Types Of Literary Shadowing

You’ve probably heard of foreshadowing, but have you heard of back-shadowing and side-shadowing? These techniques have nothing to do with each other, other than that they all describe literary techniques and they all include ‘shadowing’ in the term.

That said, each of these devices demonstrates a way of displacing the idea of temporal linearity in fiction.


Foreshadowing is a literary device in which an author drops subtle hints about plot developments to come later in the story. This is especially popular in Western storytelling, but less common in, say, Asian storytelling.

I’ve been thinking about how much Western storytelling trains us to expect that writers show the audience where they’re going right up front. Main characters have to be introduced right away. Twists have to be foreshadowed. Inciting incident in the first 10% etc.

BUT Many of my favorite stories, especially Asian ones, don’t adhere to these “rules.” In My Neighbor Totoro, Totoro doesn’t appear until 30 mins into a 90 min film. The slow sense of discovery makes the film enchanting. Can you imagine any American film waiting until the 33% mark?

If the film Parasite had been an American movie, there would all sorts of clues, hints, bumps in the night. Or maybe the movie would’ve ended with the rich and poor families having a showdown and then reconciling. As it is, when the twist comes, it’s truly a shock.

Yet, it makes perfect sense and re-contextualizes everything. It’s been thematically foreshadowed but NOT literally foreshadowed. Not an Asian film, but there’s a similar OMG WTF moment in Sorry to Bother You that works precisely because it *hasn’t* been foreshadowed.

As a former debater, I was taught, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them.” Front loading (or hinting at) all your narrative cards upfront is a storytelling tradition couched in cultural assumptions and not really a rule at all.


Compare with ‘telegraphing’, which is basically foreshadowing done in an overly heavy-handed way. In this case, the readers are able to predict what is about to happen, even though the author doesn’t want them to.

By the way, the film industry equivalent is the ‘flashing arrow’. A flashing arrow is a metaphorical audiovisual cue used in films to bring some object or situation that will be referred later, or otherwise used in the advancement of plot, to the attention of the viewers. This technique is parodied in the 1981 film Student Bodies, which literally makes use of a flashing arrow to ‘telegraph’ to the audience that when the vulnerable young woman alone opened the front door, she forgot to lock it again. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sPwwEgFcwho

Unlike telegraphing, foreshadowing is a useful and necessary technique. Foreshadowing is one thing that distinguishes story from real life.

We find instances of foreshadowing in literature where we would not suspect it in real life, because nothing in a story lacks a purpose, or it wouldn’t be there. (See Chekov’s Gun.) Events in real life cannot be foreshadowed. This makes foreshadowing a specifically literary construction.

Importantly, foreshadowing is visible only to the reader, not to the characters.

In picture books, foreshadowing can happen in the illustrations. For example, the drawing of the Wild Thing at the bottom of the stairs in Where The Wild Things Are. Upon second reading, the reader knows that Max has been creating these wild things in his imagination.

foreshadowing max wild things
What is foreshadowing used for?

Foreshadowing gives the feeling that everything in a story is ‘tied-together’, and provides a sense of closure and satisfaction at the end of a story or scene. This technique helps avoid the feeling of deus ex machina, which is the feeling that something has suddenly swooped in to save the day (originally God, and in children’s literature, notoriously, an adult).

Foreshadowing provides the re-reader with extra insight.

Foreshadowing can add dramatic tension by building anticipation about future events. It can also help build a creepy/suspenseful atmosphere.

When added up, the details of foreshadowing can help the reader with verisimilitude, which is ironic, since foreshadowing doesn’t really happen in real life.

11 Clever Moments of Movie Foreshadowing You Might Have Missed from Mental Floss


What is backshadowing?

Backshadowing is the technique of inserting commentary into the present narrative that refers to earlier narrative events. For example, in a story a child living in present-day Germany discovers that she is a descendent of a war criminal. In order for such a narrative to make sense, the reader has to know something about Germany and the world wars. The author’s narration fills in the gaps.

Backshadowing is visible to readers as well as to characters everyone knows what happened, and the story rests upon this shared schema. Neither narrator nor narratee is in superior or inferior position.

What is backshadowing used for?

