What does the literary device of foreshadowing mean?

Simply, it means to give the reader hints, ahead of time, of what’s going to happen later in the story. This is important for several reasons, as further explained below.

As a writer you’re all about manipulating the reader’s thoughts (with their permission of course; it’s what they want to happen from reading your work), and therefore you have to decide if:
you want the reader to notice the these hints, or alternatively, you don’t want the reader to notice it.

Done well, blatant foreshadowing can act as a good narrative hook, intriguing the reader, exciting her curiosity and keeping her reading. Examples of this might include writing something like, “Of course, she’d never have made that decision if she knew the trouble she would get into.”

Having your character show a fear of fire early on (and she’s going to get trapped in a burning building at the story’s climax).

Having your character go to a psychic or fortune teller or some-such, who tells her what’s going to happen – and it does happen later. (Mind you, be careful with this, it’s been done so often that it has become a cliché.)

Having said that, don’t over-use blatant foreshadowing. It’s veering towards telling-not-showing. One of the creative writing challenges here is to make sure that you hint at something, not hit the reader over the head with it! After all, while a little bit of judicious foreshadowing can provide a good hook, too much can spoil the surprise of the story – why should the reader read any further if he already knows what’s going to happen?

An (admittedly ludicrous) example of overdoing it might be: “Of course, she’d never have made that decision if she had known that it would end up with her getting kidnapped, John dying, the dog getting lost and the whole world nearly being destroyed”.
The reader knows pretty much the whole story now, (except for the minor detail of how it ends), and truly that takes away the incentive to read on.

The other kind of foreshadowing is where you try to hide the information from the reader.
Why would you include information, you might be wondering, that you don’t want the reader noticing?

There is a good reason for it, strange though it might seem at first glance.

As explained in Sacred Contract, you absolutely cannot cheat. All relevant information must be given to the reader. But sometimes you don’t want the reader to notice that self-same relevant information as it’ll give too much away too soon. You want the importance and relevance of this information to be a surprise later on in the story.

One good way of ‘hiding’ the information is to use the time-honoured method of misdirection (magicians and illusionists do this all the time). Good ways of misdirecting are to include the information in a long list of items, or in a paragraph of over-detailed description.

Examples of Foreshadowing

If a letter-opener is going to be used to stab somebody later in the story and you do want the reader to wonder about it, and note it, then maybe have a character pick it up and run his finger along its length, and maybe even (if you want to really hammer the point home – no pun intended!), have him comment on how sharp it is.

If, on the other hand, you don’t want the reader to notice the letter-opener, you could write something like this:

The desk was cluttered, with a muddle of items chaotically piled on top of it: an old filofax, an black lacquer fountain-pen, a tarnished silver letter-opener in the shape of an overly ornate dagger, a stained-glass lamp with a chip out of it, and a toppling pile of yellowing and unopened envelopes.

I didn’t intend this – it just came to me as I started writing the example, part of the creative writing process I guess – but a lot of the mentioned detritus is quite dated and old-fashioned. That was all the better to hide the letter-opener, because it too is a rather dated and old-fashioned item, and would be more prominent (too prominent, in that case) in a list including MP3 players and mobile phones and PDAs.

I did mention that the letter-opener was in the shape of a dagger, which was giving more detail than I really wanted to give. But there are plenty of blunt letter-openers and it would have been cheating to let the reader assume that this was one of those. I included the detail of ‘tarnished’ and ‘overly ornate’ so that what sticks in the reader’s mind (I hope) is that information, and a sense of lack-of-taste, rather than a sense of danger.

Also, depending on how the story is going, I could maybe draw attention to one of the other items in that list. Perhaps the POV character is looking for some information, and he wonders if that information might be in one of the unopened envelopes.

The reader’s attention is therefore immediately on the envelopes, and the rest of the list is filed in his mind just as window-dressing and scene-setting.

One bit of creative writing advice I can give you is to read some of Agatha Christie’s novels for excellent examples of hidden information.

The film Hot Fuzz is also excellent in this way – and it’s funny and enjoyable too. The writer in me was absolutely delighted and so satisfied at the ending, at the way all the clues were definitely there, but I didn’t realise the relevance of them until the story was tied together at the end. (It is a little bit graphically violent though.)

So, I hope that this has helped you to understand the advantages of the literary device of foreshadowing.