Foreshadowing is a literary device for capturing the attention of a reader and building suspense in a story. Clever and nuanced foreshadowing is artistry in writing. Using it in a story can keep a reader fully engaged in your plot and eager to turn the page to discover what happens next.
This article does much more than simply answer the question, “what does foreshadowing mean” with the definition of literary foreshadowing; it also explores related literary devices, methods and techniques, tips for crafting foreshadowing in your work, and concludes with a few examples of foreshadowing in popular literature.
What is foreshadowing?
The definition of foreshadowing is imparting an indication of something to come. Some common synonyms of foreshadowing are foretelling, suggesting, or prefiguring. In literature, foreshadowing is a literary device that writers use to provide hints and suggestions related to how the plot may unfold.
Though foreshadowing in storytelling can be direct, it’s often subtle and suggestive, using thematic elements like symbolism, mood, language, and characterization, which allow the writer to place covert signals and undertones throughout the story that keeps the reader guessing. Small and illuminating whispers of foretelling can make a story feel clever, complex, and compelling, encouraging readers to try and anticipate what may happen.
Well-designed foreshadowing in a story relies heavily on show vs. tell. Foreshadowing in a story usually doesn’t explicitly reveal to readers exactly what’s about to happen. In fact, that would be the opposite of foreshadowing, as there would be no suggestion or mystery! Instead, foreshadowing should hint, imply, and suggest what’s going to happen, allowing the reader to discover the implied meaning on their own.
The value of foreshadowing for your story
Foreshadowing serves a few key functions that can not only play an integral role in making a story more interesting, but that can contribute to the overall impact of the story.
A few key benefits of using foreshadowing in your story include:
Developing Reader Expectations
Readers enjoy looking for hints that foretell future events, as it allows them to make predictions about what may happen. Using foreshadowing early on within a story can hook a reader and keep them anxiously turning pages to satisfy their curiosity.
As the story progresses and comes to a finale, the reader should feel delighted when their summations are proved correct; or they may feel a sense of awe and surprise when they look back and see all the tiny details that led up to, and ultimately defined and foreshadowed, the story’s climax.
In building these reader expectations—the feelings of anticipation, excitement, uncertainty, and even dread about impending events—the writer can also subtly build tension. Tension within a story heightens the drama and the stakes, and in doing so can increase a reader’s emotional connection and commitment to the story.
If a reader anticipates an event that will greatly harm or benefit the protagonist, the excitement or worry they feel will likely keep them anxious to continue turning the page to find out if their predictions are correct, and to see how the character will persevere.
Creating Ambiance and Atmosphere
Foreshadowing can also play a significant role in building the ambiance, atmosphere, and overall tone of a story by suggesting actions that may take place. Foreshadowing from the very start of a story can imply a lot about how the story will ultimately feel, and—again—help set expectations for the reader. If a story starts with a young protagonist and their innocent lover standing in a sunny field, and then lightning cracks across the sky as dark clouds form in the distance, the reader will likely anticipate that major turmoil is on the horizon and that these characters are in for dramatic—and perhaps tumultuous—change in their lives.
Types of foreshadowing and related literary devices
Foreshadowing can be boiled down into two main types: direct and indirect.
Direct foreshadowing is when a story overtly suggests an event. This type of foreshadowing will typically occur in a prologue, in-character dialogue, or sometimes even prophetically.
Indirect foreshadowing is when a story leaves hints and breadcrumbs throughout the story, leaving clues for the reader to follow.
A great literary example of the use of both direct and indirect foreshadowing is the book Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins. Right at the start of the story, Robbins fills the first page with a tantalizing, engaging, and cleverly playful description of a beet, ending the section with the phrase “a tale that begins with a beet will end with the devil.” Then, throughout the story, beets appear in different settings, and are mysteriously given to key characters, often implying how all of the character arcs will tie together at the end.
Robbins directly foreshadows how the story will end–“with the devil”–but also uses the device indirectly by mysteriously sprinkling beets in key places that allude to character connections, the overall plot, and how beets may play a critical role in the climax of the story.
While direct and indirect are the two main types of foreshadowing, there are other literary devices that rely on a kind of foreshadowing for their literary impact.
Foreshadowing with Chekhov’s Gun
Chekhov’s Gun is a literary principle that “no story should make false promises.” According to this principle, if an element of a story is introduced it either needs to be necessary to the story and should come to some kind of resolution, or it should be removed. Anton Chekhov, the renowned Russian playwright and short story writer for whom Chekhov’s Gun is named, described this principle by stating that “one must never place a loaded rifle on stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”
It should be noted that the gun is a metaphor, and doesn’t necessarily reference a literal object. The gun can be anything that is introduced with an air of importance, and that thus should directly develop the plot or characterization.
Prophecy foreshadowing usually takes place in the form of an actual prophecy that a character may receive, or that a reader may become privy to without the character’s knowledge. Prophecy foreshadowing is often a more direct form of foreshadowing: the reader—and sometimes the protagonist—are told about events and outcomes of the future, and the story explores how the events lead up to the predicted outcome.
