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Keep Your Readers Wanting More With This Literary Device

This week’s technique on horror writing will dive into the literary device known as foreshadowing.

Foreshadowing is an excellent technique used to convey a sense of suspense or unease in a story that keeps the reader engaged and wanting to know more. Foreshadowing is the “warning or indication of a future event.” This can be used in both works of fiction and nonfiction. It is the author hinting at something to come without giving away what it is.

There are different ways to use foreshadowing in your writing. Some are more subtle while others are direct. Some authors writing in the first person will use the character’s narration for foreshadowing. For example: “If I had known what was going to happen, I never would have left the house.” This implies something bad happened but does not reveal what, leaving the reader wanting to know more. This can also be used in works of nonfiction. In Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, in reference to the serial killer H.H. Holmes’ “murder caslte,” Larson wrote: “Only later did the furnace man recognize that the kiln’s peculiar shape and extreme heat made it ideal for another, very different application. ‘In fact,’ he said, ‘the general plan of the furnace was not unlike that of a crematory for dead bodies, and with the provision already described there would be absolutely no odor from the furnace.’ But again, that was later.”

A writer can also be more subtle with this device, using a character’s emotions for foreshadowing. A common theme is a parent worrying about his/her child going to play, and the child saying everything will be fine. How often does something bad then happen? Or a character having a bad gut feeling about another character or event only to find out later something was indeed wrong with said character or event. These are all examples of foreshadowing.

A character’s actions can also be used as foreshadowing. Though not a work of horror, in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (spoilers ahead!), George kills a dog by shooting it in the back of the head. This is significant because the dog has similar traits to his friend Lennie (both are innocent, trusting, and naive). The scene also prefaces the twist ending when George does the same thing to Lennie in the same manner at the end of the book.

Foreshadowing can also be used to misdirect readers by putting significance on objects and events that are not actually important, known as “red herrings.” This is a common technique used in mystery and suspense. For example, in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (spoilers ahead!), Bishop Aringarosa is seen to act in suspicious and somewhat nefarious ways, leading the reader to believe he is the antagonist, only to find he was innocent all along.

Foreshadowing is one of the most effective techniques to add an air of suspense to your writing while keeping the reader intrigued and guessing until the end. To learn more about foreshadowing and its different uses, check out this article from Literary Devices.

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