foreshadowing definition

Foreshadowing Definition: How to Use Foreshadowing in Your Fiction

Foreshadowing is a clue in the text that hints at events to come. Have you ever woken up with an unsettling feeling, and then something terrible happens later in the day? Or, has your boss ever hinted at the great work you’re doing, then offered you a promotion a couple months later? When this hinting-and-happening occurs in fiction, you get foreshadowing—a powerful tool for creating a complex plot.

Often, foreshadowing in fiction is subtle, like when Jane Eyre dreams of Thornfield Hall in ruins, or when Romeo proclaims “My life were better ended by their hate, than death prorogued, wanting of thy love.” In these scenarios, the reader is not aware that an event was foreshadowed until after they reflect on the text—but this reflection, and the employment of foreshadowing in literature, makes a text richer and truer to life.

But what is foreshadowing precisely, how do readers benefit from it, and how do writers wield it to their advantage? Let’s take an in-depth look at this complex literary device, with an eye towards foreshadowing examples in fiction and suggestions for your own work.

Foreshadowing Definition: What is Foreshadowing?

A story or novel hooks the reader if several conditions are met: if there is an interesting protagonist, an interesting plot, and interesting language. These are the three big ones. Forsake any of these and your work will fail.

One element of plot is foreshadowing. Readers like to watch for signs of future plot development—signs, not signposts. In other words, the potential for a plot’s development is clued in the text, but not stated so openly that we know what happens next.

Foreshadowing definition: Clues of what comes next in the story. These are signs, not signposts, of future plot development.

Hinting at these future events helps pull the reader along the story, while also complicating the narrative. In real life, it often feels like certain actions and events foreshadow our own destinies. Foreshadowing doesn’t just compel the reader, it emulates life to its truest possible extent.

Let’s take a look at some foreshadowing examples in literature, before turning to possibilities in our own works of fiction.

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Foreshadowing Examples

The following foreshadowing examples come from published works of classic literature. Links to the text have been supplied where possible. Do note that, because foreshadowing often points towards climactic events in the novel, some spoilers are necessary.

Foreshadowing Examples in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

You can find the full text of this novel at Project Gutenberg.

Fitzgerald’s most famous work, The Great Gatsby, details the tragedy of the American Dream. The novel’s titular protagonist, Jay Gatsby, becomes obsessed with obtaining the love of Daisy Buchanan.

When we first encounter Gatsby, he is reaching out towards a green light that is shining on Daisy’s side of the dock. This is an enduring symbol of the novel, because Gatsby is reaching out for something faint, ephemeral, and unattainable, much like Daisy herself. Gatsby’s relationship to Daisy is doomed from the start, as she is already married to a classmate of Gatsby’s, and she chooses to relinquish any agency in her relationships.

Gatsby’s death is also foreshadowed in the novel. Early on, Nick (the narrator) writes that Gatsby “turned out all right at the end.” That line suggests that the story ends without major consequence, but it’s a red herring. Upon a re-read, it seems to suggest that Gatsby ends up the hero of the story, since he actually dies towards the novel’s end.

Explaining this death requires a bit of backstory. Daisy, Gatsby’s beloved, is married to Tom. Tom also has a mistress named Myrtle, and Myrtle has a husband named George. Daisy kills Myrtle in a car accident. George, believing that Gatsby killed Myrtle, kills Gatsby in revenge. Prior to this, there are frequent mentions of death, car accidents, carelessness, and even hearses, all of which conspire to foreshadow Gatsby’s demise.

Foreshadowing Examples in Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved, perhaps Toni Morrison’s best-known novel, is about a family of former slaves after the American Civil War whose house is haunted by a mischievous ghost. The novel frequently foreshadows the identity of this ghost. It’s important to note the traumas of American Slavery often recur throughout the novel, warping Beloved’s sense of linear time, so some instances of foreshadowing might also be explained as backstory.

Sethe, the novel’s protagonist, clings on to what little family she can hold at 124 Bluestone Road. The house has been haunted for years, which drove away Sethe’s sons 8 years prior to the start of the novel. Initially, they exorcize the house. But, soon after, the ghost comes back in the form of Beloved, a mysterious young woman who stays with the family.

Later in the novel, it is revealed that Sethe once fled slavery, crossing the Kentucky border into Ohio. She was abducted and forced to return to slavery, but before the U.S. marshals found her, she killed her eldest daughter, not wanting her children to return to slavery with her. This complicated act of love has come back to haunt Sethe in the form of Beloved, who becomes an unhealthy obsession for Sethe. Throughout the novel, she seeks forgiveness from her daughter for the murder she was forced to commit.

