Foreshadowing Explained: Definition, Tips, and Examples
Foreshadowing is a literary device in which an author gives readers hints about what will happen later in the story. Foreshadowing is often used in the early stages of a novel or at the start of a chapter, as it can subtlety create tension and set readers' expectations regarding how the story will unfold. For instance, a mystery novel might use foreshadowing in an early chapter by mentioning something that seems inconsequential — but is actually a clue...
By the end of this article, writers will know the secret to crafting gripping page-turners.
See? You know something is about to happen, but you don’t yet know how it will come about — and it’s the “how” that matters. The “how” is what bridges the beginning of your story to the end or, in this case, the introduction to the conclusion. The “how” is the information that readers want, and foreshadowing promises to eventually give it to them.
Now that we’ve hopefully piqued your interest with our own dose of foreshadowing, let’s talk about why this literary device is such a key tool in an author’s arsenal.
Types of foreshadowing
There are as many ways to foreshadow as there are stories to tell, so the possibilities are endless. But head to the library, and you’ll likely find two broad categories of foretelling in novels: direct and indirect.
- Direct foreshadowing occurs when an outcome is directly hinted at or indicated. It gives readers a nugget of information, prompting them to want more.
- Indirect foreshadowing occurs when an outcome is indirectly hinted at or indicted. It subtly nods at a future event but is typically only apparent to readers after that outcome or event has occurred.
Pretty straightforward, right? Now let’s see a few examples of the former in action.
1. The Narrator
We witnessed this example in the introduction of this very post. In a nutshell: the person telling the story provides readers with key information but leaves out context or other details.
Take this opening line from Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall:
“They say that just before you die your whole life flashes before your eyes, but that’s not how it happened for me.”
What we know: The narrator is dead.
What we want to know: How did they die?
The key to this kind of foretelling is to include information that is crucial to the story. What it must leave out is how it’s key to the story. Think of it as a personal invitation from the narrator to the reader to keep reading.
2. The Pre-Scene
A gift shared among people who have the uncanny ability to predict the endings of stories is an eye for the “pre-scene.”
These scenes show something that will play an important role in the future — and they usually play out as a brief, toned-down version of the main event.
For example, in the first half of Of Mice and Men, Carlson is convinced that an old dog should be put down so that it can have a quick death and end its suffering. He complies, ensuring the process is as painless as possible, prompting Candy to confide in George:
“I oughtta of shot that dog myself, George. I shouldn't oughtta of let no stranger shoot my dog.”
What we know: The dog’s death is important.
What we want to know: Why is this significant, and when will we find out?
At the end of the novel, when a murderous lynch mob is on the hunt for Lennie, George begins talking to Lennie about the farm they will one day own, painting a peaceful picture. Then, in a scene that echoes Carlson’s putting an end to the dog’s suffering, George kills Lennie — believing it’s much more merciful to go at the hands of a friend.
3. The Name Drop
If someone told you, “Tomorrow I’m going to my friend’s house,” you likely wouldn’t think much of it. But if someone told you, “Tomorrow I’m going to Reedsy Mansion,” you’d probably want to know more.
Similarly, by casually name-dropping a place, thing, or person in your story, you signify to readers that this entity is important.
See this example in action in the first installment of The Hunger Games:
“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.”
What we know: Something called the reaping is about to happen, and it’s nightmare-inducing.
What we want to know: Well, what is the reaping?
The name drop can even be used right in the title: consider The Great Gatsby. The title introduces us to the name, the first few pages give us snippets of information about the man, but it’s not until the second chapter that we meet Gatsby.
4. The Prophecy
In the opening scene of Orson Welles’ A Touch of Evil, we witness the timer started on a bomb that gets placed into the trunk of a car. Seconds later, a couple gets into that very car and drives down a busy street for a full 3 minutes. Finally, the car drives off camera and we witness another young couple jump as the explosion occurs.
While the explosion would have been a dramatic way to begin the movie on its own, by letting the audience know about the bomb in the trunk, Welles uses dramatic irony to create a scene rife with tension and suspense.
Initially, letting readers know that a specific dramatic event is going to happen might seem counterintuitive: isn’t it better to surprise readers? But by foreshadowing events through the use of prophecy, you keep readers on the edge of their seats and still leave lots of room for surprise.
Macbeth famously opens with the prophecies of the three witches:
"All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter! […] Lesser than Macbeth, and greater. Not so happy, yet much happier. Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none: So all hail, Macbeth and Banquo! Banquo and Macbeth, all hail!"
What we know: Macbeth will become king and that Banquo’s descendants will also be king.
What we want to know: Will this actually happen? And if so, how?
This prophecy forms the basis for the rest of the story: Macbeth becoming power-mad and committing heinous acts in his fear of being usurped.
For more Macbeth-worthy suspense, check out our list of the best suspense books of all time.
5. The Prologue
Nothing kicks off a novel with an almost audible “dun dun DUNNN!” quite like a prologue.
