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In a (non-comedic) story where the philosophical implications of the existence of any way of predicting the future (except by accident) happen to be unacceptable or incompatible with the laws or the spirit of the story, what are some good ways to foreshadow important (either on a personal or a grand scale) future events?


I should explain myself a little. Any story with strong foreshadowing that I know of matches at least one of the following descriptions:

  • It's in the high fantasy genre, where prophecies are acceptable and make sense in the idealistic and often religious framework of the story world.
  • It contains supernatural elements that affect the lives of the characters, such as magic or deities, that allow the characters some kinds of foresight.
  • The artist didn't really care about the (in-story) philosophical and metaphysical implications of the existence of prophecies, signs, divination, etc.
  • The thing that's foreshadowed is an obvious premise of the story.
  • It was done for comedic effect.

Is there any way to foreshadow events in a story where none of the above is applicable?

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Foreshadowing is dropping hints in the narration or the narrative. It doesn't have to be unknowable at the present, so you don't need to be able to know the future to to encounter innocuous pieces of info that later prove important. The hints could just be for something happening right now, far away from the characters' eyes, with some unnoticeable effects on their world and a planned (in your outline) big reveal later. The reader/characters may or may not catch up on them before the reveal. –  Mussri Jun 14 at 21:45
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To make foreshadowing impossible you'd have to disable all cause-effect relations, all consistence of behaviors. To show that a dam is going to collapse you don't need a clairvoyant, you just need to observe cracks in the construction. To foreshadow a betrayal you don't need to read mind of the traitor, just drop hints about his disgruntled behavior. –  SF. Jun 18 at 6:09

5 Answers 5

up vote 8 down vote accepted

As LaurenIpsum says, "foreshadowing" is not the same thing as "prophesying" or "predicting the future".

Foreshadowing simply means giving the reader clues as to what is going to happen next. The alternative to foreshadowing is a story in which things happen for no apparent reason, or in which problems or solutions come out of nowhere.

Suppose you read a detective story. Someone is murdered, the detective arrives on the scene and investigates the clues, etc. Various characters are introduced as potential suspects. And then on the last page of the story a character who we've never seen before appears and confesses to the crime. The end. Wouldn't you feel a little, well, cheated? Like, wait, I've spent this whole book trying to figure out which of the characters was the killer based on the clues scattered through the story, and now you tell me that was all irrelevant?

In a mystery story, we expect the killer to be introduced early in the story and for there to be clues that a reader could follow to figure out who the killer is. That's one kind of foreshadowing.

Or likewise, if the hero is going through all sorts of struggles, and just as the reader is wondering how he can possibly get out of this, suddenly we're told that he has this rich uncle who is a doctor who comes along and pays all his bills and performs the operation to cure that seemingly incurable illness and oh by the way the uncle is a skilled relationship counselor and talks the hero's wife into returning to him. Wouldn't you say, Oh come on, where did this guy from? But if the uncle is introduced early in the story, and the hero asks him for help and he says no, and then there's some reason given why the uncle would now be willing to help him, then it sounds fair and reasonable.

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You're right. Somehow, I guess, the stuff I've read have made me biased towards certain, obvious kinds of foreshadowing and have made me partially ignore the other, subtler ones. –  Theodoros Chatzigiannakis Jun 17 at 19:54
    
+1 But I think the detective story could be made to work. E.g., if the murder was done by someone who (secretly) wanted a suspect to be sole heir but the suspicion of being a murderer caused a change in the will, the confession of an outside murderer might be more acceptable, especially if the detective ensured this fact was made public (foreshadowing) and the other suspects were cleared but found guilty of other offenses (sleeping with the victim's husband, embezzling from the victim's company, etc.). Perhaps not on the last page, a typical mystery will have more wrap up than one page. –  Paul A. Clayton Jun 17 at 21:50
    
Giving the protagonist clues is not foreshadowing. Giving the reader clues effectively reduces the protagonist's options for future actions to the one the clues point at (otherwise they are not clues, but distractors), which means that the fate of the protagonist is fixed. Therefore, foreshadowing is the literary device to depict fate. –  what Jun 18 at 7:47
    
@PaulA.Clayton Yeah, I tried to put enough qualifiers in there to make the point that this is revelation coming out of the blue. But yes, one could write a story where the character is never seen until the last page, but where the existence of such a character is adequately foreshadowed. –  Jay Jun 18 at 13:26

I think you're confusing "foreshadowing" with "prophesizing." Foreshadow is derived literally from "before" + "shadow" — the shadow of an event falls before the event itself. The "shadow" means the reader can see something coming before it happens. (Imagine a very tall tree falling. The shadow of the tree reaches the ground before the tree does. You can see that the tree is going to hit the ground somewhere because you can see where its shadow is.)

The idea is that the reader can predict "Gosh, there's a big red button on that console with a 'Don't Touch' sign on it. Oh look, some nameless sod just touched it and he's being dragged off to be executed. Hmm, the heroine and her plucky comic relief sidekick just entered the room. I bet the sidekick is going to touch the big red button, will be sentenced to death, and will have to be rescued."

