Foreshadowing is crucial to any good story. But how exactly do you do it well?
In simple terms, foreshadowing is a device we use to introduce critical story elements before they come fully into play. Foreshadowing adds a level of authenticity to your story and shows you have a well thought-out plot line.
To illustrate this, I’ll look at effective and ineffective examples from two TV shows. Obviously, these examples contain show spoilers.
Good example of foreshadowing: Firefly Season 1 episode: Bushwhacked
In Joss Whedon’s ground breaking (but short-lived) series Firefly, we are introduced to Captain Malcolm Reynolds and the crew of his spaceship Serenity in episode 1. Here, he picks up a doctor – Simon Tam – and his mysterious cargo. It turns out the “cargo” is in fact Dr Tam’s sister River, emancipated from a sinister research facility. The Tam siblings are now fugitives aboard Serenity, wanted by the Alliance.
In the third episode Bushwhacked, we see a terrific example of foreshadowing. Near the beginning, Captain Reynolds and his second-in-command Zoe don space suits to enter a derelict ship. Dr Tam watches as they put on the suits, marvelling at how little there actually is that separates Mal and Zoe from the cold and deadly vacuum of space.
Shortly after, crew member Jayne tricks Dr Tam into donning a space suit to enter the derelict ship. When Tam eventually makes it on board, he finds he’s the only one wearing a suit (presumably because they’ve managed to seal the ship and generate an oxygen supply). Serenity’s mechanic Kaylee gently advises Dr Tam that in any event, he is wearing his suit incorrectly.
Later in the episode, the Alliance board Serenity in search of the Tam siblings. It would appear that Captain Reynolds has stowed Simon and River in one of the ship’s many cubby holes, however they are nowhere to be found. As the Alliance conduct their diligent search, the camera pulls back to the outside of the ship; here we see Simon and River in space suits, clinging to the outside of the ship.
The genius here is that Whedon foreshadows the use of the suits with two clear preceding references. In the first instance, Simon express his concern at how flimsy the suits seem to be, considering the deadly environment of space. In the second instance, we see how ill-equipped he is to even put the suit on. By the time we reach the critical scene outside the ship, we can marvel at the clever plan as well as the dilemma. Simon and River have taken a dangerous risk, which only serves to emphasises how much greater is the danger of being found by the Alliance.
Bad example of foreshadowing: Once Upon A Time Season 3 episode: The Tower
In this particular stage of Once Upon A Time, we have two timelines in play. One is present day Storybrooke; the other is the Enchanted Forest one year earlier. To all intents and purposes, the Enchanted Forest represents a flashback.
In the Season 3 episode The Tower, Snow White is pregnant and her husband David is fearful of fatherhood. He is told of a magical root that can take away fears and travels to the edge of Sherwood Forest to find it. He suddenly hears a woman’s cry and discovers Rapunzel trapped in a high tower. He climbs up and intends to rescue her, when a hooded witch comes storming up the tower to prevent them from leaving. It turns out the witch is in fact Rapunzel herself, who must cut the witch loose to overcome her fears of inadequacy.
Back in present day Storybrooke, David is on a mission and has (unbeknownst to him) been given the same magical root by a villain. Alone in the woods, the hooded witch appears and attacks him. Here, the witch is David himself and he must admit his fears about parenthood in order to slay the demon.
The problem with the foreshadowing here lies in the two timelines. It is evident that the character of Rapunzel has only been introduced in this episode (she has never been seen or heard of before) in order to foreshadow David’s battle with his own fears. Had the Rapunzel story been introduced earlier on in the season, it would have made for an interesting parallel, to find David later battling the same witch. Yet Rapunzel is not an established character that we care about – she is simply a plot device whose rather vague goal, conflict and resolution is wrapped up in roughly a third of this episode’s running time. The foreshadowing lacks authenticity and appears to have been shoehorned in via a brand new (and short-lived) character. Rapunzel adds nothing to the core storyline and is therefore a plot contrivance.
What can we learn about foreshadowing?
Foreshadowing is relatively easy to achieve and acts as a delicious plot device. As you’re writing, think of how critical scene elements might be introduced earlier on. It’s simple enough to then go back and introduce those elements into earlier scenes. The Tams’ spacesuit hideout has a much stronger resonance because of the well-considered foreshadowing that’s taken place earlier.
Think of it like this: If someone takes a gun off the wall and shoots it in Act 2, make sure you show the gun on the wall in Act 1. Otherwise, the gun becomes a convenient plot device and will appear to have been “magicked up” for the sole purpose of resolving a dilemma.
In the novel I’m currently writing, the climactic events in the third act are all clearly foreshadowed in the very first chapter (and with good reason). There are other elements foreshadowed in a much more understated way and these will come more fully into play in the second (or third) book. I want my readers to say, “Ah! So that’s what all those little elements meant!” I want them to go back and read the whole story again, just for the joy of picking up on some of the understated references.
Have fun with foreshadowing and keep in mind two principles: Be creative and be authentic. Your readers will love it.