Many historians and writers of historical fiction employ backshadowing of real-world historical events because the reader already has a schema. For example, the holocaust might be used as a setting in a romance novel to allow the writer to spend time on the characters and plot.  This can be problematic.

In his book Foregone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History, author Michael Bernstein criticises authors who use their own and their audience’s knowledge of an apocalyptic event which occurs after the epoch about which they are writing to interpret the actions of their real or imaginary characters. Bernstein’s problem with backshadowing is that this technique encourages a reader to believe in determinism that whatever happened in the past led inevitably to the present we know.

Related to this usage of ‘backshadowing’ is the cognitive bias ‘chronocentrism’, which is the natural human tendency to see one’s own time/era/generation as more special than others.

Foregone Conclusions
The term backshadowing was coined by Bernstein

Another, completely different use of the word backshadowing: starting a story with its ending, then shifting back to the beginning with the reader in full knowledge of the outcome but no idea how it all happened. This allows the writer to use a climactic event as a hook, drawing the reader in immediately with the promise that something big and interesting happens. It’s a subcategory of a flashback. In a plot shaped like this, the character is likely to interpret their own current (fictional) reality according to whatever happened in the past. In first person narratives where the character is the storyteller, the very act of storytelling becomes the main focus rather than the events themselves the narrator’s main role is ‘artist’.


Side-shadowing is used to present alternative scenarios to the reader. Side-shadowing is about possibility.

We are naturally inclined to imagine alternative realities. One thing you may notice about being middle aged is the tendency to look at the people you grew up with and compare their lives to your own, imagining that if you’d made those same decisions, you’d have that life over there. Tim Kreider calls this comparison “The Referendum”. He also describes a sort of real life side-shadowing:

One of the hardest things to look at is the life we didn’t lead, the path not taken, potential left unfulfilled. In stories, those who look back—Lot’s wife, Orpheus—are irrevocably lost. Looking to the side instead, to gauge how our companions are faring, is a way of glancing at a safer reflection of what we cannot directly bear, like Perseus seeing the Gorgon safely mirrored in his shield. It’s the closest we can get to a glimpse of the parallel universe in which we didn’t ruin that relationship years ago, or got that job we applied for, or made that plane at the last minute. So it’s tempting to read other people’s lives as cautionary fables or repudiations of our own, to covet or denigrate them instead of seeing them for what they are: other people’s lives, island universes, unknowable.

Tim Kreider, We Learn Nothing

But of course, we don’t call this side-shadowing. We only call it something when it happens in literature. Often, it’s extremely sad.

In another essay Kreider writes:

One of the most pitiable things about Joseph Merrick, the “Elephant Man,” was his undisfigured arm “a delicately shaped limb covered with fine skin and provided with a beautiful hand which any woman might have envied” a glimpse of the man he was meant to be, all but smothered inside the aspect of a monster.

Tim Kreider, “Bad People”, We Learn Nothing
What is sideshadowing?

A character or narrator posits a series of possible/hypothetical/imaginary events which never have any consequences in the story.

What is sideshadowing used for?

Sideshadowing draws attention to the possibility that other paths could have been taken. Sideshadowing suggests to a reader that one must grasp what else might have happened in order to fully understand an event.

The technique suggests to readers that time is not a fatalistic line but a shifting set of possibilities.

Sideshadowing suggests that nothing can be wrapped up neatly, if at all.

In other words, sideshadowing is used to give a contrasting illumination to the ‘real’ event.

While foreshadowing makes the present and future seem inevitable, sideshadowing emphasises the contingency of the present.

Sideshadowing points outside the narrative, deliberately suggesting to the reader that more things might be going on than what’s expressed in the narrative.

See a longer definition at The Literary Lab.

In children’s literature, an example of sideshadowing can be found in Johnny, My Friend:

Let’s turn the clock back, Johnny! […] We’ll take the Alternative where […] you can have a home, Johnny, not just a bit of a smelly monster’s den, and a name, Johnny, you can have an English mum and a Swedish dad and a French sister, and me as a brother, and regular pocket money […]

This is a character visualising a series of alternative events that never happened in the story. (See Maria Nikolajeva’s From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature.)

Ann Dee Ellis uses sideshadowing in her 2017 novel You May Already Be A Winner. Here the narrator describes reuniting with her little sister after the little sister got lost. Notice the shift in mood from indicative to the subjunctive mood: ‘would’.

