Foreshadowing is used in written art and film to give hints about things to come in later plot developments. It can be very broad and easily understood, or it may be complex use of symbols that are then connected to later turns in the plot. Sometimes, an author may deliberately use false hints, called red herrings, to send readers or viewers off in the wrong direction. This is particularly the case with mystery writers, who want to bury clues to a mystery in information that is partially true and partially false.
This is an old literary device, and uses of it occur before the development of the novel in the 18th century. Both Chaucer and Shakespeare employed foreshadowing, as did Dante. In short poems, it may not be particularly effective, but in longer poems, which were frequently the writing style of the Middle Ages, this technique is very effective and important.
For example in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, Troilus glimpses Criseyde and feels the “dreadful joy” of love at looking at her. This suggests that Troilus will have joy in his love, but also suffer as a result of it.
Shakespeare uses foreshadowing frequently, sometimes in quite obvious ways. Romeo and Juliet both talk about dying, for example. Shakespeare’s use of this technique can also be quite subtle, however, and critics argue about what certain symbols foreshadow. The ghost in Hamlet is often thought to symbolize the death of the royalty of Denmark, though some argue it only foretells Hamlet’s death.
In the early 19th century, Jane Austen employed these techniques quite playfully in her work Northanger Abbey. The novel is meant to gently parody the gothic novels produced by writers like Mrs. Radcliffe. In particular, the use and discussion of The Mysteries of Udolpho sets the heroine Catherine upon a journey of imagination that gets her in quite a bit of trouble with her beloved Henry. She spends a miserable night at the Abbey believing in secret passageways and curious cupboards that may reveal horrendous secrets. Later, she finds that she has locked the cupboard herself, and that its contents are lists of laundry bills.
Charlotte Bronte uses foreshadowing to fantastic effect in Jane Eyre. The very names of the places she stays hint at her emotional experiences at these places. Jane’s series of pictures also portend her fate through the rest of the novel, and their descriptions are a wonderful use of this literary device