I'm writing an analysis of quotation from The Handmaid's Tale. In the story, the author puts in an anecdote of an interview of a Nazi soldier's wife. I comparing that to Offred's recent meeting with the Commander. It seems like Atwood brought up that memory to serve as a warning to Offred (But she doesn't notice why that memory is triggered).

Question: What do you call it when a story gives a warning to the character(s) in the novel?

  • Are you asking about a warning to the reader (as in the title) or a warning to the characters (as in the body of your question)? Foreshadowing works for the first but not for the second. Commented Mar 30, 2017 at 18:55
  • To the character @PeterShor Commented Mar 30, 2017 at 19:18
  • Such an anecdote might serve as a hint, a prompt or a trigger. A related word is a spoiler, meaning information that gives away essential parts of a developing (literary or movie) plot. Commented Mar 30, 2017 at 19:33

2 Answers 2


When a story gives a warning of a plot turn, it is called foreshadowing.

Foreshadow -- To present an indication or a suggestion of beforehand; presage: hostilities that foreshadowed all-out war. - American Heritage Dictionary, 5th Ed.

  • 2
    Foreshadowing is the right answer. But a bomb that is shown to the audience but not to the characters could not be a MacGuffin, although it might be a Chekhov's gun. A MacGuffin is something lacking intrinsic importance that drives the characters' actions. For example, a bomb might be a MacGuffin if the characters are trying to find a bomb that somebody has hidden at a school, but the story is really about the relationships of the people they encounter while doing so. Commented Mar 30, 2017 at 19:01
  • 2
    Why this was accepted I am unsure. Foreshadowing alerts the reader. The OP is asking what it is called when events alert a character. I would instead say this is just that, a warning. If you need a 5-cent word, then maybe omen or portent. Commented Apr 1, 2017 at 8:36

It's called a cautionary tale. Wikipedia defines it thus:

A cautionary tale is a tale told in folklore, to warn its listener of a danger. There are three essential parts to a cautionary tale, though they can be introduced in a large variety of ways.

First, a taboo or prohibition is stated: some act, location, or thing is said to be dangerous. Then, the narrative itself is told: someone disregarded the warning and performed the forbidden act. Finally, the violator comes to an unpleasant fate, which is frequently related inexpansive and grisly detail.

  • 1
    This answer has been flagged as low quality. That's presumably because it lacks detail. If you look at answers around the site, we have an expectation that answers will contain a sourced definition and/or an explanation of why the suggested answer is correct. Commented Apr 27, 2021 at 22:18
  • Hi, welcome to our site. You may not be aware that we're quite different from other Q&A sites: rather than inviting personal opinions, we're looking for detailed, authoritative answers supported by evidence (preferably linked to the published source). For further guidance, see How to Answer and take our EL&U site Tour. :-) Commented Apr 30, 2021 at 8:50

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.