What Is Foreshadowing? | Definition & Examples

Rhetoric updated on  February 9, 2024 5 min read

Foreshadowing provides hints, clues, or indications about what happens later in a story. By preparing readers for future developments, foreshadowing creates anticipation and suspense. This makes it an effective technique used in most types of storytelling, including novels, plays, and movies.

Foreshadowing definition literature

“My life were better ended by their hate,
Than death proroguèd, wanting of thy love.”

In these lines from Romeo and Juliet (Act 2, Scene 2), Romeo declares that he would rather die at the hands of Julia’s family, the Capulets, than live without her. These words foreshadow the events leading to their deaths: they take their lives due to their families' feud.

What does foreshadowing mean?

Foreshadowing is a literary device where authors hint at things that will happen later in the story. These hints can be subtle or indirect; their significance becomes clear as the story progresses. For example, nonsensical dreams can foreshadow future events. However, the reader only realizes this later in the narrative when the dreams become true.

Sometimes, foreshadowing can be more overt or direct. For instance, the prologue in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet reveals that “a pair of star-crossed lovers take their lives.” The foreshadowing here sets the tone for the play and establishes the inevitability of the tragic events that will unfold.

The purpose of foreshadowing is to build tension and suspense in a story. By arousing the readers' or audience's curiosity about what comes next, foreshadowing keeps them engaged and emotionally invested in the story. However, foreshadowing is effective when it hints at later developments without giving away the entire storyline. Otherwise, this may spoil the audience’s enjoyment of the story.

How does foreshadowing work?

Authors can incorporate foreshadowing into their narrative in various ways, such as:

  • Title: Many titles reveal what will happen in the story. For example, The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe sets the stage for a murder mystery and builds suspense. However, the title does not reveal the intricacies of the plot (i.e., the culprit is an escaped orangutan), which keeps the reader engaged.
  • Symbolism: Authors use recurring symbols, like colors and objects, to foreshadow future developments and themes in the narrative. In The Great Gatsby, the titular character repeatedly reaches out for a green light on the other side of the lake, without ever grasping it. This light marks Daisy’s boat dock and symbolizes Gatsby’s undying love for Daisy. His inability to reach for the light foreshadows his failure to win over Daisy.
  • Dialogue: Seemingly casual remarks, jokes, or ominous comments can take on a new meaning as the story unfolds. In Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” Harvey Dent, Gotham City’s district attorney, says to Bruce Wayne, “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” This dialogue is an example of foreshadowing, hinting at the transformation of Harvey Dent into a villain later in the movie.
  • Prophecies: A more direct form of foreshadowing, prophecies provide clear insights into the future. Prophecies can take various forms. For example, they may come from seers delivering ambiguous or cryptic messages to add an element of mystery or ancient texts predicting the rise of a “chosen one.”
  • Dreams: Similar to prophecies, dreams can serve as warnings of future events. In Jane Eyre, the protagonist has several dreams foreshadowing things to come. For example, the dream about the destruction of Thornfield Hall comes true when another character burns down the estate.
  • Setting: Detailed descriptions of the environment, the landscape, or the weather can create a mood or atmosphere that foreshadows imminent events. A vivid description of a barren and desolate landscape surrounding a rundown mansion can hint at themes of isolation and despair in a narrative.

Foreshadowing examples

In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the weather plays an important role in setting the atmosphere and foreshadowing developments in the story.

Example of foreshadowing in literature

Rain and storms occur frequently throughout the story, preceding significant or tragic events. For example, when Victor creates the monster, there is a violent storm raging. The description of extreme weather conditions is not just a backdrop in the story; the violence of the storm creates a sense of foreboding and unease, foreshadowing the danger and violence that will ensue as a result of his experiment. Similarly, storms coincide with other key moments of confrontation between characters, like when Victor finally meets his creation in the Alps.


Screenwriters also incorporate foreshadowing into their films to enhance the narrative and connect different scenes.

Example of foreshadowing in literature

In Jurassic Park (1993), a dinosaur attempts to break into the control room of the theme park, where two scientists and two children are present. The scientists are unable to operate the computer and close the doors. In a critical moment, the young girl jumps to the rescue and manages to activate the doors with a few keystrokes. Earlier in the movie, we see the young girl correcting her brother by saying she is a hacker, not a nerd, foreshadowing her skill with technology.

Foreshadowing is similar to, and sometimes confused with, the following literary devices:

  • Dramatic irony: Like foreshadowing, dramatic irony creates suspense. However, in dramatic irony, suspense comes from the fact that the audience knows something a character in the story does not.
  • Allusion: An allusion is an indirect reference to a recognizable event, person, or literary work within a story. Like foreshadowing, allusions provide clues about how the story will unfold or the fate of a character. However, foreshadowing influences the plot directly, whereas allusions leave it up to the audience to make the connection.
  • Red herring: In literature, a red herring is a misleading clue. The authors deliberately plant it into the plot to send the reader down the wrong path. Foreshadowing, on the other hand, provides genuine clues about the story’s direction.
Do you want to know more about common mistakes, commonly confused words, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.


Idioms

Parts of speech

Fallacies

Diamond in the rough

Irregular verb

Slippery slope fallacy

Idioms

Gerund

Sunk cost fallacy

Piece of cake

Infinitive phrase

Ad hominem fallacy

Better late than never

Infinitive

Appeal to authority fallacy

Salt of the earth

Adverb

Circular reasoning fallacy


Frequently asked questions about foreshadowing

What is an example of foreshadowing?

The title of Agatha Christie’s novel, Murder on the Orient Express, is a prime example of foreshadowing. The title already hints at the setting and circumstances and piques the reader's curiosity. At the same time, it turns the reader’s attention not on what is going to happen but on how it is going to happen, which is a crucial aspect of the plot.

What is the difference between foreshadowing and spoilers?

Foreshadowing and spoilers involve revealing information about future events in a story, but they should not be confused.

  • Foreshadowing is an indirect suggestion or clue about what comes next. It is usually so subtle that it may go unnoticed until later in the narrative. Foreshadowing maintains the audience’s curiosity and engagement in the story.
  • On the other hand, a spoiler is a direct and explicit revelation about story developments. As the name suggests, it spoils the audience’s enjoyment of the story and is typically unwanted.

In short, foreshadowing is a narrative technique that adds to the depth and complexity of storytelling, whereas a spoiler diminishes the impact of storytelling.


Tags

Kassiani

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex information into easily accessible articles to help others.

Great! You've successfully subscribed.
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access.
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.