When I came in, I thought she’d run to me. I thought she’d cry and I’d cry and we’d hug and then I’d tell her I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.

And then she’d hit me. And it would hurt but then we would hug and Jane the social worker and all her coworker social workers would say, “Now there’s some sisters who stick together.”

But instead, when I walked in, Berkeley didn’t look up.

I said, “Berkeley!”

And she and the boy started laughing about something.

The purpose of this is almost metafictional. Or perhaps it’s the inverse of metafictional, attempting to persuade the reader that we are not reading a story at all, but that this is the real world. In this example of side shadowing, the author describes a sort of melodrama we have in our heads about how stories goes. But because the ‘reality’ within the world of the story ironically differs from the narrative Olivia has in her head, we are reminded as readers that stories are not like the real world (even though we are actually reading a story at this very moment).

Later in the story, Ann Dee Ellis writes:

Just then, a lady collapsed. And I gave her CPR. And everyone cheered.

No I didn’t. I never do anything.

In this case the idealistic first person narrator shows us how imaginative she is, and how she aspires to be better.

In the young adult novel We Were Liars, e. lockhart uses side-shadowing when Cadence jumps from a cliff into the ocean:

I wonder if there’s another variation in which Johnny is hurt, his legs and back crushed against the rocks. We can’t call emergency services and we have to paddle back to the kayak with his nerves severed. By the time we helicopter him to the hospital on the mainland, he’s never going to walk again.

Or another variation, in which I don’t go with the Liars in the kayaks at all. I let them push me away. They keep going places without me and telling me small lies. We grow apart, bit by bit, and eventually our summer idyll is ruined forever.

It seems to me more than likely that these variations exist.

This kind of story relies on what TV Tropes calls ‘The Alternate Self’.

I doubt Sliding Doors (1998) was the first well-known story to use this structure, though it is perhaps one of the best known, since more people watch popular movies than read books. This is a plotline in which a character has a difficult decision to make. Instead of having the character choose one path, then carry on the story until a good point to stop, this kind of story decides to explore the consequences of each decision by having the character follow both paths, perhaps with alternating chapters or something quite complicated plotwise.

This kind of plot can be quite didactic. Usually this sort of story has the following message:

However you imagine your life might have been had you made X decision instead of Y, your imagined other life isn’t as romantic/glamorous as the imagined life in your imagination.

Here are some examples of books which use side-shadowing as part of the plot. They come in all moods, all genres, all lengths. Some call it the ‘Sliding Doors’ plot, after the film.


Lionel Shriver constructs an entire plot around sideshadowing in several of her novels: Big Brother and The Post-Birthday World. This is known as a sliding-doors plot, from the movie Sliding Doors (1998).

Anyone who has read Shriver’s later (and better known) We Need To Talk About Kevin will already be expecting something quite dark. It’s what Shriver is good at. I thoroughly enjoyed this story. Shriver is an expert at plotting, as evidenced by her adept execution of this device, which is used for the end purpose of exploring long-term, stable relationships such as in marriage. The end message, for me, was that

…the story breaks into two narratives with alternating chapters: In one, Irena pursues an affair with Ramsey and leaves Lawrence; in the other, she restrains herself and stays loyal. Each choice has its downside.

Kirkus Reviews (Starred review)

I consider this book as masterful as We Need To Talk About Kevin. Don’t be fooled by the cover; the bright colours may suggest something quite different.


Season Three of Six Feet Under (“Perfect Circles”) opens with the ultimate episode of sideshadowing. The audience was left at the end of season two wondering if Nate would survive his surgery. He has been told by his doctor of various possibilities: death, disability, or perhaps he’d come out fine. Each of those is offered to the audience before we learn what actually happens to Nate. In this case, the episode explores the theory of infinite universes — that each of these things did happen to Nate; it’s just that in this world, he happened to survive.

Later in the episode, Nate overhears Ruth talking to Lisa and learns his conception was an accident.

Nate: “I don’t like knowing that my whole existence is an accident.” 

The sideshadowing in this episode keeps the audience on tenterhooks, wondering what really did happen to Nate, but also serves to convey the idea that life is entirely random; we are all here by chance, and there are many other ways life could have gone.

