Foreshadowing (for-SHA-doe-wing) is a literary technique used to hint at what will unfold in a story, such as future events, connections, or outcomes. Foreshadowing can be subtle or obvious, and often has an element of irony attached to it. A good rule of thumb is to look for:
- A joke about an unideal situation early on: “Wouldn’t it be funny if it rained the day of the big game?”
- A bold statement that tempts the universe: “I swear I’ll never work at a grocery store ever again!”
- An incongruous/suspicious detail that is pointed out for no apparent reason: a brief shot or offhanded mention of rat poison under the kitchen sink.
This term was first used in 1587 and is derived from the image of a shadow that telegraphs a person or object’s existence or imminent arrival.
Elements of Foreshadowing
Foreshadowing can occur anywhere in a story to help build tension. Common examples and techniques include:
- Ominous or fate-baiting dialogue, such as “We’ll see about that.” or “If he shows his face again, I’ll kill him!”
- A scene that sets up a future event, like the first chapter in Reader Player One, wherein protagonist Wade alludes to winning the competition that drives the novel’s plot
- A character feeling or expressing concern, dread, or worry
- Prophecies, like the witches telling Macbeth he will become king
- Symbolism, like a sudden shift in weather right before a pivotal scene
- The appearance of potentially dangerous objects, like a gun, knife, or a fraying rope bridge
Literary Devices Related to Foreshadowing
In addition to the elements above, there are standalone literary devices that correlate, but are not exclusively linked to, foreshadowing.
A red herring is a deliberately misleading clue that distracts readers from the truth. This device is often used in genre fiction like mysteries, and it is designed to make the story’s ending even more exciting and unexpected. In the Sherlock Holmes story The Final Problem, the famed detective and Dr. Watson receive a note saying a woman at their hotel needs medical help. This is a red herring set up by their nemesis, Professor Moriarty, to separate the dynamic duo.
Foreshadowing, on the other hand, is inherently truthful because it directly points to the narrative’s outcome.
Flash-forwards show the reader concrete scenes from the future in order to elucidate things that have already happened. This is the entire basis of the short-lived TV show Flashforward, where a worldwide blackout caused people to see six months into the future. The episodes that follow showcase how those futures unfold (or are narrowly avoided).
Meanwhile, foreshadowing occurs in the present. It hints at what happens in the future, leaving the reader to wonder about the details.
The Purpose of Foreshadowing
When writers use foreshadowing, it is often to employ one or more of these three main functions.
Readers who catch on to foreshadowing will feel anticipation or dread about impending events. This crafted anxiety pushes readers to continue because they want to know if their guesses are correct. This teasing heightens the drama and the stakes, causing readers to become more emotionally involved in the story and characters.
Create Atmosphere or Ambiance
Typically, foreshadowing is used early on in a story (or chapter or scene) to allude to imminent scenarios. As such, this device sets the tone. For example, “It was a dark and stormy night” foreshadows trouble, danger, and mayhem. This kind of foreshadowing is especially prevalent in genre fiction, like thrillers, fantasy, or horror, where a flickering streetlight or howling wolf implies ominous times ahead.
Develop and Manage Readers’ Expectations
Readers are trained to look for context clues and hints in stories, so writers use foreshadowing to establish and guide readers’ expectations. Done correctly, foreshadowing can hook a reader in the story’s beginning, keep them interested as the plot progresses, and, in the end, provide a satisfying conclusion that rewards or delightfully upsets their predictions.
This is especially true in the mystery genre, where writers and readers are each playing a game. The writer uses foreshadowing to reveal the central mystery’s details and clues—but never the whole picture at once. Readers hope to pick up on these clues and arrive at the “whodunit” conclusion before the protagonist.
A common example of this type of foreshadowing is the Chekhov’s Gun theory; named after Russian writer Anton Chekhov, the theory posits that if there is a loaded gun on the wall in Chapter 1, it absolutely needs to go off within the next chapter or two. This concept is also related to the “Two Shoe Contract”: if you hear one shoe drop in the room above, you instinctively wait to hear the thud of the second shoe falling.
