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  • Writer's pictureTina Radcliffe

Foreshadowing, Telegraphing, Red Herrings & the Rule of Three in Fiction

Updated: Jun 9, 2018

I’ve wanted to do a post on foreshadowing for a while because it’s such a terrific way to enrich our writing. Along with this device are the literary cousins to foreshadowing: telegraphing, red herring, and the rule of three. So hang in there with me as I define, and share examples.


A clue (in the form of a visual or dialogue) that’s used in the present to set up action or one that is used to prepare for the future. That future action is often referred to as the payoff, especially in mystery or suspense stories.

Types of foreshadowing:

1. Connecting unrelated incidents.-Like a Seinfeld moment where one incident is connected to a seemingly unrelated incident that occurs later, which brings the story full circle.

2. Setting up future incidents.-This serves to assist the reader to easily accept or believe a future action or event without pulling them out of the story.

3. Clues.-Laying the groundwork like a trail of birdseed and often building suspense at the same time.

3. To emotionally invest and engage the reader in the story and or protagonist.-This leads to a huge reader emotional payoff later.

4. As a character trait.-This creates a motivation tool in the character that causes him to behave in an expected manner later in the story.

Of course, many of these types of foreshadowing opportunities overlap each other, which can make your story even stronger.

Clearly, you can add these foreshadowing devices in your editing stage. It’s always a good idea to have someone read through your story to confirm that your foreshadowing devices do the job you intended them to do. You won’t want them so subtle that the reader misses them, nor so shocking that the reader is pulled out of the story.

Remember that foreshadowing is a promise to the reader. Keep your promise.

"Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there." — Anton Chekhov

Now for the fun part! Examples!

A plot refresher: "Retired from active duty, and training recruits for the Impossible Mission Force, agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) faces the toughest foe of his career: Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an international broker of arms and information, who is as cunning as he is ruthless. Davian emerges to threaten Hunt and all that he holds dear -- including the woman Hunt loves."

During Ethan Hunt's engagement party (starts at 0:06:23) Ethan reads the lips of the gals (including his fiancee Michelle Monaghan) in the kitchen talking. Here it is on Youtube.

This sets up a memorable way to easily believe a critical scene later in the movie.

When Ethan is brought into headquarters and is tied down to a stretcher (starts at 01:15:18) John Musgrave (Billy Crudup) mouths important information to him, because he knows Ethan can lip-read and slips him a Swiss Army knife to escape.

"Go to Shanghai. Feng Shan Apartments -- 1406."

This entire escape scene would have pulled the reader out as not believable had the lip-reading not been foreshadowed.

Working Girl

A plot refresher: Street-smart Staten Island secretary Tess McGill is determined to use her brains and talent to pull herself out of the secretarial pool and into the upper echelons of New York's brokerage industry. With Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford, and Sigourney Weaver.

THREE TIMES, the new boss Katherine (Sigourney Weaver) says to Tess (Melanie Griffith):

(00:15:46)"It's a two-way street on my team."

(00:21:07) "Absolutely, Tess. Two-way street. Remember?"

(00:23:53) "You don't get anywhere in this world by waiting for what you want to come to you. You make it happen. Watch me, Tess. Learn from me."

At Turning Point #2 Change of Plans, Tess discovers that Katherine has betrayed her, and Katherine sets out to make things happen for herself. Just like Katherine has done, Tess realizes that she too must make things happen for herself.

(00:29:28) Tess murmurs: "Two-way street. You make it happen."

This foreshadowing builds reader empathy and we are totally committed to Tess's new plan despite its slightly unethical start.

Plot Refresher: Ben Stiller directs and stars in this inspiring story about an ordinary man who finds the courage to discover his destiny and leap into the extraordinary adventure that is life. Walter works for Life Magazine whose motto is "To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, to draw closer, to find each other and to feel. That is the purpose of Life."

This entire movie is one foreshadowing incident after another. The Life magazine motto itself is one the most obvious foreshadows as it appears everywhere once Walter starts his tentative steps to his journey. If you watch the movie, see how many times it appears, such as here in this airport scene: "Things Dangerous To Come To."

A double foreshadowing occurs early in the movie. First, when Walter attempts to create a profile on eHarmony but has no travels to list. "I haven't been anywhere noteworthy or mentionable."

Then he discovers a travel book given to him by his deceased father. The book is, of course, empty, because Walter has taken no trips.

This foreshadows Walter embarking on the biggest adventure of his life. See the trailer here and listen carefully to the dialogue.

Watch the movie and look for these other visual foreshadowing moments:

Are you getting the hang of this? Okay, here's more fun!

Our other devices seem anticlimactic compared to foreshadowing! Let's quickly review them.


Telegraphing is the unsubtle cousin of foreshadowing. Telegraphing ruins the story tension because it tells the reader the clues instead of dropping subtle hints. It can also present a cliched situation where it is obvious to the reader what is about to happen, or worse, pulls the reader out of the story with the randomness of the turn of events.

The movie Galaxy Quest actually pokes fun at telegraphing.

Plot Refresher: The alumni cast of a cult space TV show have to play their roles as the real thing when an alien race needs their help.

We are presented with Crewman Number Six.

Guy Fleegman: "I'm not even supposed to be here. I'm just "Crewman Number Six." I'm expendable. I'm the guy in the episode who dies to prove how serious the situation is. I've gotta get outta here."

By the end of the movie, they give Crewman Number Six a name. The entire plot device is based on the cliched character with no name who gets killed in movies, and television shows when things go seriously south. Only in Game of Thrones do the main characters die.

Red Herrings

This device is employed using objects and/or characters (typically walk-on characters) to distract or mislead the reader. The red herring should be woven in seamlessly, as an organic part of the story or it becomes a cliche. An exceptional red herring facilitates a twist ending. All red herrings should be explained or realized by the end of the story.

Because it would be a spoiler, I won't share the red herrings in these movies, which are in my opinion, stand-out films that utilize this literary device.

Finally, a topic I've touched on before, the rule of three.

The Rule of Three

A literary device based on the concept that three is a pleasing number with a satisfying beat and rhythm. People are also thought to remember things longer when presented in a series of three because three has more impact.

Uses in our writing:

1. Subtly creating credibility for a future scene with foreshadowing 2. Emphasizing a story arc 3. Creating story symbols

4. Three times for emphasis-repetition and adjectives

Michael Hauge discusses this in his DVD Creating Powerful Movie Scenes and reminds us of The Karate Kid, where utilizing the rule of three created credibility.

1. Mr. Miyagi is seen using the ‘crane kick’ 2. Then Daniel practices the ‘crane kick’. 3. Later in the movie’s defining moment, ‘the crane kick" is how Daniel wins the match (with an injured knee).

Dorothy clicks her heels three times to get home.

"There's no place like home. There's no place like home. There's no place like home."

There are examples of the rule of three everywhere.

The Three Musketeers

The Three Little Pigs

The Three Days of the Condor

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

Now it's your turn. Can you think of an example of Foreshadowing, Telegraphing, Red Herrings, or The Rule of Three in fiction (books or movies)??

Photo by Shumilov Ludmila on Unsplash


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