Lessons from Design: Foreshadowing

What do graphic design, music composition, and writing all have in common? A lot more than I thought . . . a whole lot more.

In graphic design class last fall, my professor said this to me:

Put a few photos on your title page. Not full photos, not so I can actually tell what they are. Just give me a glimpse of what’s to come beyond the cover.”

Foreshadow, in other words. Give your audience a clue about what’s going to happen. I didn’t realize it then, but this principle is central to every type of communication—visual, musical, and textual. It’s key to telling a story, to pulling the audience forward by tantalizing them with the promise of withheld details.

Take music, for example. Oftentimes, a theme will appear early in a less developed form, and grow into something more later on. The song Love Drunk by Boys Like Girls is a great example of this – the intro is a quiet foreshadowing of a section which appears later, at about 3:00. This foreshadowing and return to the intro pulls the song full circle.

Similarly, foreshadowing is a key part of good writing. Readers love the feeling of realization when an early element continues to thread its way through the story. Any book that includes fulfilled prophecy incorporates this principle, though there are many different ways to foreshadow.

So whether you’re designing visuals, or trying your hand at music, or writing any story at all, remember to include a whisper of what is to come.

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