Foreshadowing: Do you know what’s coming?

'Okay class, is there anyone else who does not understand the term foreshadowing?' Image source: Artist Dan Reynolds via Cartoon Stock

Image source: Artist Dan Reynolds via Cartoon Stock

One of my number one pet peeves is people who don’t indicate. Are they trying to kill me? They change lanes by swerving in front of me without warning; they stop in the middle of the road for no reason and then suddenly turn onto a side road without warning; they merge towards me without warning.

It’s no joke. Indicating saves lives.

In literary terms, foreshadowing is the equivalent of indicating.

Maybe it’s not life-saving, but it is a useful device. You’re telling your reader – without telling them – what’s coming. So it’s a bit more subtle than “Hey, I’m turning left now.” You’re hinting. You’re insinuating. You’re planting a thought. “Hey, maybe I’ll merge. Sometime soon. You might see it coming, you might not.”

Isn’t that cheating?

No. There’s two valid main reasons for foreshadowing:

  1. To build anticipation in your reader. What’s going to happen next? Ooh, dramatic tension!
  2. To make strange or unlikely events seem credible. The reader is mentally prepared for it to happen because someone already hinted that it could

So, how to do it well? How to do it poorly? It all depends on which method of foreshadowing you’re using.

There’s a great post by Harvey Chapman that talks about the different methods of foreshadowing. I won’t discuss them all, but I’m going to give you examples and highlight which method is being used. It can be hard to pick just one method, so please forgive me for some shilly-shallying.

Examples of foreshadowing in literature – doing it well:

  • Romeo and Juliet:
    • Dozens of examples, from the moment Juliet meets Romeo. She sends her nurse off to find out who Romeo is, telling her nurse that if Romeo is already married, “my grave is like to be my wedding bed.” i.e. she’ll kill herself instead of marrying Paris. Romeo is unmarried, so she does get to marry him, but then she still kills herself instead of marrying Paris. D’oh.
      • That’s foreshadowing by naming an approaching event either directly or indirectly. Here it’s indirect. She’s not actually saying she thinks she’s going to die; she’s just expressing her desire to be with Romeo in a melodramatic way.
  • Lord of the Rings:
    • In the first book, The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo gets to Rivendell and says hopefully, “So far, my only hope has been to get here (Rivendell.) I hope I shan’t have to go any further… I have had a month of exile and adventure, and I find that has been as much as I want.” Poor Frodo.
      • Foreshadowing by a character’s feeling of apprehension. Frodo fears that there is more dangerous travel to come, and he implies that in his dialogue.
    • Also in the first book, Elrond says to Boromir, “Slow should you be to wind that horn again until you stand once more on the borders of your land and dire need is upon you.” Sadly for Boromir, the next time he uses the horn, he definitely needs that help to arrive.
      • What category do you reckon? Perhaps also naming an approaching event?
Boromir: One does not simply walk into Mordor. Image source: PressFire

Image source: PressFire

  • Discworld series:
    • In Men at Arms, someone says you’d “have to be a fool” to try breaking into the Assassin’s Guild… and later the criminal actually disguises himself as a clown (“a fool”) and sneaks through a connecting door between the Assassin’s Guild and the Fools’ Guild.
      • Foreshadowing by expressing an opinion.
  • Pride and Prejudice:
    • When Jane gets sick while visiting Netherfield, Elizabeth comes to see her, and she’s chatting with Mr Darcy and they bring us the possibility that Mr Bingley would have to leave Netherfield if a friend asked him at short notice. Darcy implies it would be a shameful thing to be influenced so easily by your friends, while Lizzie says it’s only natural to be influenced by your friends and loved ones. Later, Bingley does leave Netherfield in a hurry – at Darcy’s request.
      • Foreshadowing through a pre-scene. They talk about someone leaving but it doesn’t go further than talk, so the reader can infer that the next time they talk about leaving, someone will actually end up leaving.
  • Ron and Hermione in The Philosopher's Stone. Image source: FanPop

    Ron and Hermione in The Philosopher’s Stone.
    Image source: FanPop

    Harry Potter series: Filled with it. Read it for yourself. It’s fun. But you can skip Book 7. (Don’t waste your life.)

