Each genre of literature has a set of elements. Fiction’s elements include theme, setting, characters, structure, plot, and style. Style is the technique by which the story moves from incident to incident and the manner in which the story is presented. Style concerns itself with structure, a subelement that describes how the writer arranges and places events in the story.
What Is Foreshadowing?
Two variants of structure are the literary devices flashback and foreshadowing.
Flashback is an interjected scene describing events that happened before the current point in the story, often to fill in crucial backstory elements.
The opposite of flashback is foreshadowing, which alerts the reader and sets the stage for what is to come (but without giving away plot details). It often appears at the beginning of a book or a chapter, and it helps the reader develop expectations about what will happen later in the story.
Foreshadowing can be obvious or subtle.
In direct foreshadowing, an outcome is hinted at directly. It offers readers a morsel of information, and keeps them wondering what will happen next. A good example is the very first paragraph of The Hunger Games:
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
We don’t know what “the reaping” is, but it’s clearly not good.
Indirect foreshadowing, on the other hand, drops its hint in a less obvious way. Think of the first time Harry sees Severus Snape in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone:
It happened very suddenly. The hook-nosed teacher looked past Quirrell’s turban straight into Harry’s eyes—and a sharp, hot pain shot across the scar on Harry’s forehead.
We later find out that Snape was actually working against Quirrell to protect Harry. The scene also indicates Snape’s fascination with Harry’s eyes, which are a strong reminder of his mother—the woman that Snape loved.
Here is a classic example of foreshadowing from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, first performed in 1599:
Soothsayer: Beware the ides of March.
Caesar: What man is that?
Brutus: A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.
What did you feel when you read these lines? Did you feel a sense of fearful anticipation? Did you think about what happened—that Julius Caesar was assassinated by Brutus and his fellow conspirators on the ides (fifteenth) of March in 44 BC? Did you notice the irony of Brutus warning the man he would kill only a few days later?
That’s the power of foreshadowing.
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Tom Corson-Knowles is the founder of TCK Publishing, and the bestselling author of 27 books including Secrets of the Six-Figure author. He is also the host of the Publishing Profits Podcast show where we interview successful authors and publishing industry experts to share their tips for creating a successful writing career.