Foreshadowing: So That’s Gonna Happen

What is Foreshadowing?

Foreshadowing is a literary device used to hint at events that have not yet happened or will occur later in a story. It often warns or suggests that something is going to happen before it happens and may be used both covertly and overtly.

How to pronounce Foreshadowing?


When do writers use Foreshadowing?

Foreshadowing is often used to add an element of surprise or mystery, and most commonly,  to hint at an outcome or fate of a character. It’s also a great way for writers to add dramatic suspense and tension to their stories.

How to use Foreshadowing?

  • Dialogue is a great way for writers to incorporate foreshadowing into stories. In this way. This may be done a variety of ways including conversation, jokes, offhand comments, or even spoken prophecy.
  •  As is common, a writer can use the title of the work to foreshadow an event within the story or even its outcome. Edgar Allen Poe is great at this. For example, he foreshadows the destruction and demise of a prominent family with the title, “The Fall of the House of Usher.
  • A writer may even use an ominous and foreboding setting to foreshadow events to come. This type of foreshadowing quite common in gothic literature such as Lord Byron’s Manfred or Mary Shelley’s Mathilda.
  • Ever the popular choice with writers, metaphor and simile are also great ways to incorporate foreshadowing into your writing, Charles Dickens offers a great example of this technique in David Copperfield when he writes, 

“I sat looking at Peggotty for some time, in a reverie on this suppositious case:
whether, if she were employed to lose me like the boy in the fairy tale, I should be able to track my way home again by the buttons she would shed.”

In this passage, Dickens cleverly foreshadows the betrayal of the character’s mother.

  • And, character is another great way to introduce an element of foreshadowing as John Steinbeck does in Of Mice and Men. In the novel, Steinbeck uses George’s character and his outlook on life to foreshadow the murder of Lennie when George has to put down the dog.

    After addressing the various ways a writer can incorporate foreshadowing into their writing, it doesn’t mean it has to be done exactly as described. After all, it is creative writing, so be creative.

The 2 Primary Types of Foreshadowing

  • Overt (Direct) – The writer directly suggests that something unexpected will happen. Oftentimes, the clue is dropped in a prologue, a monologue, or a premonition type scenario.
  • Covert (Subtle) – The writer leaves a trail of breadcrumbs throughout the text for the reader to follow and pick up on.

Foreshadowing in Literature 📚

In William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare overtly foreshadows the death of the two lovers in Romeo’s dream. He writes:

“I dreamt my lady came and found me dead—

Strange dream, that gives a dead man leave”

In these lines, Romeo recounts his dream, hinting at the truth that he will die.

George Orwell freely uses foreshadowing in 1984.  However, he relies on a combination of both overt and covert foreshadowing to hint at possible outcomes. For example, the constant surveillance of the citizens by the Thought Police works to not only foreshadow the oppressive rule of Big Brother but also with other examples of foreshadowing to hint at Winston’s demise. At one point, Winston spots a rat and cries out, “Of all the horrors in the world—a rat!” The reader instantly knows how much Winston hates rates, but now, so does Big Brother. As a result of the constant surveillance and Winston’s cry, Orwell effectively uses both instances of foreshadowing to foretell Winston’s psychological demise due to Big Brother using rats to torture him.

J.K. Rowling use of overt foreshadowing in  Harry Potter is of a prophetic nature when she writes Sybil’s prophecy regarding Harry and Voldemort:

“The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches… born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies… and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not… and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives…”

Foreshadowing in Children Literature 🧸

Children’s stories are great examples of foreshadowing because they almost always have a teaching moment where there is a moral or lesson to be learned. Generally speaking the foreshadowing of events is usually direct except in cases where the story is part of a connected series. In the latter, foreshadowing may be more covert as it can often carry over into several books.

In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Ronald Dahl has Willy Wonka deliver quite the ridiculous speech in an effort to warn the children of terrible things should they misbehave. He writes:

“I insist upon my rooms being beautiful! I can’t abide ugliness in factories! In we go, then! But do be careful, my dear children! Don’t lose your heads! Don’t get overexcited! Keep very calm!” 

