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What Is the Role of Foreshadowing in Literature?

By Tara Barnett
Updated May 23, 2024
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The role of foreshadowing in literature depends on the type of story and the way that the literature is being analyzed. For example, foreshadowing can be used to create tension or build a mystery. It can also be used to make a story more coherent and tied together when a reader reflects on the events. False foreshadowing, sometimes called a red herring, can be used in literature to draw out a mystery or shock the reader with a final revelation. Given the many ways this literary device can be used, the role of foreshadowing in literature can be considered unique in each text.

One feature that determines the role of foreshadowing in literature is the genre of literature being discussed. In mystery novels, for example, foreshadowing and false leads are expected by the readers given the traditions of the mystery genre. Traditional cultural tales may also utilize foreshadowing in highly formulaic ways, relying on omens and traditional story patterns to allow readers a glimpse into the character's future. When foreshadowing is apparent to readers but not apparent to characters, the role of foreshadowing can be to create a kind of uncomfortable tension and worry. The effectiveness of these different uses of foreshadowing depends on the skill of the writer.

It is common for skillful foreshadowing to be entirely invisible to readers who are unfamiliar with a story. For first-time readers, the role of foreshadowing in literature is often to build up to a final revelation that makes the story that has already been read make sense. Foreshadowing of this type works to create a type of pleasure upon discovering the key or mystery of the story. For this effect to work, it is usually necessary for the foreshadowing to be very subtle.

Sometimes, the role of foreshadowing in literature is to make events later in the story more believable. In these cases, foreshadowing establishes that a certain type of event is possible in the world in which the story takes place. This can be subtle or direct depending on the type of event as well as the genre.

The role of foreshadowing in literature always depends on the story being told as well as how that story is being analyzed. It is possible to look at foreshadowing from the perspective of the reader, the author, and within the logic of the story itself. For each of these categories, the purpose of foreshadowing may be different. Only by investigating a literary device from multiple perspectives can a comprehensive understanding of the device's purpose be achieved.

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Discussion Comments
By rugbygirl — On Jul 22, 2012

@robbie21 - New Moon also uses the tension-building foreshadowing. Jacob sees his friends "change" in ways he doesn't understand before it happens to him.

It's not just in literature, of course. Movies and TV shows can be really helpful for teaching foreshadowing because people are more familiar with it and because it uses certain conventions that people are quick to pick up on. A woman's in the bathroom for too long? She's pregnant.

By robbie21 — On Jul 21, 2012

The kind of foreshadowing that "make(s) events later in the story more believable" seems to be common in sci-fi and fantasy. The reader needs to know what to expect.

If I can be forgiven for bringing the Twilight saga into the discussion, New Moon is a perfect example. Jacob has told Bella the Native American legend of their ancestors who could change into wolves. Surprise, surprise, turns out they still can.

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