Foreshadowing is a literary technique for building dramatic tension in a story. Clever and nuanced foreshadowing is artistry in writing. Writing foreshadowing into your plot events can keep a a reader’s attention and eager to turn the page to discover what happens next.
We’ll teach you how to use foreshadowing elements in your work to build anticipation, heighten suspense, and twist the audience’s expectations—plus, a few foreshadowing examples from literature to show you how it looks in practice.
What is foreshadowing?
Foreshadowing is a literary device that writers use to hint at future plot developments to come. This might be through a line of dialogue, a detail in the setting, or the mood conveyed during a particular scene. Foreshadowing helps build suspense and lays the groundwork for clever plot twists as your tale unfolds.
Foreshadowing in storytelling is often subtle and suggestive, using thematic elements like symbolism, mood, language, and characterization. This allows the writer to place covert signals and undertones throughout the story’s plot that keeps readers 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 relies heavily on show vs. tell. Rather than explicitly revealing to readers exactly what’s about to happen, foreshadowing should hint, imply, and suggest a future event, allowing your readers to discover the implied meaning on their own.
The value of foreshadowing for your story
Foreshadowing serves a few key functions that play an integral role in making a scene more interesting, and contributes to the overall impact of the story.
A few key benefits of using this technique in your story include:
Developing reader expectations
Readers enjoy looking for hints that foretell the future, as it allows them to make predictions about what may happen. Using foreshadowing early on 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 learns that their deductions 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 assembling these reader expectations—the feelings of anticipation, excitement, uncertainty, and even dread about impending trials that your main character is facing—the writer can also subtly build tension. Tension within a story heightens the drama and the stakes, and can increase a reader’s emotional connection and invested in the protagonist’s character development.
If a reader anticipates that something bad is going to happen later in the story, the excitement or worry they feel will keep them anxious to keep turning the page to find out if their predictions are correct, and to see how the hero will persevere.
Creating ambiance and atmosphere
Foreshadowing can also play a significant role in building the ambiance, atmosphere, and overall tone. It can imply a lot about how the story will ultimately feel, and—again—help set expectations for your readers.
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.
Types of foreshadowing
Foreshadowing happens in two ways: directly and indirectly. Both of these are helpful in building suspense in a story in their own way.
Direct foreshadowing is when a story overtly suggests an event. This type of foreshadowing will typically occur in a prologue, in dialogue, or sometimes even prophetically. This is when the writer says to the reader, something important is going to happen!
Indirect foreshadowing is when a story leaves hints and clues throughout the narrative for the readers to follow. This might be in certain character traits, symbols, motifs, and language that communicates a bad feeling about the plot elements that are brewing.
Chekhov’s Gun is a literary principle which dictates that “no story should make false promises.” According to this principle, if an element is introduced it needs to be necessary to the story and should come to some kind of resolution.
Anton Chekhov, the renowned Russian playwright and short story writer for whom this technique 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.”
The “gun” can be anything that is introduced with an air of importance, and that thus should directly develop the plot or characterization.
These usually takes place in the form of an actual prophecy that a hero may receive, or that a reader may become privy to without their knowledge. Prophecy is the most direct form of foreshadowing: the reader—and sometimes the protagonist—are told about outcomes of the future, and the story explores how the hero‘s choices lead up to the predicted outcome.
This is a favorite device of the fairy tale form; in Sleeping Beauty, for example, the fairy tale witch foretells that the princess will prick her finger and die in fifteen years.
Prophecies can also provide a unique and interesting twist by being left open-ended, vague, unclear, or positioned so that they may have multiple outcomes.
Flash-forwards and flashbacks
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. Showing things happening out of chronological order provide a way for the author to make note of or explore ideas, events, or characters 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 by referencing something from the past that could impact the current plot, or by subtly implying something pivotal for the future.
Symbolism and metaphor
Abstract and symbolic foreshadowing uses indirect symbols to suggest what happens next. This is more nuanced that direct foreshadowing methods like prophecy, and can be used to heighten ambiance and tone.
