Foreshadowing in Narratives

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms - Definition and Examples

Wizard of Oz - foreshadowing
In this scene from early in the film The Wizard of Oz (1939), Almira Gulch (second from the right) arrives to take away Dorothy's dog Toto. Margaret Hamilton, the actress who played Miss Gulch, appears later in the movie as the Wicked Witch of the West. (MGM Studios/Getty Images)

Definition

Foreshadowing is the presentation of details, characters, or incidents in a narrative in such a way that later events are prepared for (or "shadowed forth").

Foreshadowing, says Paula LaRocque, can be "a highly effective means of preparing the reader for what is to come." This storytelling device can "create interest, build suspense, and provoke curiosity" (​The Book on Writing, 2003).

In nonfiction, says author William Noble, "foreshadowing works well, so long as we stay with the facts and not impute motivation or circumstance that never happened" (The Portable Writer's Conference, 2007).

See Examples and Observations below. Also, see:

Examples and Observations

  • In the opening of The Wizard of Oz, set in Kansas, the transformation of Miss Gulch into a witch on a broomstick foreshadows her reappearance as Dorothy's enemy in Oz.
  • The witches in the opening scene of Shakespeare's Macbeth foreshadow the evil events that will follow.
     
  • "[In My Journey to Lhasa, Alexandra] David-Neel . . . creates suspense with present tense, 'we look as if we are starting for a mere tour of a week or two,' and foreshadowing, 'these spoons became, later on, the occasion of a short drama in which I nearly killed a man.'"
    (Lynda G. Adamson, Thematic Guide to Popular Nonfiction. Greenwood, 2006)
  • Foreshadowing as a Form of "Backwriting"
    "Foreshadowing can be, in fact, a form of 'backwriting.' The writer goes back through the copy and adds foreshadowing to prepare the reader for later events. . . .

    "This does not mean that you are going to give away the ending. Think of foreshadowing as setup. The best foreshadowing is subtle and is woven into the story--often in multiple ways. In this fashion, foreshadowing helps build tension and gives resonance and power to the story."
    (Lynn Franklin, "Literary Theft: Taking Techniques From the Classics." The Journalist's Craft: A Guide to Writing Better Stories, ed. by Dennis Jackson and John Sweeney. Allworth, 2002)
  • Foreshadowing in Nonfiction
    - "With nonfiction, foreshadowing works well, so long as we stay with the facts and not impute motivation or circumstance that never happened. . . . No 'he should have thought . . .' or 'she might have expected . . .' unless we back it up factually."
    (William Noble, "Writing Nonfiction--Using Fiction." The Portable Writer's Conference, ed. by Stephen Blake Mettee. Quill Driver Books, 2007)

    - "[Alexandra] David-Neel's seven chapters [in My Journey to Lhasa: The Classic Story of the Only Western Woman Who Succeeded in Entering the Forbidden City] describe harrowing travel to Thibet* and Lhasa. She creates suspense with present tense, 'we look as if we are starting for a mere tour of a week or two,' and foreshadowing, 'these spoons became, later on, the occasion of a short drama in which I nearly killed a man.'"
    (Lynda G. Adamson, Thematic Guide to Popular Nonfiction. Greenwood Press, 2006)
    * variant spelling of Tibet
  • Chekhov's Gun
    "In dramatic literature, [foreshadowing] inherits the name Chekhov's Gun. In a letter he penned in 1889, Russian playwright Anton Chekhov wrote: 'One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.' . . .

    "Foreshadowing can work not only in narrative forms, but also in persuasive writing. A good column or essay has a point, often revealed at the end. Which details can you place early to foreshadow your conclusion?"
    (Roy Peter Clark, Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer. Little, Brown, 2006)

Pronunciation: for-SHA-doe-ing