However, prophecies can also provide a unique and interesting twist to a story by being left open-ended, vague, unclear, or positioned in a way where they may have multiple outcomes, depending on the actions of the characters.
Flash-forward, flashback, and foreshadowing
Flashbacks and flash-forwards are interruptions in the narrative timeline that allow a writer to show what has happened in the past, or something that will happen in the future. Flashbacks and flash-forwards provide a way for the author to make note of or explore an idea, event, or character in a way that wouldn’t naturally fit within the storyline. A flashback or flash-forward in a story can be used to foreshadow the current timeline of the story by referencing something from the past that could impact the current plot, or by subtly implying something pivotal for the future.
Abstract and symbolic foreshadowing
Abstract and symbolic foreshadowing is the use of indirect symbols to suggest what happens next in the story. It’s typically more nuanced, and is often used as a way to set the tone or ambiance of a story. Symbolism relies on symbols to represent concepts that are already generally recognized to imply a deeper meaning. The first example of foreshadowing we mentioned earlier—the two young lovers standing in the field that experience a drastic change in the weather around them—is an example of abstract and symbolic foreshadowing. The peaceful, sunny environment in which the couple stands reinforces the idea of their youthful innocence and love. The drastic change in their environment symbolically implies that the lovers are about to experience a change as well–and perhaps not for the better.
Fallacy and red herring foreshadowing
While the principle of Chekhov’s Gun is to not make any false promises, a fallacy or red herring may do just that, but intentionally. The purpose of fallacious foreshadowing, or using a red herring, is to intentionally muddle the story’s direction, and to purposely throw the reader off from being able to predict the climax. These misleading clues can make a story more exciting, and can set the reader up for feelings of surprise and shock when the true events of the story unfold. For example, a mystery novel about a stolen artifact may intentionally frame a character that seems obvious as the thief. While doing so, the author may also leave very subtle clues that the thief is a different, less obvious character. The framed character would be the red herring in the story.
5 foreshadowing techniques and methods
While the previous section discussed how some related literary devices can be leveraged to foreshadow events in a story, this section will focus on five writing techniques that can be used to directly include foreshadowing in a story.
1. Foreshadowing in dialogue
Dialogue between characters is an excellent way to foreshadow future events in a story.
Foreshadowing in dialogue may appear as:
A character telling a story of a historical event or providing insight into another character’s personality, indirectly foreshadowing future events of the plot.
A character making an offhand joke that implies some sort of truth or forebodes an event.
Dialogue that showcases an aspect of a character—their personality, beliefs, or other characteristics– that sets them up for a realization that will change them.
2. Foreshadowing in the title
The title of a story can be a foreshadowing tool itself, either directly or indirectly. Consider Agatha Christie’s _Murder on the Orient Express. _The title itself already reveals that a murder will occur, and even tells the reader beforehand where it’ll occur. Before the reader even begins the story, they’re already asking who will be murdered, and are trying to guess who the murderer could be.
Another example of foreshadowing in a title is Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. This title not only directly foreshadows how the physical house will be destroyed, but also indirectly foreshadows the destruction of the family that lives within it.
3. Foreshadowing with setting
The setting of a story can also be used to foreshadow the events that will take place, and may indirectly provide clues for how a character is feeling or will react to something. Foreshadowing in a setting can set a mood or tone of a story, or entice the reader with a clue. Again, consider our young lovers in the field and how the weather foretells a potential change of events. Other aspects of the setting, such as time and season, can also be used to foreshadow future events.
Consider the trope of the cowboy entering a town that is usually bustling with activity, but seemingly vacant until you hear the snap of window shutters closing as he walks by the buildings. In most cases, this setting foreshadows the antagonist’s appearance, and their challenging the cowboy to a duel. If the cowboy had arrived on a bustling day instead, the reader might not guess that a duel was about to occur.
4. Foreshadowing with figurative language
Figurative language like similes and metaphors can be an excellent way to foreshadow an event within a story without having to make an explicit statement. A metaphor may represent some other aspect of the story, implying that something that happened to a particular object or character may happen to another.
Similes can be used as foreshadowing tools as well, especially in characterization and the use of archetypes. For example, a character that is described as handsome, clever, and sly as a fox, would be foreshadowed as a character that may fulfill the role of a beguiling trickster.
5. Foreshadowing with characterization
Aside from implied characterization using similes, other aspects of a character can also present opportunities for foreshadowing. Their physical appearance and attire, their mannerisms and dialogue, and even their backstory and history can all be used to foreshadow events in the plot. For example, a character who often wears clothes that hide a certain aspect of their body may foreshadow the fact the character is concealing something.
3 foreshadowing tips for writers
Foreshadowing presents opportunities to write a complex and engaging story.
Direct foreshadowing gives the reader immediate insight into what will occur, generating curiosity that is sustained for the duration of the story as they try to guess the path to the conclusion.
Indirect foreshadowing leaves a breadcrumb trail that the reader either picks up on and enjoys as they try to guess what’s in store, or provides an element of surprise for the reader as the story develops and they start to recognize all the signs that were left for them along the way.
