Foreshadowing: The technique of introducing into a narrative material that prepares the reader or audience for future events, actions, or revelations. Foreshadowing often involves the creation of a mood or atmosphere that suggests an eventual outcome; the introduction of objects, facts, events, or characters that hint at or otherwise prefigure a developing situation or conflict; or the exposition of significant character traits allowing the reader or audience to anticipate that character’s actions or fate. Occasionally the theme or conclusion of a work is foreshadowed by its title. Prolepsis, the evocation in narrative of scenes or events that take place at a later point in the story, necessarily foreshadows that future event or action.
Foreshadowing is found in all narrative genres but is especially common in suspense fiction, including mysteries, Gothic novels, and detective fiction. Although there are many methods of foreshadowing and many reasons to use this technique, its effect is to unify the plot by making its development and structure seem logical and perhaps even inevitable. As nineteenth-century Russian playwright Anton Chekhov once said, “if there is a gun hanging on the wall in the first act, it must fire in the last.”
EXAMPLES: The mood created in the first few sentences of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) forewarns the reader of horrible events to come:
During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.
In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), the revelation that Mr. Rochester’s mentally ill wife lives in the attic of Thornfield Hall is foreshadowed by the “demoniac laughter” that governess Jane Eyre hears in her room one evening. Similarly, the discordant music prior to the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Psycho (1960) prepares the audience for the grisly stabbing of the character played by Janet Leigh.
The titles of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912) and Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop (1926) foreshadow the eventual demise of their respective protagonists, Gustav von Aschenbach and Archbishop Jean Marie Latour. The early presentation in Death in Venice of a minor character who, though old, from a distance looks young — thanks to rouge, cheap dentures, a bad wig, and a fake mustache — foreshadows Aschenbach’s own, later, hopelessly self-destructive pursuit of youth in the form of a beautiful young stranger.
Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s La sombra del viento (The Shadow of the Wind) (2001) makes use of foreshadowing when protagonist Daniel Sempere proleptically announces, “In seven days’ time I would be dead.” So does Attack of the Clones (2002), the second episode of the Star Wars series, when Obi-wan Kenobi tells his young Jedi apprentice Anakin Skywalker, “You’ll be the death of me.”