AskDefine | Define foreshadowing

Dictionary Definition

foreshadowing adj : indistinctly prophetic [syn: adumbrative, prefigurative] n : the act of providing vague advance indications; representing beforehand [syn: prefiguration, adumbration]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. present participle of foreshadow


  1. A literary device in which an author drops subtle hints about plot developments to come later in the story.

Extensive Definition

Foreshadowing is a literary device in which an author drops subtle hints about plot developments to come later in the story. An example of foreshadowing might be when a character displays a gun or knife early in the story. Merely the appearance of a deadly weapon, even though it is used for an innocuous purpose — such as being cleaned or whittling wood — suggests terrible consequences later on (also known as Chekhov's gun).
A hint that is designed to mislead the audience is referred to as a red herring. A similar device is the flashforward. Unlike a flashforward, a foreshadowing only hints at a possible outcome of the story, without describing it explicitly. However, the difference between these two techniques may often be very vague.
Classically, foreshadowing is a literary device whereby the author plays on common beliefs or causal connections that most viewers or readers will have some direct experience with, thereby causing them to anticipate a specific chain of events. In Romeo and Juliet, both main characters state early on that they would rather die than live apart.
Usually more subtle, foreshadowing works on the symbolic level. For example, if a character must break up a schoolyard fight among some boys, it might symbolically foreshadow the family squabbles that will become the central conflict of the story. Other times, it is seemingly inconsequential, with the goal of having the audience be surprised by the story's climax and yet find it justified. If a character learns that a certain man was a regular at the diner where her mother worked many years before, it helps to justify the events later in which she learns that the man is her biological father.
Foreshadowing can be carried out by characters predicting the future. This may range from a woman predicting that her son will come to a bad end if he continues on his way, to a character with the explicit ability to foresee the future prophesying an event. Similarly, omens, such as breaking a mirror, can be used to foreshadow bad luck. Northrop Frye, in his Anatomy of Criticism, observed that such use of omens and foretelling are plot devices, independent of actual belief in foretelling for both writer and audience. Such predictions can, like other hints, act as red herrings; even explicit foretelling may, by a quibble, come true in an unexpected manner.
If foreshadowing is not done carefully, the common experiences of life can make the foreshadowing too obvious and allow the audience to predict the outcome of the story. Example: a character behaves in an odd and erratic fashion and complains continuously of a headache, then later is diagnosed with a brain tumor. Foreshadowing can also be used dishonestly in a mystery, where a series of events which points to a conclusion is later found to be composed of unlikely coincidences which have been "dishonestly" added to the story by the author in an artificial way, with the sole purpose of drawing the audience into an incorrect expectation. In such cases, the audience feels manipulated, and the story may be less satisfying.
If foreshadowing is done in a skillful or "honest" way in a mystery, however, many events which foreshadow the truth also work naturally at the same time as red-herrings at a more simple level, to lead the audience to a false conclusion. An example occurs in the film The Sixth Sense, in which scenes depicting the estrangement and lack of communication which occurs in the psychologist's marriage, and his alienation from the world because of his problems, are later seen as clues of much darker significance (so much so, that some viewers were led to see the film twice, in disbelief at how effectively they were misled by character interactions which could be interpreted in two completely different ways).


foreshadowing in German: Epische Vorausdeutung
foreshadowing in Spanish: Foreshadowing
foreshadowing in Norwegian: Frampek
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