These lines offer a clear warning to both the children and the reader that very bad things will happen if they are bad. But being that they are, in fact, bad children, they do not heed the warning and meet a rather humorous, but disastrous end.

 In Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice is warned by the Cheshire Cat to be careful of whom she trusts. This interesting and somewhat disturbing conversation foreshadows later events leading up to Alice’s trial before the Queen of Hearts.

Foreshadowing in Songs 🎧

Perhaps the best example of foreshadowing in song is “The Cat’s in the Cradle.” It begins with a baby boy being born while the father is traveling. At first, it’s full of hope but as life carries on, the boy grows up without his father around. Wistful and always thinking of his son, the father tries to find time for his son and reconnect. However, by the end the father is an old man, and the son is grown with a family of his own and no time for the father who wasn’t there for him growing up.


My child arrived just the other day

He came to the world in the usual way

But there were planes to catch, and bills to pay

He learned to walk while I was away

And he was talking ‘fore I knew it, and as he grew

He’d say “I’m gonna be like you, dad”

“You know I’m gonna be like you”

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man in the moon
“When you coming home, dad?” “I don’t know when”
But we’ll get together then
You know we’ll have a good time then

My son turned ten just the other day
He said, thanks for the ball, dad, come on let’s play
Can you teach me to throw, I said-a, not today
I got a lot to do, he said, that’s okay
And he, he walked away, but his smile never dimmed
It said, I’m gonna be like him, yeah
You know I’m gonna be like him

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man in the moon
“When you coming home, dad?” “I don’t know when”
But we’ll get together then
You know we’ll have a good time then

Well, he came from college just the other day
So much like a man I just had to say
Son, I’m proud of you, can you sit for a while?
He shook his head, and they said with a smile
What I’d really like, dad, is to borrow the car keys
See you later, can I have them please?

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man in the moon
“When you coming home, son?” “I don’t know when”
But we’ll get together then, dad
You know we’ll have a good time then

I’ve long since retired, my son’s moved away
I called him up just the other day
I said, I’d like to see you if you don’t mind
He said, I’d love to, dad, if I can find the time
You see, my new job’s a hassle, and the kids have the flu
But it’s sure nice talking to you, dad
It’s been sure nice talking to you
And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me
He’d grown up just like me
My boy was just like me

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man in the moon
“When you coming home, son?” “I don’t know when”
But we’ll get together then, dad
We’re gonna have a good time then

Foreshadowing in Movies 🎥

  • The Avengers (2012), “That Man’s Playing Galaga” – Funny enough, most viewer’s thought this was just another moment of Tony Stark being obnoxiously observant. However, it was actually a moment foreshadowing the alien invasion of New York led by Loki.
  • The Departed(2006), Martin Scorsese – The remarkable thing about Scorsese’s use of foreshadowing is that it has actually become a trademark of sorts. In his films, he likes to include an “X” somewhere in the shot to alert the audience of the character’s impending death. This film is no different. In one scene, an officer is talking on the phone while looking sideways toward the audience. In the background, the sunlight streaming through the windows has created a large “X” across the wall and filing cabinets. Sorry, man, but you’re not gonna be around much longer.
  • The Sixth Sense(1999): This film is full of foreshadowing examples hinting at the fact that Cole’s psychiatrist is actually dead, but the two which stick out the most are 1.) No one interacts with or acknowledges Malcolm as he follows Cole around and 2.) Cole clearly states that the dead he interacts with do not know they are dead, suggesting that Malcolm is no different than the other ghosts Cole sees.

Visual Foreshadowing in Scorcese’s The Departed 📺

  • “X” Marks the Spot

Related Literary Devices 👥

  • Flashback – Commonly used in literature to explain a character’s backstory or lead up to current events, it is not the same thing as foreshadowing. The latter seeks to direct the reader’s focus to the future while flashbacks send the reader back in time to experience things already past (but may be related to the future).