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July 11, 2022

What Is Foreshadowing in Film? Definition & Examples

Foreshadowing can be one of the best ways to create mystery and drama in your scripts which will keep your audience hooked and engaged.

But, what exactly is foreshadowing, and how can you use it to your advantage? Let's dive in.

What does foreshadowing mean in film?

Foreshadowing means hinting about what is to come during later events. It creates expectations about how things might play out as your script continues. These could relate to tone or significant narrative events.

Foreshadowing offers viewers a certain amount of subtext so that they can guess what might be able to happen. For some viewers, this is part of the intrigue and appeal of watching your show or film as it enables them to develop theories about what might happen.

Foreshadowing also gives enjoyment to second or even third viewings of your show or film since viewers who now know how the plot pans out may wish to go back and look for clues they may have missed.

A person reaches out a hand.
Foreshadowing is a literary technique that can help build up intrigue, tension and mystery in your script.

If two characters end up falling in love, we might see early scenes of this through camera angles, snatched glances, or through comments. We might even detect jealousy if one character makes a pass at another in their love interests' presence.

Foreshadowing also creates melancholy if it suggests one character is likely to die; it is closely linked to fate and signals the inevitability of death.

The two types of foreshadowing

Two types of foreshadowing, and they can both affect the plot in different ways. Let's examine both of them.

Direct Foreshadowing

This is when the writer explicitly reveals to the audience what will happen rather than merely implying it. This could be information revealed to the audience via a narrator who is telling us the story from a future timeline or a small flashforward sequence.

Flashforward and direct foreshadowing are closely related, but flashforwards are generally longer sequences intended to flesh out exposition, whereas direct foreshadowing is usually a small indication of an outcome.

Indirect Foreshadowing

Indirect foreshadowing is the most common type of foreshadowing when the writer merely hints at future outcomes or events in the course of the narrative.

The classic phrase "I've got a bad feeling about this," as your heroes do something particularly risky, is an example of indirect foreshadowing. This is a bit of a cliche, so it's probably best to avoid this unless you're writing a parody.

Foreshadowing techniques

So what kind of techniques can you use to foreshadow in your script? You could mirror the end of your novel with a discussion or similar scene midway through your script.

The novel Of Mice and Men and its screen adaptation does this exceptionally well when we see one of the minor characters, Candy, describe the agony of having to kill his old dog. Candy worries that nobody will be around to kill him when he has outlived his usefulness.

At the end of Of Mice and Men, George kills Lennie to prevent him from being lynched by the mob, looking out for him as a kind and loving act of compassion.

George and Lennie in the 1992 film adaption of Of Mice and Men in a field of wheat basking in the setting sun.
Steinbeck uses foreshadowing in Of Mice and Men.

Examples of foreshadowing in film

Although this is a blog about foreshadowing in films, there is a very skilled example of foreshadowing in the novel Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix that never made it into the films.

In Prisoner of Azkaban, Professor Twelarny exclaims, "If I join the table, we shall be thirteen! Nothing could be more unlucky! Never forget that when thirteen dine together, the first to rise will be the first to die!" and in The Order of The Phoenix, Sirius is the first to rise from the table when thirteen Order members dine together in Griumauld's place. Sadly, *spoiler alert,* he dies at the end of that book.

However, you can also create foreshadowing through references to other works of literature and allusions. For example, you don't have to say plainly what is to come.

In a deleted scene from one of Harry's first potions classes in The Philosopher's Stone, Snape asks Harry: "What would I get if I added powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?"

This might sound like gibberish, but the language of flowers is often used to convey hidden messages of love in the Victorian era. According to the Wizarding World website: "Asphodel is a type of lily and means 'remembered beyond the tomb' or 'my regrets follow you to the grave' while wormwood is often associated with regret or bitterness. This foreshadows revelations in the final two films that Snape was in love with Harry's dead mother, Lilly."

Severus Snape clutches Lily's dead body whilst a one-year-old Harry Potter watches on.
Snape's intentions are foreshadowed masterfully in the Harry Potter book series.

We learn in the Half-Blood Prince that adding the powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood creates the Draught of the Living Dead. It sends the drinker into a death-like slumber akin to suspended animation though they are still alive. Perhaps this foreshadows the grief that Snape lives with every day; he is alive but barely living following the death of Lily, his one true love.

What is not foreshadowing?

Foreshadowing is not a flashforward or a flashback in its own right because these are not just hinting or confirming future events. They are, instead, taking us out of the existing timeline and placing us in another.

A flashback or flash forward usually aims to flesh out exposition, which is not the same as foreshadowing.

The Red Herring

Foreshadowing is also not a red herring. A red herring is when a fake clue misleads the audience. Often this is when we are led to believe that a character is a villain when it turns out to be someone different.

For example, we are led to believe Snape will be the central villain of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. He is seen muttering a curse under his breath when Harry is jinxed during Quidditch, but we later learn that that was a counter curse designed to save Harry.  

We also see him trying to get information out of Quirrell but later learn that in reality, Snape was confronting Quirrell with his own correct suspicion that Quirrell was trying to steal the Philosopher's Stone.

Chekhov's Gun

Foreshadowing is not the use of Chekhov's Gun - the idea that a gun or a murder weapon introduced in the first act of a play or indeed a movie - must go off at some point because great storytellers don't introduce elements that don't go anywhere.

It's easy to see how you might get confused here, but it's important to remember the mere presence of a "gun" doesn't foreshadow anything specific: we don't know who or how the gun will be used.

Chekhov is also making the point that you shouldn't introduce unnecessary elements into your play, for instance, devices or characters, merely for the sake of foreshadowing.

What is foreshadowing? It helps build mystery

Foreshadowing is crucial in many films and enables you to sow intrigue and mystery. This is important because it keeps the viewer hooked and engaged and makes your script unpredictable rather than formulaic.

Happy writing from the Arc Studio team!

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What Is Foreshadowing in Film? Definition & Examples
Harry Verity

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. In addition, he was a senior ghostwriter at Story Terrace from 2015- 2021, the private memoir firm.

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David Wain

For decades I've been searching for a seamless screenwriting app and and everything has come up way short – until Arc Studio. Writing and collaborating is easier than ever and it gets better every week. Well done!

David Wain
Writer/Director "Role Models"