Foreboding is a sense of apprehension or dread about what is to come, or a feeling or belief that something bad is going to happen.
Foreboding is a very old word that came into English from the Old English word forebodung, which meant prophecy. By the late 1300s, foreboding had come to mean an omen, portent or sign that something bad that was going to happen.
The development of foreboding in an audience or reader increases the tension and anticipation in a reader or audience member, keeping them involved in the development of a story and the fate of the characters. It is often achieved through the effective use of other techniques, such as imagery, dramatic irony and plot devices.
Books, movies, TV shows, plays and even video games are full of examples of effective use of foreboding. It is widely used because it works, and audiences generally love it. That spark of fear, or the feeling of dread in the pit of one’s stomach, is exciting and engaging.
Think of that iconic music in Jaws that indicates the shark is approaching. Or in any murder mystery, where the music changes from light to menacing, or the lighting changes from bright to dark: it is no accident that hose things often happen at the same time.
Think of the stormy weather outside and the dim lighting inside the houses in Wuthering Heights that represent the violence and vehemence of emotions in Catherine, Hindley and Heathcliff.
Think of the imagery of dark magic, ghosts, storms, and of blood that cannot be washed from the hands of the guilty in Macbeth.
Think of the chains of Jacob Marley, and the cold darkness of Scrooge’s house in the opening scenes of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
These are all iconic scenes in which foreboding is used to darken the mood and build tension and suspense in the audience.