Foreshadowing, Prophecy, and Dramatic Irony

Foreshadowing, prophecy, and dramatic irony are three devices used to create suspense in the reader. I will begin with an explanation of each of these devices.

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Foreshadowing is a subtle hint of suspense to come. A classic example of foreshadowing is in Moby Dick. In chapter three, Ishmeal contemplates the painting in the entryway of The Spouter Inn:

"But stop; does it not bear a faint resemblance to a gigantic fish? even the great Leviathan himself?"

"The picture represents a Cape-Horner in a great hurricane; the half-foundered ship weltering there with its three dismantled masts alone visible; and an exasperated whale, purposing to spring clean over the craft, is in the enormous act of impaling himself upon the three mast-heads."

 "Deeply Distressed" by Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917) ~ inspired by the above scene from Moby Dick.

Another example is from the popular novel A Game of Thrones. The dire wolf that the Stark boys found dead with an deer's antler in its throat was a hint of things to come. Okay, no spoilers for those of you just watching the series or reading the books.

Prophecy is a common component in Shakespearean and Greek tragedies. Two classic examples are Macbeth and Oedipus Rex. In Macbeth, three women, known as the weird sisters, tell Macbeth of his future rise to power. Would he have ever killed Duncan if they had not told him this destiny? There is also a component of clairvoyance and sight, in that the weird sisters are all blind, though they can see through the veil of time though a single eye they share.

"The Three Sisters" by Henry Fuseli (after 1783)

In Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, Oedipus's parents are given the prophecy that the babe will grow up to kill his father and marry his mother. To prevent this, the parents commanded him to be killed, resulting in his caregiver sparing his life and giving him away to be raised by others. Would Oedipus have come back to make battle with is father if he knew of his true identity? The theme of clairvoyance and sight becomes apparent when Oedipus gouges out his eyes for his inability to see the truth.

 (From on YouTube ~ for kicks)

Prophecy is often used in modern literature. The inscription on the ring in The Lord of the Ring trilogy might be considered a prophecy:

"One Ring to rule them all,
One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all
And in the darkness bind them"

(The score "Prologue" by Howard Shore, for the Lord of the Rings movies)

Prophecy is also a theme found in the Harry Potter series. J.K. Rolling utilizes prophecy throughout her books. In The Order of the Phoenix Harry learns of his mortal connection with Voldemort through a prophecy stored at the Ministery of Magic. Readers don't fully understand this prophecy until the final book, The Deathly Hollows. Again, I won't spoil it for those that haven't read it.

Finally, onto dramatic irony.  Often confused with the previously discussed terms, dramatic irony means that the reader knows something that a character doesn't. A classic example of this takes place in act one of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet:

"Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love"

(1950's enactment of Romeo and Juliet)

Though the readers know in the first few lines the lovers' fate, the characters never realize that their love will end in tragedy. Also, when Romeo is about to commit suicide, thinking Juliet is dead, the readers desire to tell him she is really asleep ~ thus... suspense.

An example of contemporary fantasy that incorporates dramatic irony is the Dragonlance Legends series by Weis and Hickman. In the final book A Test of Twins, Raistlin seeks to defeat the evil goddess, but the reader knows all along that he will fail.

Foreshadowing, prophecy, and dramatic irony are alive and well in contemporary fantasy. In my novel Brother, Betrayed, the hint of things to come begins with the title. Readers and authors that immerse themselves with classical examples of these literary elements will find more enjoyment and understanding when they are used in modern literature.

Please add comments of other examples you have read!


[This post is dedicated to my brother Michael, who told me he thought that modern literature has evolved out of using prophecy.]

TAGS: Shakespeare / Macbeth / Romeo and Juliet / tragedy / play / dramatic irony / prophecy / foreshadowing / J. K. Rolling / Harry Potter / The Order of the Phoenix / The Deathly Hollows / George R. R. Martin / A Game of Thrones / A Song of Ice and Fire / Starks / dire wolf / The Lord of the Rings / The Fellowship of the Rings / J. R. R. Tolkien / Dragonlance Legends / Margaret Weis / Tracy Hickman / Raistlin / Oedipus Rex / Oedipus / Sophocles / Moby Dick / Ishmeal/ Deeply Distressed / Albert Pinkham Ryder / Prologue / by Howard Shore / The Three Sisters/ Henry Fuseli / Danielle Raver / Brother, Betrayed


  1. Wow! That's a lot of great stuff crammed in there. Thanks!

  2. Thanks Gary :) Can you think of any more examples?

  3. Heck, we could probably pull 1000 different examples up if we tried. One element I really liked about the Harry Potter books was the combination of prophecy and foreshadowing. I think the combination of those elements is what had people lining up waiting for the next books. We had an idea where things were going, but we weren't quite sure and we wanted to see exactly how they would play out, so we couldn't wait to get the next book.

