I. What is Foreshadowing?
Foreshadowing is a literary device that gives the audience hints or signs about the future. It suggests what is to come through imagery, language, and/or symbolism. It does not directly give away the outcome, but rather, suggests it.
II. Examples of Foreshadowing
To foreshadow an event in a story, the audience is given direct and/or subtle clues about what will happen. Imagine this scene:
A professionally dressed woman hurriedly leaves the house, slamming the front door. She frantically searches for her keys in the bottom of a giant purse while balancing a briefcase under her other arm. She finds her keys, gets in the car and begins backing out of the driveway, and then slams on the brakes. “I feel like I’m forgetting something,” she says. She shrugs and drives away.
With only this information, we can predict the outcome of this story—the woman has forgotten something important at home, and she probably won’t realize it until she needs it, perhaps at a meeting. Her clothing, behavior, and dialogue are all clues that work together to foreshadow what will happen in her future. Now, imagine the same situation, reenacted with slight differences:
A professionally dressed woman hurriedly leaves the house, slamming the front door. She frantically searches for her keys in the bottom of a giant purse while balancing a briefcase under her other arm. She finds her keys, gets in the car, and backs out of the driveway. As the car drives away, the camera moves back towards the front door and into the house, where a USB stick is sitting on a shelf next to the front door.
In this scene, the situation is the same, but the details are different. It shows us the USB stick, forgotten by the woman, which foreshadows a future conflict.
III. Types of Foreshadowing
There are many different techniques by which foreshadowing is employed. It can be used directly, indirectly, by prophecy, and through symbolism and omens.
a. Foreshadowing – Direct
Hinting at an outcome or event by openly (directly) suggesting what could happen.
b. Foreshadowing – Indirect (subtle)
Hinting at an outcome or event by leaving subtle (indirect) clues to the plotline.
c. Foreshadowing by Prophecy
A prophecy foreshadows a crucial event without revealing the details on how it will occur. In storytelling, as a general rule, a prophecy always comes true in one way or another, which makes it a very effective foreshadowing tool. Some of the most famous uses of foreshadowing through prophecy can be found in the Bible.
d. Foreshadowing through Symbolism and/or Omen
This uses minor or insignificant things as symbols that foreshadow something that will happen. For example, a crow is often an omen of death, thus, the appearance of a crow could foreshadow a character’s demise.
IV. Importance of Foreshadowing
Foreshadowing is used for many different purposes; however, its target is always the audience. It is a technique used to change the perception of the audience by providing them with more knowledge than to some or all of actual characters involved. Depending on how it is used, it can serve as an element for humor, fear, tension, excitement, suspicion or, most commonly, suspense and anticipation.
Furthermore, by revealing clues to the plotline, foreshadowing works as a tool to help the audience feel more invested in a story. It encourages them to develop personal opinions and predictions about the outcome, which in turn makes them more likely to continue watching, listening, or reading. Without the use of foreshadowing, the audience would rarely feel the desire to finish a story.
V. Examples of Foreshadowing in Literature
Some of the most famous examples of foreshadowing in literature can be found in Shakespeare’s works. Romeo and Juliet is brimming with lines that foreshadow future events in the play. For example, in the famous balcony scene, Romeo expresses that he wouldn’t mind being caught by Juliet’s guards, stating that,
life were better ended by their hate, / Than death prorogued, wanting of thy love.
In simple terms, Romeo would rather die than live his life without Juliet’s love. His words foreshadow Romeo and Juliet’s suicides, and the family conflict that precedes their deaths.
In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the students have an Herbology lesson with Professor Sprout, who begins by asking the class is they know what “Mandrakes” are, to which Hermione answers,
Mandrake, or Mandragora, is a powerful restorative…It is used to return people who have been transfigured our cursed back to their original state.
While Harry and his classmates attend many classes each day, Rowling specifically chooses to share this class with her readers. Professor Sprout’s lesson teaches them that one of the Mandrake’s healing properties can bring a cursed (or petrified) person back to their normal state. Rowling is hinting to the readers that the Mandrakes will be necessary later in the book, foreshadowing that a character (or characters) will be cursed later in the story. Furthermore, it foreshadows that the monster from the Chamber of Secrets is a Basilisk, as this is a beast whose gaze can lead to a person becoming petrified.
In Chapter 7 of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Bilbo and the dwarves are soon to be entering the dark forest of Mirkwood. The character Beorn explicitly warns them, several times, not to leave the path in the forest. With his last words to the company, he repeats the warning:
[b]e good, take care of yourselves – and DON’T LEAVE THE PATH!
Tolkien’s choice to capitalize the words “DON’T LEAVE THE PATH” adds emphasis to the subject—drawing attention to the path makes it significant. The reader now knows that staying on the path will be crucial to the story’s plot, whether for good or for ill. However, the urgency of the warning suggests that danger inevitably awaits the Bilbo and the dwarves—most likely, of course, as a result of straying from the path.
VI. Examples of Foreshadowing in Pop Culture
Storytellers often use foreshadowing to develop an air of foreboding. In the film The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, there is conflict between vampires and Quileute werewolves. But, Bella Swan is, who is in love with a vampire and best friends with a werewolf, is caught in the middle. In the following clip, she learns of an old Quileute legend:
Throughout this scene, we can sense Bella’s growing anxiety as she hears the folktale. She hangs on every word, becoming more and more sullen as the story progresses. The tale discusses details connected to Bella and her way of thinking—her lack of magical powers, her willingness to die for her lover Edward, her quickness to sacrifice herself—all of these things are mirrored in the Quileute tale. Bella’s reaction lets the audience know that the story will be significant to the plotline. The scene foreshadows the climax of the film, when Bella, like the woman in the legend, cuts herself to distract the vampires and save Edward.
Foreshadowing is frequently used to raise tension and anticipation among the audience.
In The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the Fellowship are in a life-or-death situation: they need to choose a new path, and quickly, and their alternatives aren’t easy:
In this clip, Gimli is urging that they go through the Mines of Moria. His suggestion seems like the best option…however, we can see Gandalf’s fear as Saruman discloses that the dwarves awoke something evil in Moria, and we are shown an illustration of what he calls “shadow and flame.” When Frodo chooses Moria, it seems likely that we will meet this creature sometime in the near future. This is also an example of foreshadowing in which the audience shares the point of view of one character and not the others. In this case, we are sharing Gandalf’s point of view, and since he knows more about Moria than the rest of the Fellowship, we know more too. We now know, alongside Gandalf, that every step the Fellowship takes will lead closer to the danger that awaits.
VII. Related Terms
Flash-forwarding and foreshadowing are similar. However, a flash-forward shows what will actually happen in the future, while foreshadowing only hints at what will happen.
A red herring misleads the audience, guiding them towards one outcome with the intention of hiding the actual outcome. In many murder mysteries, for example, the author leads the reader to believe that a certain character is the killer, taking away all suspicion away from the real killer.
Chekov’s Gun is a device used in drama and literature that requires every element of a story to be vital. The idea is that if there is a gun on the stage in one scene, it should be fired in a future scene. So, an object that seems insignificant may turn out to be a key element later on. For instance, in the above example of indirect foreshadowing, the pot holding the poisonous flower functions as “Chekov’s Gun”—it is crucial, yet unobvious.
In conclusion, foreshadowing is a very valuable tool in storytelling. Since it is a technique that can be used to instill almost any feeling in the audience—humor, tension, fear, anticipation—its use is almost always essential in the success of a story. Lastly, it gives the audience clues to the future without wholly revealing the plotline, which, in turn, encourages them to stick with the story and follow it until the end.