JUST LIKE FATE (Young Adult)

I have not read this one myself, but here’s what Kirkus had to say:

In an ambitious narrative device, the book juggles two alternating plots, following a prefatory “Before” section. Chapters titled “Stay” are based on the premise that Caroline chooses to remain with her grandmother in the hospital and hears her dying words of love for her granddaughter; in those titled “Go,” Caroline succumbs to her friends’ pressure to go to a party, thus missing the moment when Gram dies.

Kirkus Reviews
ME MYSELF I BY PIP KARMEL (Australian ‘chick-lit’)

This is a book from 2000 which has been adapted into a film starring Rachel Griffiths. This is much more light-hearted than Shriver’s, and makes use of a structure oft-utilised by writers of picturebooks. When the protagonist comes back from the fantasy world (or in this case, wakes from a vivid dream), they are lead to believe it wasn’t really a dream because they have brought something back with them from the ‘dream world’. Or things have been moved slightly, and their world view is significantly changed (in almost all cases, for the better).


Atkinson’s (Started Early, Took My Dog, 2011, etc.) latest opens with that conceit, a hoary what-if of college dorm discussions and, for that matter, of other published yarns (including one, mutatis mutandis, by no less an eminence than George Steiner). But Atkinson isn’t being lazy, not in the least: Her protagonist’s encounter with der Führer is just one of several possible futures. Call it a more learned version of Groundhog Day, but that character can die at birth, or she can flourish and blossom; she can be wealthy, or she can be a fugitive; she can be the victim of rape, or she can choose her sexual destiny. All these possibilities arise, and all take the story in different directions, as if to say: We scarcely know ourselves, so what do we know of the lives of those who came before us, including our own parents and—in this instance—our unconventional grandmother? And all these possibilities sometimes entwine, near to the point of confusion.

from Kirkus

In this post I talk about the writing technique of ‘side-shadowing’. This is basically a parallel life, but it may only be a sentence, a throw-away comment or a paragraph. Quite often we get a side-shadow scene at the end of a story, to suggest to the reader there may be other endings, or may have been, had things not turned out differently.

Chekov was a fan of sideshadowing in his short stories.

In Russia, Dostoyevsky was no stranger to sideshadowing, either. Might be a Russian thing, because Tolstoy does it too.

Philippa Pearce uses the technique of sideshadowing in Tom’s Midnight Garden.

And Alice Munro is also a fan, for example in “Queenie“, when a woman wonders what happened to her estranged step-sister after she got into a coercively controlling relationship as a young woman.

Munro showcases various ways of doing it. In “Passion”, a paragraph begins: ‘But this was the thing that had not happened’. This lets us know that the previous paragraph was a sideshadow for what might have been. Now we hear how sex with her future husband really was. (Not romantic as she had hoped, for she has fallen in love with his family rather than with him.) In the same story, Munro achieves sideshadowing in another way: An elderly point-of-view character is looking back and isn’t sure which is a real memory and which is imagined:

As a matter of fact, she does not know, to this day, if those words were spoken or if he only caught her…

Alice Munro, “Passion

See also Cheever’s short story called Just One More Time, in which the final scene is an example of sideshadowing, because the reader doesn’t know if it really happened.

Narrative and Freedom
Morson created the term sideshadowing.

There is another, less obvious, way authors can create a type of sideshadowing for the reader: by creation of a ‘could-have-been’ character:

Could-Have-Been. This is Cho in Harry Potter. These Could-Have-Beens have the significant value in that they present other options, and can keep the plot from feeling inevitable; as such, they can shore up suspense. These characters are useful in another way, for often they show that a MC isn’t going to get everything he wants. (That’s a danger for books … when a protagonist can have her cake and eat it too.) A subcategory of the Could-Have-Been is the Fateful Warning—what the MC might be or become if circumstances were different. In Les Miserables, Fantine is who Cosette might have become, if Jean ValJean hadn’t intervened.



Shadow staging. Presenting a crucial event (such as an out-of-whack event) by its consequences rather than showing it directly. In Sophie’s Choice, for example, Sophie’s choice is shadow-staged throughout the whole novel. (CSFW: Steve Popkes)

Glossary of Terms Useful In Critiquing Science Fiction