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What is Foreshadowing?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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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

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By clippers — On Dec 19, 2012
I need to write a paper before next month about foreshadowing in Jane Eyre. I have a few ideas but I need some more. Has anyone read this? Can you help me?
By jonrss — On Dec 18, 2012
I think the most effective use of foreshadowing is not to suggest future feature of the plot, but to create moods and atmospheres that the book will ultimately transition into.

For instance, I really like the books of Megan Abbott. Most of them take place in peaceful suburbs and transition into creepy mystery/thrillers. At the beginning of her books her characters are always happy and idyllic, but she is great at using little pieces of dialogue or observational writing to suggest that things are darker than they seem.

In that way she doesn't foreshadow who will die or who will be the killer, she just suggests that not everything is as it seems.

By MrsPramm — On Nov 30, 2012
It's difficult to know how to foreshadow well without giving everything away, or being so subtle that no one realizes what you're doing.

And I often wonder, particularly during high school English, whether all of that foreshadowing was intentional.

Do characters talk about death because they are going to die, or because the author is writing a book about death and he can't stop thinking about it, so his characters are also thinking about it? That's a bad example, but I'm sure a lot of what English teachers call foreshadowing, was simple storytelling that made sense because of a theme, rather than as a deliberate reference to a future event in the narrative.

By croydon — On Nov 30, 2012
@bythewell - I kind of liked Signs, even though parts of it didn't make any sense.

What I don't like it how some genres have become so predictable that they are foreshadowing without intending to. For example, when I was doing some aid work overseas, my friends and I would joke about how someone was about to leave and they should be careful not to do anything dangerous. You know, because of the cliche that a cop or army guy who is just about to retire is almost definitely going to get shot in a book or movie.

I don't think people who write that think they are foreshadowing, so much as being tragic by using juxtaposition, but the effect is the same, and I find it annoying (because it's way too obvious, to the point where it gives away the story.)

By bythewell — On Nov 29, 2012
While I definitely agree that Shyamalan can be fantastic at foreshadowing, I think Signs was a little bit ham-fisted with the delivery. You could see he was working his way up to something where all the strange and interesting pieces of foreshadowing would fit together, but unfortunately, they made a ridiculous picture when added up. Because there was no reason for a little girl to be leaving water glasses around the house.

Romeo and Juliet talking about death is sad and sweet when you look back on it. It also makes perfect sense, both when you see the conversation for the first time, and when you look back with the weight of extra knowledge.

Her leaving water glasses around the house doesn't make sense at either point in time. Which makes it kind of pointless, because, to me, the point of foreshadowing is to illuminate both parts of the story, not just provide an explanation for the conclusion.

By anon132671 — On Dec 07, 2010

great definition of foreshadowing. this really helps me a lot when writing stories.

By anon65241 — On Feb 11, 2010

I did get what i want, but it really just gave me examples of what i need, but it didn't give the definition.

By anon55950 — On Dec 10, 2009

this website is really good.=] If you wanted to look up a word, they give you the definition and an example! it's really helpful and useful!

that's pretty cool.

By anon47441 — On Oct 05, 2009

thanks. media essays are so much easier with internet references!

By anon41270 — On Aug 13, 2009

this website has given me an insight into english literiture and uncovered an undiscovered pathway into the depth of films and the way they are constructed. I am deeply grateful for your website.

By anon41269 — On Aug 13, 2009

this website is so informative and easy to understand as it is in simple language and gives in detail the meaning of foreshadowing.

By anon35133 — On Jul 02, 2009

this is great!

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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