Beloved’s identity is frequently foreshadowed. When Sethe recounts how she killed her eldest daughter, she only suspects the identity of Beloved. Prior to this, it is clear that the ghost haunting 124 Bluestone Road is a baby, and that Sethe had an unnamed daughter who had died 18 years ago. There are also frequent references to the throat, including a scene later in the novel when Beloved tries to slit Sethe’s throat; this foreshadows the revelation that Sethe killed her daughter by cutting her throat with a handsaw.

As a result of the interplay between past and present, foreshadowing functions as a form of recurring trauma, allowing Sethe to relive the horrors of her past and to reconcile those horrors. The novel forms an enduring message about hope, recovery, and the necessity of community, especially in the aftermath of unfathomable trauma.

Foreshadowing Examples in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

You can find the full text of this novel here.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a story about racial justice in the Jim Crow South, as told from the perspective of Scout Finch. Scout’s father, Atticus, becomes the attorney of Tom Robinson, a black man who has been wrongfully accused of sexually assaulting Mayella Ewell.

An all-white jury declares Tom Robinson guilty, despite the fact that Atticus proves how Mayella and her father, Bob Ewell, are lying. Then, Tom Robinson is killed trying to escape from prison.

Although justice does not prevail how the reader wants it to, the events of the trial humiliate the Ewells, as the townspeople clearly see how Bob and Mayella lied and that Mayella made frequent advances on Tom Robinson. As a result, Bob Ewell tries to kill Scout and her brother, Jem. They are rescued by their neighbor, Boo Radley, and Jem breaks his arm.

All of this is foreshadowed, albeit vaguely, at the start of the novel. Scout is talking about the time Jem broke his arm when he was almost 13 when she writes “I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.”

For writers, pay attention to how foreshadowing is drawing the reader into the story. We don’t know why Jem breaks his arm, but we know it has to do with the Ewells and with Boo Radley. When we meet these characters later in the novel, our attention has been focused towards them, and we know to trust that the story will satisfy.

Foreshadowing Examples in Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

You can find the full text of this novel here.

Of Mice and Men is a novella about two migrant workers, George and Lennie, during the Great Depression. George is cautious and smart, while Lennie is physically strong but unintelligent, and George often has to protect Lennie from the consequences of his strength and foolishness.

Lennie’s antics make it much harder for both him and George to hold onto stable work. At the beginning of the novella, the two are wandering through California after Lennie was accused of trying to assault a woman (though it was simply a misunderstanding).

Soon after working at a new farm, Slim, a gentle muleteer, has to kill four pups that his dog recently birthed because the mother couldn’t support that many. This introduces the idea that anything too weak for the world isn’t fit to survive, and it also foreshadows Lennie’s death.

Later, a rancher named Candy has to kill his old and weakened dog. Carlson, a fellow ranch-hand, kills the dog for Candy, but Candy laments that he would have rather done it himself.

At the end of the novella, Lennie has accidentally broken the neck of a woman on the farm. (This is also foreshadowed earlier when Lennie kills a puppy by stroking its fur.) Lennie’s accident forces a lynch mob to form on the farm, but before they can kill him, George kills Lennie himself, knowing he will deliver a more merciful death, and believing that Lennie’s closest friend should kill him, as Candy wishes he could have killed his dog himself.

All of this foreshadowing, as well as Lennie’s inevitable death, points towards the harsh lives that migrant workers lead, as they often had to make difficult and isolating decisions for the sake of their survival in a cruel, unforgiving world.

4 Foreshadowing Techniques for Writers

Readers want that fine subtlety that involves them in the story, in the sequence of action that fulfills the plot. What kinds of signs—or hints?

Let’s examine foreshadowing techniques that will serve you well in advancing your plot. Think of plot as the causal connections between the different conflicts of your story or novel and actions that stem from these conflicts.

Think of plot as the causal connections between the different conflicts of your story or novel and actions that stem from these conflicts.

One foreshadowing technique is character action, which suggests actions that will happen later, whether it’s a plot development in the character’s favor or a reversal—one that sets your protagonist back.

A second technique is the use of plot reversals. A third technique is dialogue that prepares us for a later plot development. A fourth is the use of setting.

Let’s consider each of these foreshadowing techniques, starting with character actions.

Technique 1: Character Actions

Character actions can predict future plot developments. Some actions might advance the plot and prefigure other actions.

However, some actions might not advance the plot at all, but rather suggest future developments, and perhaps the reader won’t pick up on the way they hint at plot developments until looking back and thinking, “Aha!” An example of this is when Carlson kills Candy’s dog in Of Mice and Men, which foreshadows when George kills Lennie.

There is a subtlety about such actions. Their purpose might be more metaphorical than literal.

