Foreshadowing definition: Foreshadowing is a literary term that occurs when an author provides hints or clues for future plot events.
What is Foreshadowing?
What does foreshadowing mean? Foreshadowing is exactly that—a (be)fore shadow of what is to come in the text.
Authors foreshadow future events when they provide hints in a plot to give clues to what will happen later in the text.
Foreshadowing occurs often in literature; however, it can occur in any storyline (such as a movie or television show).
Foreshadowing can occur through narration, dialogue, or setting. Foreshadowing can be subtle or overt.
It is the audience’s responsibility to recognize the clues the author provides.
Here is a brief example of foreshadowing through dialogue:
- John: “I don’t think we should go in there, Luke.”
- Luke: “Why not, John? Are you afraid?”
- John: “It’s not that I’m afraid, it’s just that I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
- Luke: “What could possibly happen?”
In this exchange, John expresses a concern that Luke ignores. If John is correct and something bad does happen later in the text, this is an author’s use of foreshadowing.
Modern Examples of Foreshadowing
Modern foreshadowing example: In the Harry Potter series, author J.K. Rowling frequently foreshadows future plot events.
Throughout the series Rowling plants small clues to upcoming plot points.
A specific example occurs when Ollivander the wand-maker reveals that Harry’s wand and Voldemort’s wand are invariably linked because they are made of the same core.
This event foreshadows that Harry Potter and Voldemort share a sincere connection. The specific connection is not revealed until a later novel when the audience learns that Harry Potter is a horcrux for Voldemort.
What is the Purpose of Foreshadowing?
Purpose of Foreshadowing: Writers use foreshadowing to bait the reader and to help him put together the story like a puzzle piece.
Sometimes readers do not recognize foreshadowing until the later event actually occurs. This is that “ah-ha” moment that seems to make a plot come full circle.
The author puts events in a specific order to unfold his plot and the reader experiences this as the author intended.
A writer will use foreshadowing to provide clues to events but not to reveal specifics of those events.
How to Create Foreshadowing
A writer will create foreshadowing through setting, narration, or dialogue. Foreshadowing is used purposefully and sparingly—a writer does not want to reveal every detail of his plot before the events actually occur.
Similarly, foreshadowing should not reveal the specifics of the future events but should give clues to keep the reader guessing.
Revealing all future events would be pointless. The point is to keep the reader interested while he is “putting together a puzzle” with the text.
How Foreshadowing is Used in Literature
Foreshadowing in literature: In James Hurst’s short story, The Scarlet Ibis, death is a motif throughout the text that foreshadows the death of the character, Doodle.
Hurst foreshadows Doodle’s death on various occasions.
Foreshadowing in setting:
“The last graveyard flowers were blooming, and their smell drifted through our house, speaking softly the names of our dead.”
This example occurs in the opening line of the text. Hurst uses the setting to create a dark mood that foreshadows the death at the end of the story.
Foreshadowing in narration:
“They named him William Armstrong, which is like tying a big tail on a small kite. Such a name sounds good only on a tombstone.”
This example directly foreshadows Doodle’s (William Armstrong’s) death. It is, in fact, that name which ends up on a tombstone.
Foreshadowing in dialogue:
Roughly halfway through the text, Brother shows Doodle his coffin and forces him to touch it. Doodle responds,
“’Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me.”
This dialogue foreshadows Doodle’s death because Doodle says the lines again at the text’s conclusion. Doodle repeats these lines when he dies after Brother leaves him in the storm.
Summary: What Does Foreshadow Mean?
Define foreshadowing: The definition of foreshadowing is a hint or clue to future events in a storyline.
Authors use foreshadowing to provide insight but not to reveal specifics of the plot. Foreshadowing is a tool to keep readers interested.
If this article helped you understand the meaning of foreshadowing, you might enjoy our full list of literary terms.