The foreshadowing is "the nameless sod just touched it and he's being dragged off to be executed." Usually an event like that is put into a story for a later payoff: someone else touches the button, some other random event occurs and the person is executed (thus showing the depravity of the leader), et cetera.

The characters are not predicting events by supernatural means. Foreshadowing happens between the author and the audience.

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Thanks! The last sentence, especially, is a very important statement that I hadn't fully realized. –  Theodoros Chatzigiannakis Jun 17 at 19:56
    
If the reader knows that something will happen before it has happened, the effect on the reader will be that the protagonist has no choice and is in fact fated. While foreshadowing is not prophesizing, the literary device of foreshadowing is the appropriate technique to depict fatedness. –  what Jun 18 at 7:43

Foreshadowing is used in all kinds of stories. There is foreshadowing in most mystery stories for example (often as both red herrings and 'proper' foreshadowing), and that doesn't fit anything on your list. Foreshadowing is something the author does, not the characters. It may be through a character giving a prophecy etc. but that is not the only way or even the normal way, even in fantasy.

This is a clumsy example but you could foreshadow an event like the death of the protagonist's mother at the climax by mentioning other people's dead mothers, by mentioning the death of the grandmother, by hinting that the mother is ill, etc. These are all fairly explicit means of foreshadowing the death. Less obvious would be making a theme of the cycle of life, death, growing up, independence, great loss, change or whatever the deeper meaning of the death is supposed to be.

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Foreshadowing occurs even in real life. Suppose you know some 10-year-old who is mouthy and disrespectful to adults, including his own parents. You say to yourself, "He'll turn out badly." You're not surprised to hear, 10 years later, that he's been convicted of armed robbery. His early behavior gave you a hint about his (likely) later life. If you hear instead that he turned out to be a loving and selfless person, you WILL be surprised. "Wow, really? That brat? Great! What happened?"

Other real-life foreshadowing: the brainy nerd starts a tech company; the rich BMOC jock goes into politics; the prom queen becomes a newscaster (via the weather girl route); the floozy bimbo winds up a single mother; the stoner turns up dead. None of these things surprise us, with no prophecy necessary.

In writing, you as the author merely present facts selectively to enhance the foreshadowing (or the irony/twist/surprise). Hopefully you do it less clumsily than my examples.

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When we try to answer this question, we must not forget that the author does not write the story for the sake of the protagonist, but for the sake of the reader.

As I explained in my comments to some of the other answers, foreshadowing is a literary device to let the reader know that the action of the protagonist will inevitably meet a specific end.

Foreshadowing signifies unavoidability.

This seems to imply that the protagonist is "fated" and nothing he can do will allow him to escape that fate. But this is not so. Note that

  • foreshadowing does not let the reader know that the protagonist will meet a specific end,

but that

  • the action of the protagonist will meet a specific end.

In a universe without fate, foreshadowing serves to show how the protagonist refuses to learn and grow but continues in his flawed habits and therefore fails to achieve his goals.

Which is why we only see foreshadowing in a tragedy and happy ends must not be foreshadowed but must take the reader by surprise.

Foreshadowing a tragic end increases the reader's desperation over the protagonist's lack of understanding and inability or unwillingness to change thus heightening the story's narrative tension. Of course this tragic end is not truly unavoidable. The author may allow the protagonist a life-saving insight at the moment the ax falls, thus saving him with a dramatic turn of events. This is the action story ending. The "literary" end usually does not allow the protagonist this insight but forces the reader to witness the fatal outcome of an unwillingness to change, thus driving home a message that the author hopes will help the reader grow in his own life.

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Foreshadowing is the way to depict fate, yes. Foreshadowing doesn't only mean that the character is fated to do X. In my example, the heroine might press the button, or the plucky comic relief might see the button and turn pale, yelling "My brother pressed that button and you killed him!" and attack the leader. Or the plucky comic relief might almost press the button but be prevented from doing so at the last second by the heroine. There are many different outcomes which could be foreshadowed by the same event. –  Lauren Ipsum Jun 18 at 10:03
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And why on earth can't a happy ending be foreshadowed? Have you never seen a single romantic comedy? –  Lauren Ipsum Jun 18 at 10:04
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The happy end in a romantic comedy is not foreshadowed because we alread know it will happen because we know what genre we are watching! In a romantic comedy the happy end is a genre convention and part of the selling argument. People watch Pretty Woman because they know it has a happy end. It's like you don't have to spell out that SF is about the future (no matter how near). In a romantic comedy the unhappy ending is foreshadowed, to allow for a happy plot twist at the end. –  what Jun 18 at 10:14
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@what But by that reasoning, in a tragedy we know it will end badly by the nature of the genre, and so that can't be foreshadowing either. It is true that a story in which we are given to understand that a character is doomed by fate to do X would be an example of foreshadowing, but I think it is simply not the commonly-used definition of the word to say that that is the ONLY kind of foreshadowing. –  Jay Jun 18 at 13:43
    
Tragedy is not a literary genre. In dtama, a tragedy is not defined by a bad ending but by the influence of the gods. –  what Jun 18 at 17:44

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