What is Foreshadowing?

Foreshadowing is a hint in a story of future events, character revelations, and plot twists in order to build suspense, create a mood, or begin to reveal an important theme. While foreshadowing can be found in poetry, speeches, and songs, it is most often a literary technique that is used in prose. Foreshadowing is one of the most effective methods an author can use to draw the reader’s attention to a character or event that will lead to multiple layers of meaning and understanding later. Foreshadowing doesn’t always have to be foreboding; in fact, foreshadowing can be used to hint at good things to cross a character’s path later on in the story.

Types of Foreshadowing

There are five common types of foreshadowing seen in literature.

Flashback

A flashback is the interruption of a sequential narrative plot to present important events that have happened in the past that may shape important character traits, events, or themes of the present or future in a story. “Where I want to start telling is the day I left Pencey Prep.” – J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951).

Flash-forward

A flash-forward is the interruption of a sequential narrative plot to present important events that will happen in the future that may shape important character traits, events, or themes of the past or present in a story. “Scrooge crept towards it, trembling as he went; and following the finger, read upon the stone of the neglected grave his own name, EBENEZER SCROOGE.” – Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843).

Symbolic / Abstract Foreshadowing

Symbolic or abstract foreshadowing occurs when the author focuses on a person, object, abstract idea, emotions, or thoughts of a character in order to enhance their importance and hint at that symbol’s more prominent role in the events of a story. “‘A rat is a rat,’ said Charlotte. She laughed a tinkling little laugh. ‘But, my friends, if that ancient egg ever breaks, this barn will be untenable.’… ‘I won’t break it,’ snarled Templeton. ‘I know what I’m doing. I handle stuff like this all the time.'” – E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (1952).

Chekov’s Gun / Concrete Foreshadowing

Named after Russian playwright Anton Chekov, Chekov’s Gun is a foreshadowing technique that asserts that every element in a story must be important, so the narrator makes clear to the audience that certain items or people will impact the story later on.  “It was a heavy lump of glass, curved on one side, flat on the other, making almost a hemisphere…. At the heart of it, magnified by the curved surface, there was a strange, pink, convoluted object that recalled a rose or a sea anemone….Winston immediately paid over the four dollars and slid the coveted thing into his pocket.” George Orwell’s 1984 (1949).

Prophecy / Omen

A prophecy or omen is a foreshadowing technique in which future plot events are explicitly revealed, usually in a dream, by a soothsayer, fortune-teller, or prophet, or by some other supernatural means. “Caesar! Beware the Ides of March!” – William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar (1599).

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Examples of Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing in a Sentence

The following are common uses of repetition in everyday phrases:

  • “Curiosity killed the cat!” A common saying that often foreshadows misfortune for someone who will not give up on trying to solve a mystery, or find answers to a question.
  • “It was a dark and stormy..” This phrase is often used to exemplify how mood can foreshadow unfortunate events that will happen later on in a story.
  • “First, a black cat walked in front of me and hissed, then a bucket of paint fell on me as I walked under a ladder! I should never have broken that chain letter!” Unlucky symbols in folklore foreshadow later misfortune on unsuspecting victims.
  • “My horoscope said to beware of any people I meet today who are wearing the color red. Since it’s Valentine’s Day, I think I’ll stay inside.” Horoscopes, fortune tellers, and other prophetic methods are often used to foreshadow ill-intentioned people or disastrous events.
  • “I had this nagging feeling that something was wrong with Heather. Eventually, it became so strong, I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I had to go find my sister.” Emotions that seem to come from an inexplicable intuition are often a foreshadowing of events, both in literature and in real life.

(Further Reading: Top 10 Examples of Foreshadowing in TV Shows, Movies, and Plays)

Foreshadowing  in Poetry

Foreshadowing in poetry is usually used in narrative poems to create mood and tone and help focus the reader on an important line, idea, sound, or theme. The following are examples of foreshadowing found in famous poems:

“The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore–

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,

As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

‘Tis some visitor,’ I muttered, ‘tapping at my chamber door–

Only this, and nothing more.'”

This opening to Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous narrative poem uses foreshadowing to create mood, tension, and suspense. The poem begins at midnight on a dreary night when all of a sudden there is a tapping on the narrator’s door. A strange visitor knocking on someone’s door in the middle of the night is a situation that should raise alarms for the reader, even if the narrator doesn’t seem too concerned. The narrator’s lack of concern about his visitor also foreshadows that this is probably going to be someone more significant than he thinks, primarily because of the time and weather in which the visitor arrives. This first stanza sets the scene for the narrator’s inner turmoil over losing his beloved Lenore to be revealed, along with the mystery and fright of a black, talking, creepy bird who will not leave the narrator alone.

