What Is Foreshadowing?

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Foreshadowing is a common device used in literature, film, and television. It occurs when the author place deliberate clues in the narrative that tell the reader what is about to happen. For instance, in Flannery O’Connor’s story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a family is killed by an escaped convict after getting in a car accident. Before their bad luck starts, they drive past a small cemetery with five or six gravestones. There are five people in the family, six counting the baby. With this subtle detail, O’Connor foreshadows their fate.

Foreshadowing serves several purposes. It adds depth and richness to a literary work, facilitating analysis. It helps determine the mood and tone of a work. And in mystery and suspense genres, it adds suspense. Knowing that mystery readers will look carefully for clues, authors sometimes add details that appear to be foreshadowing but never come about. These false clues are called red herrings.

How Do You Identify Foreshadowing in Writing?

It can be hard to identify isolated instances of foreshadowing. Careful readers can find patterns of foreshadowing, however, by examining recurring imagery and observing background details carefully.

People are more accustomed to this process when watching films. If the camera lingers on an object, chances are this detail will play some role in the plot later on. The same thing is true in written narratives.

Examples of Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing Example 1. In Alfred Hitchcock’s film, “Psycho,” there are stuffed birds in the Bates Motel office, foreshadowing the film’s most horrifying reveal, that Norman Bates has preserved his mother’s corpse.

Foreshadowing Example 2. A girl tells her mother not to worry; the party will be over at ten, and she’ll be right home. When her mother hangs up the phone, a rumbling of thunder can be heard. This is foreshadowing of more than one storm ahead.

Foreshadowing Example 3. In Ray Carver’s story “Cathedral,” the narrator learns a lesson in faith from a blind man. That faith will be the main theme of the story is foreshadowed at the beginning when the narrator mockingly says grace at the table, much to his wife’s irritation.

Foreshadowing Example 4. “Child’s Play,” a short story by Alice Munro, begins with the line, “I suppose there was talk in our house, afterward.” The reader never learns what this refers to until the very end of the story, when the narrator finally shows an event that has haunted her: she and a friend deliberately drowned a girl at summer camp. The opening lines foreshadow this event, leaving the reader in uncertain suspense.

Foreshadowing Example 5. At the beginning of Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher,” the narrator notices a subtle fissure in the framework of the house. This crack foreshadows both the destruction of the house at the end of the story and the splitting apart of the two Usher twins.