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A guide to foreshadowing in film

The Boords Team
The Boords Team
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10 min read
10 min read

Not sure about the definition of foreshadowing? We've got you. It's a literary device where a writer gives a sneaky hint about what's going to happen later in the story.

You'll often see foreshadowing at the beginning of a film, or a scene. It helps to build dramatic tension, and makes your viewer more excited about upcoming events in the story.

Screenwriters throw in foreshadowing in lots of different ways. It might be some character dialogue, certain plot points, or maybe a change in setting.

As well as building anticipation, foreshadowing is super-important for another reason: it makes extraordinary or bizarre events more believable. If they're hinted at earlier in the film, your audience knows to expect them.

These hints can be about future events, character revelations, and plot twists. They help to build the mood, show off the theme of your movie, and build suspense – usually hinting at events that'll happen to your main character later in the film.

As well as being used in films, this literary device is used to hold the reader's attention in novels, particularly mystery novels. You'll also see it in theatrical music, operas, musicals, radio, television, games, podcasts, and a tonne of other places. Everyone loves a bit of foreshadowing.

  1. 1) Two types of foreshadowing
  2. 2) Foreshadowing techniques
  3. 3) Things that aren't foreshadowing
  4. 4) Foreshadowing objects, skills, and behaviour

Two types of foreshadowing

Direct (overt) foreshadowing

In direct foreshadowing, the story openly suggests a future problem, event, or twist. It's usually done through the characters’ dialogue, the narrator’s comments, a prophecy, or a prologue.

We see it in Macbeth, where the witches predict that Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor – and, later in the play, king.

Indirect (covert) foreshadowing

In indirect foreshadowing, the story hints at a future event with subtle clues dotted throughout the plot. Your viewer probably won’t understand the meaning of the clues until the event actually happens.

In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker sees that the face behind Darth Vader’s mask is his own. We only understand this foreshadowing later when it's revealed that Vader is actually Luke’s father. Plot twist!

We also see indirect foreshadowing in Of Mice and Men. When George kills Candy’s dog, it foreshadows George killing Lennie because of how similar Lennie's personality is to the dog's. They're even killed in the same way – shot in the back of the head. (We're not crying – you're crying.)

Foreshadowing techniques

There are lots of ways to use foreshadowing in your next project. Here are some of the big ones, plus some foreshadowing examples from the real world.

1. Dialogue

You can give dialogue to your characters that hints at future events. This foreshadowing might be a joke, a small comment, or even something that's unsaid. It's all about planting a tiny seed that blooms later in the movie.

One of the most famous dialogue foreshadowing examples is in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, when Romeo says, “My life were better ended by their hate, than death prorogued, wanting of thy love.”

The line foreshadows Romeo’s eventual destiny: committing suicide over the perceived loss of Juliet. Poor Leo.

2. Title

You can use the title of your movie, novel, or short story to foreshadow big events in the story. It's not a movie (forgive us) but Edgar Allan Poe gives his short story the foreboding title The Fall of the House of Usher. It foreshadows not only the destruction of the physical house, but the demise of an entire family.

3. Setting

Lots of storytellers use the setting of a story to hint at future events. In Great Expectations, Charles Dickens uses weather descriptions to build dramatic tension, and foreshadow the dark turn Pip’s story will take.

“So furious had been the gusts, that high buildings in town had had the lead stripped off their roofs; and in the country, trees had been torn up, and sails of windmills carried away; and gloomy accounts had come in from the coast, of shipwreck and death.”

4. Metaphor or simile

You'll probably remember similes and metaphors from secondary school – but can you remember which is which? These tricky tools can be dynamite foreshadowing tools. In David Copperfield, Charles Dickens uses simile to foreshadow David's betrayal by his mum, comparing her to a fairy tale character.

“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.”

5. Character traits

Another way to give a taste of future events is to drop hints through the way your character looks, what they wear, or how they act. These elements can all foreshadow your character's true essence or their actions later in the story.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling describes Professor Quirrell’s turban, noting that Harry’s curious about it. It's only later that we learn that Quirrell’s turban masks his possession by Harry's nemesis, Lord Voldemort.

Things that aren't foreshadowing

Lots of people get different literary devices confused with types of foreshadowing. While the techniques below can be effective, they're not foreshadowing. We repeat: not foreshadowing.

Red herring

A red herring is when you throw in a naughty hint to mislead your audience. Foreshadowing, however, only hints at a possible outcome within the narrative – so it only leads readers in the right direction.

Flashback

While flashbacks and foreshadowings are both literary devices that relate to time, they're a little different. A flashback interrupts the chronological order of the plot to show an event in the past. A foreshadowing gives clues about what's going to happen to a character in the future.

Flashforward

A flashforward is where you insert a future event into the normal chronological flow of a narrative. While it's similar to a foreshadowing, it's not quite the same. A foreshadowing only hints about plot developments that'll come later in the story – it doesn't reveal them.

Chekhov's gun

Chekhov's gun is a dramatic principle by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. He said that you shouldn't include elements that make "false promises" by never coming into play – and that every element in the story has to be necessary.

Foreshadowing objects, skills, and behaviour

Foreshadowing an object

You should foreshadow an object when a character isn't likely to already have it. For example, if your character isn't a policeman or a criminal, you'll need to find a way to introduce a gun earlier in the story.

James Bond movies are packed with examples of foreshadowing. Each movie sees Bond meet gadget-meister Q in the early scenes, who introduces him to mind-bending weapons and snazzy cars. This bit is called the planting. When he ends up using them later in the film, this is the payoff.

If we didn't get the foreshadowing in the beginning, the audience would feel cheated and confused.

There's a more subtle foreshadowing in Jaws, but it has a big ol' payoff. Early in the film, Chief Brody curses when he trips on a pressurised air tank. Later in the film, Brody plonks the same tank into the shark’s mouth and makes it explode. Boom!

Foreshadowing skill

In The Terminator, an early scene shows Arnie imitating a dead policeman’s voice in a police radio, which sets up the Terminator's skill for mimicking accents. So when he reproduces Sarah’s mother’s voice later on – in order to figure out where Sarah is – it doesn't come out of the blue.

Foreshadowing behaviour

Sometimes you need to justify a character's behaviour, which might otherwise look forced based on how they've acted in the movie. In Pulp Fiction, Captain Koons tells a young Butch about a gold watch – which quickly becomes an important part of Butch's character.

Later in the film, Butch decides to return to his apartment and look for the watch, even though he's being hunted by hitmen. If we hadn't had this earlier foreshadowing, Butch’s decision to go back would seem pretty unusual.


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Thanks to Literary Devices and MasterClass for their helpful posts on foreshadowing. For more examples of foreshadowing in film, see this post from Film School Rejects.

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