What is Foreshadowing? - Types, Examples & Definitions

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Maria Howard

Maria is a teacher and a learning specialist and has master's degrees in literature and education.

Authors of many different genres use foreshadowing to clue the reader in about future events in the story. Learn about several types of foreshadowing, including forms of direct foreshadowing, such as omens and prophecies commonly used in classic dramas, intentional misdirects like red herrings, and subtle foreshadowing, such as Chekhov's Gun and symbolic foreshadowing, which are seen more in contemporary works. Updated: 09/01/2021

What is Foreshadowing?

My mom and I like to predict what is going to happen next when we watch a movie or TV show. We like to think our accuracy rate means we should be writing for our favorite television programs, but really, we're just good at reading the clues the writers have left about who committed the murder, or how the two protagonists will eventually meet up so they can fall in love.

In literature, foreshadowing is a literary device authors use to hint toward future events in the story. This can be helpful to the writer when she crafts her story to build suspense, to develop the plot and to add nuance. For example, if the murderer ends up being a character we were never introduced to, then the reader can feel unsatisfied or even confused.

Conversely, foreshadowing can also be used to throw us off the murderer's scent, so to speak, with deliberately placed clues called red herrings. For example, a red herring might make us think the husband did it, when it was really the wife the whole time. Foreshadowing can be as subtle as a seemingly-chance encounter, or as direct as the author giving away the ending in the beginning. Either way, readers can go back and look for how foreshadowing is used as part of the storytelling process.

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  • 0:05 What Is Foreshadowing?
  • 1:15 Direct Foreshadowing
  • 3:01 Subtle Foreshadowing
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Direct Foreshadowing

In classic works, it was not uncommon for the story to begin with the author or playwright giving away the ending. Shakespeare must not have believed in trying to keep his audience from spoilers. Otherwise, he wouldn't have started his famous tragedy Romeo and Juliet with the following lines:

Two households, both alike in dignity,

In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,

From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes

A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;

Shakespeare doesn't just hint that things will not work out well for Romeo and Juliet; he totally gives it away. It's okay, though, because you would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't already know the ending to Romeo and Juliet. While today we wouldn't necessarily want to be told how exactly a book or play ends at its outset, some authors use 'flash-forwards', where readers are given a scene that takes place way in the future, and then are sent back to an earlier date to see how it all unfolds. These flash-forwards can also contain red herrings though, where these scenes are not what they seem at first.

Another way authors have used this more direct style of foreshadowing is by using prophecies or omens, where another character formally predicts what will happen in the future. The Ancient Greeks were all about consulting oracles to find out their fates. In Sophocles' Oedipus plays, Jocasta seeks out a prophecy for her newborn son, Oedipus. The prophet predicts that her son will kill his own father, Laius, and in order to prevent that, they leave baby Oedipus on the side of a mountain.

But, as any good student of Greek tragedies knows, baby Oedipus finds his way off the mountain, grows up and ends up murdering his dad on the road, anyway. (And marrying his own mom, but that is a different lesson.)

Subtle Foreshadowing

In contemporary works, foreshadowing is more subtle and nuanced. In Shirley Jackson's short story 'The Lottery,' first published in 1948, foreshadowing is present in the smallest of details: the looks people give one another, how men hold small slips of paper. These details make sense when you first read the story, but take on added meaning when you read it a second or third time. It helps to know that it is not clear until the very end of the story that 'the lottery' the villagers have gathered for is not to give out money, but to decide who will be killed in the town's annual stoning ritual.

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