But as enticing, exciting, and juicy as foreshadowing can make a story, this literary device should be approached with care. Too much foreshadowing and the story loses suspense or becomes uninteresting, as the reader completely anticipates the outcome. Too little, or ineffective, foreshadowing may fall flat, and either do nothing for the story, or hinder it by sending confusing signals to the reader—or worse, make them lose interest.
To successfully include effective foreshadowing in your story, consider the following tips:
1. Start with a plan
Being able to use foreshadowing in your story will require you to know what events will occur. Otherwise, how could you foreshadow them?
An effective way to include foreshadowing is to have the overarching plot, including all the major events, planned out in advance. This will allow you to look for opportunities throughout the story to foreshadow, as you already know what will happen, and can hint at that.
Note, however, that foreshadowing is often refined during later drafts of the story when the story is more complete, as this allows you to scrutinize your use of foreshadowing for effectiveness, and whether or not it truly contributes to the reader’s experience.
2. Use careful placement and moderation
Carefully considered placement, and judicious moderation, of foreshadowing are the keys to doing it successfully. Introducing foreshadowing as early as possible gives time for the reader to enjoy the curiosity, suspense, and tension that foreshadowing can create. Additionally, including foreshadowing in a natural cadence throughout the story keeps the reader engaged and turning pages with anticipation.
By sprinkling foreshadowing carefully throughout the story, the reader may excitedly return to the beginning to re-read all of the breadcrumbs they missed the first time around!
3. Use a beta reader
A common struggle for writers is the closeness they feel to the text and the inability to see the story from a completely fresh perspective. You, as the writer, already know what’s going to happen, so it can be difficult to gauge if your foreshadowing is doing its job—or if it’s too ambiguous or telling.
To truly learn if your foreshadowing is effective, use a beta reader—a person willing to read your story and provide feedback on what worked and what didn’t. At Scribophile, we just happen to specialize in getting feedback on your writing, and finding beta readers.
Examples of foreshadowing in literature
One of the best ways to become more familiar with a literary device is to read stories that have done it effectively—i.e. researching how an author successfully sets up foreshadowing in their own story. The following literary examples of foreshadowing offer a great starting point to better understand how this literary device is used in practice.
Foreshadowing in Of Mice and Men
John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is a legendary example of foreshadowing. The novella is rife with elements of foreshadowing throughout the entire story, and they greatly impact the emotional conclusion.
Here are some examples of foreshadowing in Of Mice and Men:
The death of Curley’s wife, and Lennie’s innocence despite having killed her, is foreshadowed by his accidental killing of the mice and the puppy with his heavy-handed over-petting.
Curley’s soft hands foreshadow how Lennie will eventually crush them—as he has crushed other soft and small things throughout the story.
George’s comments of being chased out of the last town they were in because Lennie wanted to touch the soft fabric of a women’s dress also foreshadow how Lennie will ultimately stroke Curley’s wife’s soft hair—leading to her death when he accidentally strangles her.
George’s comments about the difference in size between Curley’s small body and Lennie’s large one also foreshadow how Lennie will eventually harm Curely.
Candy’s confession to George that he wishes he had been the one to shoot his own dog rather than allow Carlson to do it foreshadows the eventual heartbreaking moment where George shoots Lennie.
Foreshadowing in Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s plays that most heavily relies on foreshadowing. The foreshadowing in the story gives it tension, making the audience feel like the fate of the characters is inevitable and closing in on them.
Examples of foreshadowing in Romeo and Juliet include:
The prologue explicitly foreshadows that the star-crossed lovers will die.
Juliet’s nurse exposes the unlucky omens of Juliet’s childhood as a prediction that Juliet may have more unlucky moments to come.
Romeo predicts an “untimely death” and “consequences” that will occur from attending the Capulet’s ball, where he first meets Juliet.
Juliet has a vision of Romeo dead in a tomb.
The conflict between the Capulets and Montagues foreshadows the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt.
Foreshadowing in “The Monkey’s Paw”
W. W. Jacobs’s “The Monkey’s Paw” is a short story filled with foreshadowing that has been adapted in many other forms of media since its publication in 1902.
Examples of foreshadowing in “The Monkey’s Paw” include:
Sergeant-Major Morris foreshadows the danger the paw can cause when he notes how the second man used his third wish to wish for death.
Sergeant-Major Morris directly foreshadows Mr. White’s inevitable danger when he explicitly warns him three times to leave the paw alone after Mr. White retrieves it from the fire.
Herbert’s vision of seeing the monkey face in the fire foreshadows the power and evil of the paw.
Should you use foreshadowing in your story?
Yes! Foreshadowing is a powerful literary device that can not only make a story highly engaging, but can also entice a reader to re-read the story to find all of the hints they missed the first time. It’s a literary device that takes time to master, and may require edits and revisions to your work to ensure that your breadcrumbs are just enough to keep the reader guessing, while not laid down with such a heavy hand that they spoil the story. Don’t get discouraged during revision while you fine tune your foreshadowing–it’s worth the attention to detail!