“Paul Revere’s Ride” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“Just as the moon rose over the bay,

Where swinging wide at her moorings lay

The Somerset, the British man-of-war;

A phantom ship with each mast and spar

Across the moon like a prison bar,

And a huge black hulk, that was magnified,

By its own reflection in the tide.”

This excerpt from the famous children’s poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow uses foreshadowing to create suspense for the battle that is about to break out between the British and the Colonists during the American Revolutionary War. While the actual events that resulted in the Battles of Lexington and Concord included more riders than just Revere, the tension created by the mood in these lines highlights the threat that the British forces impose on the Colonists and their quest for independence. The Battles of Lexington and Concord were the first official military engagements between the two sides, as the British attempted to confiscate the stockpiles of weapons from the Colonists in the hopes that they could quickly quash the rebellion and win the conflict. The British was beginning to establish the largest empire in the world, with the largest navy and an established army; these lines foreshadow one of the great ships that would bring this army and their military might to the Colonies, and they are a massive force.

“The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes

“The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.

The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.”

The opening lines from this narrative poem by Alfred Noyes foreshadows the grim story which the narrator is about to reveal to the reader. The highway man arrives in the dark night to tell the inn-keeper’s daughter Bess that he will return to her; their love is palpable, and danger swirls around this mysterious quest that the highway man is about to undertake. The wind, darkness, and “ghostly” galleon all create the mood of suspense and fear, foreshadowing that this meeting of the highwayman and Bess is most likely doomed.

(Further Reading: Top 10 Examples of Foreshadowing in Poetry)

Foreshadowing in Literature

Foreshadowing in literature is used to create mood and suspense, to prepare the reader for future events, or to shape an important theme or message. The following are examples of foreshadowing found in famous works of literature:

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

“Although, by a seemingly careless arrangement of his heterogeneous garb, he had endeavored to conceal or abate the peculiarity, it was sufficiently evident to Hester Prynne that one of this man’s shoulders rose higher than the other. Again, at the first instant of perceiving that thin visage, and the slight deformity of the figure, she pressed her infant to her bosom with so convulsive a force that the poor babe uttered another cry of pain. But the mother did not seem to hear it.”

In this passage from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the description of the stranger      with one shoulder raised higher than the other foreshadows both his terrifying presence to Hester Prynne and her child, and his evil nature. Using physiognomy, or a physical deformity to indicate a deformed or evil soul, the narrator is highlighting that this stranger is a man that      Hester fears and will bring problems into her life. Later on, the reader discovers that this man is her husband, and he stays in disguise as Roger Chillingworth until he can uncover Reverend Dimmesdale’s secrets and the secret of who Pearl’s real father is.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne

“Bruno frowned. He looked up at the sky, and as he did so there was another loud sound, this time the sound of thunder overhead, and just as quickly the sky seemed to grow even darker, almost black, and rain poured down even more heavily than it had in the morning.”

This excerpt from John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas foreshadows Bruno and Shmuel’s impending doom. Bruno’s innocence about the true nature of his father’s role as a Commandant in the Nazi SS and what Shmuel was actually enduring on the other side of the fence in Auschwitz have led him to want to explore the camp, and help Shmuel find his father. This is supposed to be their final adventure together before Bruno moves back to Berlin, but it becomes their final adventure on earth. The darkness cause by the storm mirrors the darkness of the gas chamber which they are ushered into, unaware of their fate.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

“Candy said, ‘George.’

‘Huh?’

‘I ought to of shot that dog myself, George. I shouldn’t ought to of let no stranger shoot my dog.'”

In this excerpt from John Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men, Lennie’s death is foreshadowed by Candy’s decision to let Carlson shoot his old beloved dog. Candy’s old dog has arthritis and smells terrible from his elderly dog dental disease. The men in the bunk complain about him, and finally Carlson convinces Candy to let him put the dog out of his misery. He takes the dog outside, and Candy stays inside; he regrets this choice, because he feels as his best friend he should have been the one there at the end of his dog’s life instead of a stranger. In this way, George has to make the same decision for Lennie after he accidentally kills Curley’s wife and the mob of men are after him. George kills his friend out of mercy, rather than allow strangers to do it.

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