Anton Chekhov famously said that if there’s a gun over the mantelpiece in the first act, then someone must get shot in the third act. He meant that the audience can outsmart the writer by figuring out the plot ahead of time, but now that his quote has become famous, it’s gotten turned on its head: It’s become another way for the writer to manipulate the audience.
It’s the job of the audience to try to outsmart the writer at every turn, but it’s the job of the writer to guess what their guesses will be and cut them off at the pass. Since audiences are now on the lookout for those guns on mantelpieces, writers can now use them to imply a death that won’t occur, or to trick the audience into guessing wrong about who will be shot.
You need to create subconscious anticipation. I’ve talked about how to do this in individual scenes, but it can be done over the course of a whole movie as well.
- As Chekhov pointed out, whenever a item of potential energy is introduced but not used up: an unfired gun, unused poison or dangling sword, obviously, but also any unrevealed secret or suppressed evidence. Those guns, too, must eventually be fired…
- Whenever characters say what they’re afraid will happen, or what their worst fears are, or their fondest wishes. Audiences will begin to anticipate that these things might come to pass, perhaps in an ironic way. It’s subtly set up throughout the first season of “The Wire” that McNulty’s most dreaded assignment is the docks, which is of course exactly where he ends up. As we race ahead of the plot in our minds, we know even before we see that final shot of him on the boat that the trap has been sprung.
- Whenever a character repeats a behavior compulsively, we wait for the moment when he or she can’t or won’t do it anymore. Likewise, when a character repeatedly tries and fails to do something, we begin to anxiously anticipate the moment he or she will succeed, for good or ill.
- Likewise with reversible imagery: whenever anyone preserves something fragile, we anticipate the moment it will break. Whenever something is literally or figuratively put on a pedestal, we wait until it is torn down. Whenever anyone invests any object or icon with emotional meaning, we begin to anticipate about what might happen to it.
The Fighter masterfully plays with its audience. We see talented boxer Mickey take his crackhead brother Dickey’s lousy advice over and over, with more and more disastrous results… Then we finally see Mickey get better advisors and succeed while Dickey goes off to jail. But just then, when Mickey finally has his big shot, he gets lured into the prison where Dickey gives him one more piece of advice. The audience is writing in pain! No, not again! Mickey was so close! Sure enough, in the fight, Mickey finds himself doubting his new advisors and considering Dickey’s advice instead. He fatefully decides to take it, and as a result… he wins!
The moviemakers know that we think we’re two steps ahead, which gives them the ability to deliver what we least expect, a story of redemption that will bring the brothers back together. Crucially, they don’t just want to shock us, they want to astonish us. They use foreshadowing to trigger cynical assumptions in our minds because they want us to be ashamed by the power of this moment, when we suddenly realize that we were wrong to distrust our hero, and wrong to assume that his brother was irredeemable.
Tomorrow, we mop up our final odds and ends, as we explore additional types of foreshadowing...