Foreshadowing is arguably the driving force of The Outsiders and one of the primary literary techniques used in the novel. Almost every significant moment in the novel is foreshadowed, from the fire in Windrixville to Johnny’s death to Ponyboy’s change in attitude toward the Socs. Foreshadowing is a type of cliffhanger and, as such, is responsible for creating a sense of uncertainty in the reader. Therefore, foreshadowing in The Outsiders has the effect of making the reader want to keep reading because it maintains a tension between the actions being described by Ponyboy and the future actions to which he is alluding.
Foreshadowing creates a series of questions the reader wants answered, for example, “Will Johnny use the knife he now carries?” or “Does something bad happen in the church?” Each of these questions are asked indirectly through foreshadowing and answered by the end of the novel.
The stabbing of Bob Sheldon by Johnny, and Johnny's death
Prior to Johnny stabbing Bob Sheldon, Ponyboy says, “And Johnny, who was the most law-abiding of us, now carried in his back pocket a six-inch switchblade. He’d use it, too, if he ever got jumped again. They had scared him that much. He would kill the next person who jumped him. Nobody was ever going to beat him like that again. Not over his dead body...”. This moment of clear foreshadowing lays out Johnny’s trajectory from victim to defender and then ultimately to martyr.
Johnny is not naturally a violent person. He is, as Ponyboy says, law-abiding and, as we see in his interactions with Cherry and Marcia, gentle and chivalrous. But his beating at the hands of the Socs activates in Johnny a sense of self-preservation. He would rather die defending himself with a switchblade than receive another beating by the Socs. Not only does this moment hint at Johnny using his switchblade later in the book, but it also alludes to Johnny’s own death in the final sentence.
The Church fire in Windrixville
The fire in the Windrixville church is foreshadowed twice in the book. The first moment is a subtle one and occurs as Ponyboy stares at Johnny’s cigarette and wonders, “...what it was like inside a burning ember…”. This moment is referenced later during the actual fire when Ponyboy says, “Suddenly, in the red glow and the haze, I remembered wondering what it was like in a burning ember, and I thought: Now I know, it’s a red hell.” The second moment of foreshadowing occurs when Ponyboy and Johnny first arrive at the church and Ponyboy thinks, “...this church gave me a kind of creepy feeling. What do you call it? Premonition?”
This church is not like the church he used to attend with his parents. Sunrise viewing aside, bad things brought them to the church, and bad things occur there. Though the reader may not be able to predict the fire, a sense of impending doom is pervasive. Foreshadowing in this instance is particularly effective in holding the reader’s attention and ratcheting up the sense of foreboding since the reader understand that Ponyboy and Johnny, two of the most sympathetic characters in the novel, will be involved in something dangerous.