The following actions are predictive of future plot developments:

Scenario 1: Chekhov’s Gun

The most famous example of action and foreshadowing is Chekhov’s gun. Chekov wrote: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise, don’t put it there.”

If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise, don’t put it there.

Scenario 2: The Scene of the Crime

If your protagonist takes a sudden interest in a murder, especially one receiving daily newspaper coverage, we will certainly wonder what’s going on.

Let’s say his wife notices her husband’s unusual interest in this crime case. Maybe she jokes, “You planning on solving the crime for the cops, are you?” Later if we find out that he’s the murderer, we will see that he was, in a sense, “returning to the scene of the crime,” in taking extraordinary interest in this murder. This poring over the newspaper coverage foreshadows his arrest for murder.

Scenario 3: Use of Metaphor

Perhaps a character accidentally drops a hundred-dollar bill in a crowded shopping mall. He frantically searches for it from one end of the mall to another, but finally gives up, thinking, “That’s typical of me—I can’t seem to hold on to anything.” He recalls how he accidentally dropped his cell phone in a lake when he was out in a motorboat.

Now imagine that later this character accidentally “drops” several important details in an important company report.  He confesses to his mistake of “dropping” them. Perceptive readers will recall the dropping of the hundred dollars (as well as that cellphone) as foreshadowing of this serious blunder. The second “dropping” works metaphorically as a reminder of the first one.

Technique 2: Plot Reversals

Plot reversals can be foreshadowed, but they can also function as foreshadowing examples.

What is a plot reversal? Let’s say a character is moving along, her life improving, and then the rug is pulled out from under her. As readers, we expect certain reversals in fiction, just as we experience them in real life. (In Aristotelian poetics, this reversal is known as peripeteia.)

To knit a story together, think of plot movement as twists and turns, as gains and losses. A story that reveals ups but no downs is going to feel like a lie. That simply isn’t life as we know it.

As readers, we expect certain reversals in fiction, just as we experience them in real life.

What are some examples of character actions that can foreshadow plot reversals?

Scenario 1: Getting in Shape

For instance, let’s say that your protagonist’s goal is to get in shape. He works out every day. Jogs five miles or more. Goes on a strict diet. But one day, when he’s on his morning run, he trips on the root of a tree, falls, and breaks his ankle.

This reversal foreshadows other reversals—worse ones. A careless driver hits him and puts him in the hospital. But he’s not beaten. After considerable physical therapy he’s back to it. And then, from eating lettuce (he swore off meat), he gets a bad case of e-coli. For him, it’s now a matter of cosmic irony. What’s next? That first reversal—breaking his ankle—serves as foreshadowing of other reversals, and he might well see it that way. But… don’t be too explicit. Let the readers see his first injury as foreshadowing. Don’t explain!

Scenario 2: A Risky Investment

Let’s say your protagonist invests some money in a new venture. For a while things are looking really good. He doubles his monthly income. He’s told, and he believes it, that if he stays with this business, he’ll triple what he’s pulled in this month—he’ll even quadruple it!

And then, as so often happens, things go bad. How to account for it? Just the market, he’s told. Things will get better soon.

It’s not the market. It’s a scam. And he’s been had.

One night he sticks a gun up to his head and pulls the trigger. Somehow, he survives.

How do we foreshadow that serious attempt on his life?

Perhaps he’s a heavy drinker, and one night, long before he got involved in this business venture, he was in his study with a gun up to his head. He didn’t pull the trigger.

His wife caught him doing this.

Once he’d vented what he was despairing of, she said she was contacting a therapist. “You’ve got clinical depression,” she said.

That scene foreshadows his attempted suicide.

Of course, this sort of foreshadowing is rather on the nose. How about a more subtle action? Perhaps, years earlier, he had formed an interest in guns. After he studied gun magazines and spent some time on the internet poring over the possibilities, he finally bought one. His wife hated the idea, but he said they needed it to protect themselves; after all, there had been break-ins in the neighborhood.

He looked that gun over, fondling it.

“Something wrong with you?” his wife said. “Put that thing away.”

As the story or novel unfolds, we’ll wonder if she’s right. Maybe something is wrong with him.

Technique 3: Use of Dialogue

A character can predict the plot through dialogue. This remark can be either explicit or subtle. The future occurrence can be as suggested, or the opposite could be true.

A character can predict the plot through dialogue.

Scenario 1:  The prediction comes true

The prediction can be directly stated or indirectly suggested. Your protagonist says to her antagonist, “Someday you’re going to be sorry for the way you treat me.” At some point, in your novel, this antagonist says, “I’ve not been good to you, I know, but I’m sorry… I really am.”

What the protagonist predicted comes true. It’s probably best to separate your protagonist’s remark a number of chapters from the antagonist’s apology. Foreshadowing assumes sufficient plot and character development.