Prologues are used for many reasons: to flashback or forward, show a point-of-view different than the narrative’s primary one, or set an otherworldly setting, to name a few.
One of its handiest purposes is to foreshadow. Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park begins with two prologues. The first one ends with the following lines:
"Parties to that settlement, including the distinguished scientific board of advisers, signed a nondisclosure agreement, and none will speak about what happened-but many of the principal figures in the "InGen incident" are not signatories, and were willing to discuss the remarkable events leading up to those final two days in August 1989 on a remote island off the west coast of Costa Rica."
What we know: That a company called InGen created a genetic crisis.
What we want to know: What is this crisis? What effects did it have?
Direct foreshadowing is such an engaging literary device because it brings readers into the story and allows them to speculate.
But perhaps you don’t want a narrator prone to spilling the beans or you’re wary of writing a prologue that rings slightly of clickbait. For foretelling tools that are a little more subtle, look no further than these next few indirect foreshadowing examples.
6. The Innocuous Statement
While the previous examples of foreshadowing could be said to be “hiding in plain sight,” sometimes the device is used in a much more subtle way — allowing the reader to go back and find the clues that are now only clear after the fact.
Consider this line spoken by Obi-Wan Kenobi to Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode II:
"Why do I get the feeling, you will be the death of me?”
At the time of their utterance, these lines don’t seem like anything more than the lament of a tired mentor. Later in the series, these words perhaps ring in our ears when Anakin-turned-Darth-Vader does indeed kill Obi-Wan.
While this example of foreshadowing doesn’t propel readers to seek out more information right when it happens, it does have us wondering what other clues might have been dropped when we were none the wiser.
7. The Pathetic Fallacy
Pathetic fallacy is when human emotions are projected by non-human things — such as nature. And it can be a very effective tool.
Just think: would Wuthering Heights have been quite the same if the majority of the story took place on idyllic, sunny days? Probably not.
A chilling gust of wind or the sun breaking through heavy clouds can say a lot: the former can evoke a sense of foreboding while the latter can predict a positive changing of tides. In other words — let’s say it together — it can foreshadow.
In Great Expectations, wordsmith Charles Dickens uses the weather to demonstrate Pip’s growing angst:
"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."
8. The Symbol
A scene opening on a character coming across a raven will project a very different message than a scene opening on a character spotting a dove: one is typically an ominous symbol while the other generally references peace.
Because symbols take the form of recognizable visuals that represent a more abstract idea, they’re a great way to foreshadow by hinting at something without stating it outright.
Consider this excerpt from the opening of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms:
"The leaves fell early that year."
The visual transition from fall to winter, and specifically the falling of leaves, is not an uncommon symbol of death. In this case, these six simple words symbolize the primary event of the novel: the early death of nurse Catherine Barkey. Its effectiveness lies in the fact that the symbol is instantly recognizable, but the significance it holds within the story unravels throughout.
9. Through metaphor and simile
Without veering into the distracting arena of purple prose, the way authors describe things can foretell hidden details.
Metaphors and similes are both figures of speech used to describe something by comparing it to another. The difference between the two is that while metaphors say “Thing A is Thing B,” similes say “Thing A is like Thing B.”
Both can be used as foreshadowing tools. In White Oleander by Janet Finch, Astrid continuously uses similes to compare her mother’s beauty to elements of danger:
"I climbed to the roof and easily spotted her blond hair like a white flame in the light of the three-quarter moon."
"Her beauty was like the edge of a very sharp knife."
As the story progresses, both danger and beauty become the two main aspects Astrid associates with her mother.
10. The Object
“If in Act One you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act.” So goes Anton Chekhov’s rule of storytelling: if you’re going to draw a reader’s attention to something, you must eventually explain why it was worth noticing. Otherwise, it should be removed.
You can also reverse-engineer this rule as a means of foreshadowing: if a major event will happen at some point in the story, you could allude to it earlier on in the story. One great way of doing this (as in Chekhov’s example) is by placing emphasis on an object.
The third book of the A Series of Unfortunate Events series begins with Mr. Poe giving the Baudelaire siblings some peppermints, forgetting they are allergic. These peppermints end up playing an important role later in the story, when the orphans use them to elicit an allergic reaction, thereby getting themselves out of a sticky situation.
“If you are allergic to a thing, it is best not to put that thing in your mouth, particularly if the thing is cats.” — Lemony Snicket
In Disney’s telling of Peter Pan, the catalyst for the whole story occurs when Peter literally chases his shadow into the Darling household. Similarly, foreshadowing can have your readers chasing the plot of your story.
Mastering the art of the foreshadow can benefit your writing by creating layers: it’s almost like you’re telling the story to readers in waves, eventually revealing to them the whole island they’ve been searching for. It creates an engaging and interactive narrative, allowing speculation while the story unfolds and then further reflection of all the clues upon completion.