The example we mentioned earlier—the two young lovers standing in the field who experience a drastic change in the weather around them—is an example of abstract and symbolic foreshadowing. The peaceful, sunny environment reinforces the idea of their youthful innocence and love, while the chance in weather symbolically implies that the lovers are about to experience a change as well—and perhaps not for the better.
In real life, we look for symbolism and significance in everyday occurrences all the time. This means your readers are primed to pick it up within your narrative.
Fallacies and red herrings
While the principle of Chekhov’s Gun is to not make any false promises, a fallacy or red herring may do just that in an intentional effort to mislead the reader.
The purpose of fallacious foreshadowing, or using a red herring, is to intentionally muddle the story’s direction and throw the reader off so they don’t predict the climax. These misleading clues can make a story more exciting, and can set your readers up for feelings of surprise and shock when the true events 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 someone else entirely. The framed person would be the red herring.
5 foreshadowing techniques and methods
Now that we know how to use literary devices to foreshadow events in a story, let’s look at five writing techniques that can be used to raise these questions and heighten suspense in your writing.
Your book’s 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 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 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 tells us that the physical house will be destroyed, but hints at the destruction of the family that lives within it.
The setting of a story can also be used to foreshadow the events that will take place, and may indirectly provide clues for how the protagonist is feeling or will react to something. Common examples include the weather, the season, the state of repair or disrepair a setting might be in, or its history.
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. Right from the first chapter, 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.
Dialogue between characters is an excellent way to hint at future events in a story. This may appear as:
A recounting of a historical event or providing insight into another character’s personality, hinting at future events of the plot.
An offhand joke that implies some sort of deeper significance or forebodes an event.
Dialogue that showcases an aspect of a person—their personality, beliefs, or other characteristics—that sets them up for a realization that will change them.
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 be an object or moment with some other, deeper meaning, implying that something that happened to a particular 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 man that is described as handsome, clever, and sly as a fox, would give readers a sense that they may fulfill the role of a beguiling trickster.
Other aspects of a your central cast can also present opportunities for foreshadowing. Their physical appearance and attire, their mannerisms and dialogue, and even their history can all be used to foretell events in the plot. For example, a character who often wears clothes that hide a certain aspect of their body may foreshadow the fact they’re concealing something.
3 foreshadowing tips for writers
Foreshadowing presents opportunities to write a complex and engaging story. Direct foreshadowing gives the readers 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 readers either pick up on and enjoys as they try to guess what’s in store, or provides an element of surprise for the readers 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 be, this literary device should be approached with care. Too much foreshadowing causes the book to lose suspense or becomes uninteresting. Ineffective foreshadowing may fall flat and either do nothing for the story, or hinder it by sending confusing signals to your readers. Using this literary device successfully is all about finding the perfect balance.
To successfully include foreshadowing in your story, consider the following step-by-step process:
Start with a plan
An effective way to include foreshadowing is to have the overarching plot, including all the major events that your characters experience, 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 can be refined during your second draft when you have a better understanding of your plot. Then you can get a better sense of whether or not it truly contributes to the reader’s experience.
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 readers to enjoy the curiosity, suspense, and tension. 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!
Use a beta reader
A common struggle for writers is the inability to see the story from a completely fresh perspective. As the writer, you already know what’s going to happen, so it can be difficult to gauge if your foreshadowing is doing its job.
This is why it’s a good idea to collaborate with 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.
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. The following foreshadowing examples offer a great starting point to better understand how this literary device is used in practice.
Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is a legendary example of foreshadowing. The novella is rife with suspenseful elements, 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 Curley.
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.
Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare
Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s plays that most heavily relies on foreshadowing. It’s used to heighten tension in every scene, 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.
“The Monkey’s Paw,” by W.W. Jacobs
W. W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw” is a short story filled with foreshadowing. It 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 stories highly engaging, but can also entice a reader to re-read each scene to find all of the hints they missed the first time.
It’s a literary device that takes time to master, and may require some revision to ensure that your breadcrumbs are just enough to keep the reader guessing—but not laid down with such a heavy hand that they spoil the ending. But when done right, it’s worth the attention to detail!