Scenario 2:  The opposite proves to be true

Sometimes a statement foreshadows the opposite. Your antagonist states, “I’ll be spending a week away. That’s all. It’s not like I’m moving out!” We remember a line like that, and when, fifteen chapters later, your antagonist demands a separation, we see that this antagonist is, indeed, moving out. The opposite of what the antagonist let on to be true (not moving out) proves to be true.

Technique 4: Use of Setting

Setting details can signal things to come.  If the setting is favorable to the protagonist in some way, we’ll probably be looking for some sort of development. Perhaps the setting will be a harbinger of other good things—or better things. Setting can also be predictive of bad things—or worse things.

Consider two hypothetical storylines.

Scenario 1: Infestation of Termites

Your protagonist’s house is overrun with termites. Truly an infestation. Later in the story, your protagonist is dealing with stage four cancer as well as serious money problems resulting from medical costs, loss of income, etc. The termite infestation—a threat to his house—foreshadows the cancer—a threat to his life—if the parallel becomes apparent enough through compelling imagery. If you intend to use setting as analogous to a particular state or condition, it’s best not to be too explicit but to allow the reader to make the leap. Show, don’t tell.

Scenario 2: A blank wall

Imagine that your protagonist’s office looks out on a blue lake and a relaxing view of people strolling or jogging along it. In the distance, your protagonist can see white mountain peaks.  Often it’s hard to work with such a pleasant sight—one that tends to be embracing. It makes her feel free in spite of the fact that she’s loaded down with paperwork, appointments with clients, and staff meetings. This work becomes overwhelming, and later in the novel your protagonist faces the prospect of being demoted or even fired. Now she feels that her chances for success with this company are threatened. But she keeps at it, staying late.

Finally, she is demoted.

How can you foreshadow this? Perhaps a third of the way through the novel, she is moved from her plush corner office space to one that faces another building, steel and glass like this one. Only the most successful, the winners, get the corner offices. Low-level workers get the worst views. Now, she feels trapped, and you can suggest, without explicitly stating it, that she’s facing a blank wall. What you say about that wall, about that dim view, will later be read as foreshadowing of her demise in this company.

Again, don’t be too explicit. But choose setting details that are predictive of future occurrences.

The Importance of Foreshadowing

The value of foreshadowing is that of knitting your story or novel together.

The value of foreshadowing is that of knitting your story or novel together. Readers want to experience the world you’re creating, and they also want to make meaning of it.

In real life, we’re likely to notice certain patterns, how one thing leads to another, or how one thing we did might well have predicted—if we’d been thoughtful enough to notice it—something that followed, perhaps weeks, months, or even years later. Just like fictional characters, we can’t look ahead and see what’s coming, but also, like fictional characters, with hindsight we can see certain patterns and connections.

When you work with foreshadowing, you’re making those connections. You’re creating suspense for the reader, if not for the protagonist, who might be clueless until something good—or bad—happens.

You’re also playing with time and using it as a vehicle for the themes your novel explores. Toni Morrison uses foreshadowing to reflect the ongoing nature of trauma. John Steinbeck uses foreshadowing to suggest the impenetrable despair of migrant workers during the Great Depression. How else can we use plot, foreshadowing, and the nature of time itself to resemble the truest aspects of the human experience?

Master Foreshadowing at Writers.com

Foreshadowing can complicate your plot, the psychology of your characters, and the possible outcomes of your stories. (And what is foreshadowing for, if not to complicate things?) If you’re looking to master the subtle art of the foreshadow, take a look at the upcoming courses at Writers.com, where you’ll receive expert feedback on the stories you write.

6 Comments

  1. Rebecca Hanley on February 15, 2022 at 12:29 pm

    I’d like to thank Jack Smith and Sean Glatch for this article on the different foreshadowing techniques that can be employed in writing the novel or short story. My notion of foreshadowing was a bit limited and a bit rusty. The article clarified and expanded the concept, and I’ll be sure to utilize these foreshadowing techniques in future stories.

    Rebecca Hanley

    • Sean Glatch on February 16, 2022 at 4:29 am

      I’m so happy this was helpful, Rebecca!

  2. […] Foreshadowing Definition: How to Use Foreshadowing in Your Fiction […]

  3. Carol Hall on August 24, 2022 at 12:00 pm

    I, too, learned so much from this article. I will be using some of this in my current writing projects.

  4. Margaret MacInnis on September 3, 2022 at 7:57 am

    Thank you to Jack and Sean for sharing this article. I found it helpful and encouraging in terms of my own project!

    • Sean Glatch on September 3, 2022 at 8:57 am

      Our pleasure, Margaret!

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