    I particularly remember wondering if the goofy things that happened in (Trelawny's sp?) class would turn up later. Some of them did, some of them didn't - if I remember correctly. I'm a little fuzzy on the details, but I remember, for example, Ron making some prediction about being Quidditch captain (which seemed absurd at the time), but then he ended up on the team (and I can't remember now if he actually became captian or not), but the key point is she dropped those sort of little hints out there that kept the reader engaged and guessing . . . and once you've got the reader guessing, you've got the reader sticking around to see if they were right or not.

    I've used those elements quite a bit in my own books and part of the reason I wanted to do a trilogy was so that I could drop hints in the first book that I could explain in the second and third ones.

  4. Wow! Those were a lot of run-on sentences. Maybe that will teach me not to write too much in tiny boxes ;)

  5. I think you've covered them all! I use foreshadowing and dramatic irony a fair amount in my sci-fi works, but I've stayed away from prophecy.

    Until now. Fortunately, my Dreamland 3 hero will take the prophecy seriously and through the ol' "interdimensional exchange" return to the past to warn everyone. Hence, the warning becomes the prophecy he eventually takes seriously, and so on. That's an example of a practical use for prophecy as a plot device.

    Otherwise, I don;t like prophecy in stories, though I recognize it as a customary device in certain literature. For me, it seems too "easy" a thing to build a story around. With the Tolkien example above, we know the rings will be found. Even so, how they are found becomes the story. Prophecy becomes a unifying motif. The interesting idea, in my opinion, is the origin of a prophecy and, perhaps, how it is misinterpreted or twisted as it passes down through the generations.

    I'm sure there are plenty of examples, but no device should be used too much or it loses its effectiveness. :-)

  6. I like the way you bring Tolkien up in this article. His use of foreshadowing and prophecy is quite integral to the whole story of the Ring and its effect upon those who would wield it. Also,in my World of Neveyah stories, prophecy is central to the story because the world of Neveyah is a battle field for the Gods and the peoples of the 3 worlds are the players in the great game. Foreshadowing is difficult to do: too much and you have given away the game; not enough and you may as well not bother! Great article.

  7. Amazing, well-thought out post! But this is a "prophecy" of your well-developed plot in Brother, Betrayed - it is so nicely done within chapters and also as each chapter then develops the entire plot. Excellent!

  8. Danielle, this is great. I especially loved your examples. The one ring prophecy seems to pop into my head at least once a day. Someone will say something like, "Well, we've only got one website up and running," and what I hear is "One website to rule them all and in the darkness bind them." :)

  9. What about Stephen King's, The Shining? If I remember it correctly there was something about the cook in the hotel warning the little boy about the mysterious hotel.

  10. Vagueness and foreshadows...gotta love 'em.

    "The tales you heard as a child..? Only rumors of what really happened."

    Witness the rebirth.

    We are in the midst of a revolt.
    A war.
    What are we fighting for?
    Our existence.
    Our lives.
    Whatever is left of them, that is.
    There is no vast army, no strongholds, no one coming to help us.
    There are no, 'teams'.
    Just Us...
    and THEM.
    Logos, I hate them...
    Anyway, we may seem familiar to you.
    But you'll notice things aren't quite as you remember.
    You grew up.
    So did we.
    You forgot about us.
    Things have changed.
    We have changed.
    Who are "we"?

    We are...

    The Stories. Legends Will Be Reborn.

    ...and like Connie posted too much and you give up the game.

    Prophesy? There is no prophesy to be fulfilled. Choice is what fuels this tale.

    Great post Danielle.

  11. Great examples!

    Hey, stop by my blog, I have an award for you! :)

  12. Great examples, thank you all for responding! Gary, after reading your post I thought of a few more examples in the Potter series. Stephen and Tymothy, I agree that authors need to be careful when using prophecy. The characters should drive the story. I agree with you Connie, foreshadowing is a delicate matter as well. I was ready to have an entire section about setting and mood as it relates to foreshadowing. Scott, that is hilarious :) Johanna, I think many horror movies use these literary elements. And thanks Alison and Krista. xx

  13. Hi Danielle! Just wanted to let you know that I've given you and your beautiful blogsite a blogger award. So, come visit my blog and pick up your award badge and find out how to pass it along.

  14. Than you Krista and Kathryn, does this mean I have to give 14 facts? lol