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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.