing. It’s 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 character’s background is foreshadowed (she’s 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, it’s 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 future event.
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, help believability.
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 “spoiler” 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 that’s foreshadowing, but what the heck is backshadowing?
It’s 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 smell.
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 all happened.
That’s how I wound up dead on a beautiful fall evening. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up and start at the beginning . . .
The reader doesn’t 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 Writers. Visit www.joe-moore.com.