How Foreshadowing Shapes Cinema and Storytelling

Foreshadowing is a powerful storytelling device. From Shakespeare to J.K. Rowling, this technique has been used in cinema, television, and literature for centuries.

Mar 9, 2024By Theo Kapetanakis, MA Film Studies, BA Cultural Technology & Communication
how foreshadowing shapes cinema storytelling


Across the vast field of storytelling history, foreshadowing is a plot device and a tool that successfully shapes the audience’s engagement. Delicate, but strategically placed hints, can add plot twists to any story. From ancient tales to modern blockbusters, foreshadowing has been present in narratives for centuries. Read on to learn more about how it helps shape different films and stories.


The Art of Foreshadowing in Cinematic Storytelling

storytelling cinema literature foreshadowing
Storytelling image. Source: Faculty Focus


Any original storyteller will want to capture the attention of their reader or their audience and keep them engaged until the very end of the story. That’s the ultimate goal of a story, after all. For this goal to be accomplished, some methods and practices need to be used. Foreshadowing is a valuable literary technique used to build the necessary suspense while keeping the viewers engaged in the narrative.


cinema audience foreshadowing
Audience Photo by Krists Luhaersa. Source: Unsplash


This sharp narrative technique purposefully gives the audience clues to what will happen later in the story. This jaded hint might be perceived by the audience immediately or in retrospect. When foreshadowing is effectively used, most of the audience members won’t realize the significance of the clues during the film but only at the end of it.


At the same time, foreshadowing is a method used to gradually prepare the viewer for major revelations. The moment of revelation is an integral part of the climax of a story. If a plot twist or a revelation is dropped abruptly without any hints, this may cause disappointment or confusion instead of surprise and excitement.

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camera b&w foreshadowing
Camera in Modesto by Joshua Hanks, 2018. Source: Unsplash


In a story, a plot twist or a climax often emerges as a sort of fruition of the seeds that have been carefully planted throughout the story beforehand. Therefore, foreshadowing can be used as a powerful storytelling tool in any author’s toolbox as it creates a sense of anticipation and curiosity about how the plot will unfold. Throughout history, the method has evolved in complexity and usage, adapting to the changing styles of literature. It continues to be a powerful tool that writers use to spark interest in their readers, create tension, and add layers of meaning to their narratives.


Two Standard Ways of Foreshadowing

Cinema by Myke Simon, 2018. Source: Unsplash


First, we have something called direct foreshadowing, or overt foreshadowing. In these cases, an element of the story related to future events is overtly implied—usually through character dialogue, a comment by the narrator, or a prophecy. The title of a novel or film production can also refer to pivotal events in the story. The audience perceives this through clear hints while creating internal expectations that can keep their thoughts fixated on the story’s progression.


There’s also indirect, or covert, foreshadowing. In these instances, the clues are faint and based on hints that the audience will likely miss until they witness the foreshadowed event. For example, the dialogue can be used as a practice that indicates future events. At other times, indirect foreshadowing can be seen as a recurring element of a character’s personality. This type of hinting is difficult to perceive by the majority of people. However, in some cases, an element, a dialogue, or even a sentence can reveal the entire plot.


Throughout history, the goal of storytelling remains the same—the audience should be fascinated and not disappointed by the narrative. So, foreshadowing will always be a valuable tool for any storyteller, writer, or screenwriter of any generation. The term has been used since the 16th century, but the technique is evident in some of the world’s oldest written stories. The method has been used in countless works of art, from Homer’s epic tales to William Shakespeare’s plays and J.K. Rowling’s books. The presence of foreshadowing gives many literary works of art a timeless quality and it also helps transform a story into a successful film production.


Foreshadowing in Ancient Mesopotamia

Statue of Gilgamesh in Khorsabad, late 8th century BCE. source: Harvard University


The 3,600-year-old text known as The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet features a section of a Sumerian poem from The Epic of Gilgamesh. It is one of the world’s oldest works of literature. The technique of foreshadowing has been used since then. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh’s fear of death is so intense that his life turns into a constant search for immortality. His dreams hint at his inevitable death through symbols and pictures. These clues give an emotional touch to the story and show death as a natural part of life. In this case, foreshadowing is used to make the central theme more relatable to readers.


Foreshadowing in Homeric Epics

Portrait of Homer. Source: British Museum


Homeric epics serve as examples of timeless storytelling mastery. Homer’s epics take place in the distant past and reflect the social conditions and customs of the poet’s time. Foreshadowing as a narrative technique is skillfully used by the poet in works like The Iliad and The Odyssey. Homer, poet and rhapsodist, shaped parts of his stories by making his characters speak or act through hints. Through this method, he often prepared his listeners for what would follow. In a way, he warns the audience about the hero’s fate.


Here’s an example of the use of foreshadowing in these ancient epics. In The Iliad Achilles receives a prophecy from his mother, Thetis, about his two possible fates. One features a youthful life full of glory, while the other features a long, happy life lived in anonymity. This prophecy foreshadows his ultimate decision to engage in a war battle at any cost in pursuit of eternal fame.


William Shakespeare’s Use of Foreshadowing

shakespeare sculpture foreshadowing
Bust of William Shakespeare by John Michael Rysbrack. 1760. Source: Unsplash


William Shakespeare is often called the world’s greatest writer. He wrote comedies, tragedies, and historical plays in the late 16th and early 17th century. Shakespeare used foreshadowing to create suspense and warn the audience that something significant was going to happen during the play. For example, in Act 2 of Romeo and Juliet, the lines My life were better ended by their hate, than death prorogued, wanting of thy love hints at Romeo’s eventual fate and his suicide. With this narrative technique, he created a sort of interaction with his audience. This allowed the viewers to interlink the events and make guesses about what was coming next. In addition, Shakespeare enriched the narrative through diffuse elements by adding depth and complexity to his characters, communicating their motivations and actions.


Foreshadowing in Gothic Literature 

Image Renamed As edgar allan poe foreshadow
Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe. Source: Encyclopedia Virginia


With the rise of Gothic literature in the 18th and 19th centuries, foreshadowing became a tool used for creating suspense and building a sense of a forthcoming catastrophe. Famous works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Edgar Allan Poe’s stories and poems often employed the element of foreshadowing to create an electric atmosphere. In Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, the raven’s persistent phrase Nevermore hints at the narrator’s despair and his endless troubles. The raven’s presence also symbolizes the incapability to escape one’s inner grief and loss.


Foreshadowing Today

jk rowling harry potter foreshadowing
J.K. Rowling by Debra Hurford Brown, 2021. Source:


Foreshadowing remains a vital plot device used in modern and contemporary literature as well. It is present in all genres, from horror and mystery to science fiction. J.K. Rowling, the writer of the famous Harry Potter series, uses the techniques to create complex narratives. One prime example is the prophecy regarding Harry Potter and Voldemort that’s introduced in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. This prophecy refers to the ultimate battle between good and evil.

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By Theo KapetanakisMA Film Studies, BA Cultural Technology & CommunicationTheo is a filmmaker and author with tremendous passion for storytelling. He holds an MA in Film Studies from Middlesex University, London (1st Scholarship Award), and a BA in Cultural Technology & Communication from the University of the Aegean. His work includes, film directing, audiovisual arts, video editing, and scriptwriting. Furthermore, Theo is a Graphic Designer & Media Editor at TheCollector. In his spare time, he publishes articles on his specialty.