Understanding Literary Devices: Foreshadowing and Flashbacks

by Grace Dickins

Because they add suspense or details that are difficult to incorporate through other methods, an author may use foreshadowing or flashbacks in writing. The two devices have a similar function; they refer to events that are not current but are linked to the ongoing narrative. They have some significant differences, as well, but they are often used in the same work to increase its complexity.

Foreshadowing hints at things yet to come, while flashbacks insert memories of events that have already happened. The former can create a sense of tension or anticipation that keeps the reader intrigued. The latter contributes a sense of context, offering extra information to the ongoing story. It may resolve or explain ambiguities or conflicts, inviting the reader to slow down and consider how all the pieces fit together.


Foreshadowing is the more subtle of the two literary techniques; it predicts a future event or resolution. Sometimes foreshadowing lends itself to a dialogue or a soliloquy where a character unwittingly sets the scene for what is to come. Imagine, for instance, that one character wishes out loud for a sibling. Later, it may be discovered that the character actually has a half-sister.

Other times, the author describes an environmental change or a parallel event that suggests something will happen to the characters. A brewing storm is a classic example of foreshadowing; it tends to forebode a violent or frightening situation. A description of a garden bursting into bloom may predict a character's long-awaited pregnancy or the winning of an award. As such, foreshadowing need not always hint at a negative outcome.

A particular kind of foreshadowing is known as a "red herring," a clue that leads the reader to expect one outcome although the narrative ultimately goes in a different direction. Commonly used as a device in mystery novels, this type of foreshadowing increases tension and keeps the reader guessing.


A flashback is a jarring shift in time and place within a narrative. The author takes this opportunity to illustrate reasons for a character's emotions or to create a backstory that clarifies current events.

Often presented as a sequence of dreams or stories told by a character, flashbacks can be brief and infrequent, a major part of the work, or anything in between. They are very effective techniques for character development, as they do not require stilted explanations. Flashbacks engage the reader and quickly illuminate the forces that have shaped one or more of the people depicted in the work.