Pace Your Writing: Withholding and Foreshadowing

As writers, we are managers who must control the pace or rate of revelation to readers. Foreshadowing and withholding are two techniques for your toolbox.

Writing Tip for Today: What are Withholding and Foreshadowing and how can we use them effectively?

Rate of Revelation

As your readers’ manager, you control how much information readers obtain at any place in the story. This means you must release or withhold the new information in each scene. New information generally refers to whatever readers learn that changes the balance of power.

If you slow your pace, readers will think you are giving them super-important information. By going into detail, readers assume that they need these details to understand where the story goes and how it progresses. But if you give too many details or draw out a scene in which little is at stake, readers become frustrated—they used their time to go down a rabbit hole with you and at the bottom, it was a nothingburger.

If you speed your pace, readers can live fast action sequences with your protagonist, gaining the thrill of your hero acting against forces that would thwart her/him. But speedy passages can also let readers know about small details or transition to the next big thing. A speedy pace can be breathlessly exciting or simply help readers on to the next big thing. You must control the pace to reflect the story.


As you manage your story pace, you’ll also control what bits of information you release and when. Most stories must withhold some information until the climax scene, or else the story is over. Use withholding to heighten tension and suspense.

I often point to a story I’ve sold multiple times, about my first few weeks as the mom of twins. Since they were premature and had been hospitalized for a few days after birth, I was just giving them their first bath at about two weeks. I bathed them, diapered them and then cut off their tiny hospital bands. Then terror gripped me: I had no idea how to tell them apart.

As soon as I regained my wits, I remembered they were boy/girl twins and I’d likely know which was which by removing a diaper. This is an example of withholding—if I’d stated at the beginning that they were boy/girl twins, the tension would deflate and I’d lose the surprise ending. Withhold details that heighten tension or conflict until the right moment in your story.

Withhold details that heighten tension or conflict.


Foreshadowing is like withholding’s opposite. Instead of keeping details secret, you “plant” small hints ahead of a larger revelation. Mystery and thriller writers employ a lot of foreshadowing by carefully planting details ahead of a reveal. Most mystery writers hope only astute readers will pick up the clues, and other genres employ foreshadowing to help make developments in the last part of the story make sense or feel logical.

Readers dislike details or information that seems to come out of nowhere. By two-thirds of the way into a story, readers want to feel comfortable with the cast of characters and the story’s direction. Some writers advise not introducing new characters too far into the story, and foreshadowing can help with this. By planting a seed earlier in the story, readers are prepared for the later development. This is another example of good management for your story—you guide your reader into a narrow chute, and by climax, readers understand the character couldn’t do anything else.

Foreshadowing should be subtle. Don’t hit your readers over the head—plant your clue and allow readers to decipher it. If you spend too much time planting a detail, readers will rightly infer that it’s important and start looking for reasons it’s there. Withholding and Foreshadowing are useful tools you can use to manage your story’s pace and control the rate of revelation.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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