    • In book one, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Ron says about Hermione, “Whatever house I’m in, I hope she’s not in it.” (p 80) Well, there you go; she ends up in his house.
      • Well, that could be either expressing an opinion or naming an approaching event.
  • Marco turning into a bear in book 25 The Extreme.  Image source: Modern Thrill

    Marco turning into a bear in book 25 The Extreme.
    Image source: Modern Thrill

    Animorphs series (books): I’m indebted to TV Tropes ( for pointing this out. I read the books when I was too young to see this, so I absolutely loved them, even the less well-done examples of foreshadowing. Here are some examples from book one that are good because they point towards the series as a whole, not just the events in that book:

    • Marco: “We’d be totally famous [if people found out]. We’d get to be on Letterman for sure.” By the end of the series, they’re so famous that Marco goes on Letterman and then gets his own show.
    • Visser Three: “And then I’ll be Visser One.” Yep, he does in the end.
    • Jake: “I think maybe the Andalite meant even more to Tobias than to the rest of us.” Turns out the Andalite Elfangor was actually Tobias’ father.
      • Opinions, all three.
  • Shirley Jackson’s famous short story The Lottery:
    • In this story, the town has a tradition of stoning one townsperson to death every month as a method of population control. In the beginning of the story, you can tell by the way the people act around the stones that they will play an important part in the story – even though you don’t yet know that someone will later be stoned.
    • “The men stood together, away from the pile of rocks in the corner, and their jokes were quiet and they smiled rather than laughed… Bobby Martin ducked under his mother’s grasping hand and ran, laughing, back to the pile of stones. His father spoke up sharply, and Bobby came quickly.”
      • Foreshadowing by apprehension in some characters.
  • Gilmore Girls (TV):
    • In season 2, when Rory and Jess meet for the first time, you can tell that they are attracted to each other, even though Rory is going out with Dean. Spoilers, Jess steals Rory away from Dean in season 3.
      • Pre-scene, where the first meeting is charged with an emotion that later is re-enacted in greater strength.
Image source: Gilmore Girls Wikia

Image source: Gilmore Girls Wikia

  • Sherlock Holmes: Hound of the Baskervilles:
    • A classic example of a red herring. The reader is led to suspect the escaped convict and Barrymore instead of the real murderer, who is later revealed in an unexpected confession by Beryl.
      • The red herring.

Examples that you would not want to copy:

  • Twilight:
    • In book one chapter one, Bella jokes in her narration about going to a new school in Forks, “No one was going to bite me.” Thing is, the back cover of the book already tells you it’s going to be about vampires, so this comes off a bit cheesy.
      • Expressing an opinion.
  • Image source: Harry Potter Wikia

    Image source: Harry Potter Wikia

    Harry Potter:

    • Professor Trelawney is always giving those prophecies that Harry’s going to die, right? *SPOILER ALERT* In Book 7, he kind of does. Mostly dead, whatever. You can see why I hated that book. Plus, she earlier foretells him dying by looking at a card with a tower on it. Someone we know and love dies on the astronomy tower of the school. Sad days.
      • Foreshadowing by prophecy or also this could fall into the category of a character expressing seemingly irrational concern for the hero’s safety.
  • Stranger Than Fiction:
    • One of my all-time favourite movies! But if you did what the (fictional) writer Karen Eiffel did in terms of narrator statement, it wouldn’t be subtle or innovative anymore. It still works, but you’d only want to do it if you write in that type of old-fashioned style normally. “Little did he know that this simple, seemingly innocuous act would result in his imminent death.”
      • Foreshadowing by narrator statement.
  • Real life:
    • While I was typing this out on my laptop, a massive thunderstorm rolled overhead. Having just written a whole essay on foreshadowing, I became terrified. Danger must be on the way, because the sky was setting the mood for it. Thankfully, I put on Gilmore Girls and finished writing this, and nothing bad happened.
      • Foreshadowing by symbolism or omens.


What’s your favourite example of foreshadowing in literature? (No terrible spoilers, please!)


This post was written by TJ Withers-Ryan © 2015. Reblogging is always highly encouraged as long as you credit me as the author.

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