Foreshadowing in Visual Media
In movies and television, foreshadowing is referred to as “planting and payoff,” and it is necessary to help the audience suspend their disbelief. It occurs very early in the program and plausibly sets up later events.
Take Columbo, a highly formulaic detective TV series that used foreshadowing in each episode. In Act 1, the murderer and victim are shown interacting. The victim does something to threaten the murderer’s interests (blackmail, denying a request for money or help, etc.), so the murderer kills them. In Act 2, Columbo is called to the scene, where he meets the murderer and then systematically annoys them into making mistakes. Finally, in Act 3, Columbo reveals the murderer. This was a successful formula because it piqued viewer’s interests early. Oftentimes, the audience was shown a tiny flaw in the murderer’s plan that paid off in the third-act reveal. Because Columbo always catches the bad guy, foreshadowing helps viewers stay interested by making the true mystery how he catches the crook.
Another example of foreshadowing is the opening credits of the 2012 James Bond film Skyfall. The sequence is an amalgamation of images: Bond sinking into water, graveyards, a woman, a skull, daggers, and Chinese dragons. Each image corresponds to scenes, objects, and characters that are important to the narrative. Furthermore, the theme song lyrics foreshadow Bond and M’s partnership and their tragic last stand at Bond’s ancestral estate, the titular Skyfall.
Examples of Foreshadowing in Literature
1. Chris Colfer, Struck by Lightning: The Carson Phillips Journal
The title of the book foreshadows its conclusion: teen protagonist Carson Phillips is struck and killed by lightning. The brilliance of this foreshadowing is that it is at once obvious and subtle. While overtly telegraphing the end, readers do not expect such a literal interpretation of the title—after all, how often does the titular character die?
2. J.K. Rowling, the Harry Potter series
Throughout the series, J.K. Rowling uses foreshadowing to hint at the outcomes of major and minor story arcs. Some cases of foreshadowing are contained within a single book, like when a mysterious, sentient diary is revealed to possess the spirit of Lord Voldemort in The Chamber of Secrets, whereas other cases do not pay off until a book or two later in the series. An example of the latter begins in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, when a prophecy about Harry and Lord Voldemort is revealed:
Born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies… and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not… and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives…
This prophecy not only foreshadows the final battle between Harry and Voldemort but also contains a self-fulfilling prophecy. The line “the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal” indicates that Voldemort himself chose Harry as his triumphant nemesis. Harry’s schoolmate Neville Longbottom also fits the description “Born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies,” but Voldemort decided Harry was the likelier candidate, thus setting in motion his own defeat.
3. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “A Scandal in Bohemia”
In this story’s opening paragraph, Doyle uses foreshadowing to impress upon readers how important Irene Adler is to Holmes without immediately revealing why:
To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. […] And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory. [bolded for emphasis]
In the passage, a lot is revealed about Sherlock Holmes. He has no use for love and romance because he is a man of the mind who prefers observation and science. Yet, Irene Adler somehow got under his skin. Immediately, readers’ interests are piqued—especially with the final sentence revealing that Adler is dead. They know that, whoever she is, Adler will be of central importance to the story.
4. Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
Dickens uses weather as an indicator of coming events. As protagonist Pip grows anxious about the status of his future, he notes the weather:
So furious had been the gusts, that high buildings in town had had the lead stripped off their roofs; and in the country, trees had been torn up, and sails of windmills carried away; and gloomy accounts had come in from the coast, of shipwreck and death.
This tumultuous weather foreshadows a major upheaval to come. Several pages later, Pip learns that his mysterious benefactor is not Miss Havisham, as he suspected, but the convict he helped escape when he was a young boy.
Further Resources on Foreshadowing
Novel Writing Help has an article about narrative structures that includes a good section about foreshadowing and common pitfalls thereof.
This Writer’s Digest article on foreshadowing is a must-read for those interested in film and television. Not only is there a section on the way prestige TV show Breaking Bad uses foreshadowing, there is also a section on flashbacks and flash-forwards.
Masterclass has an excellent article on foreshadowing that covers basics and tips for using it in your own writing.