Tuesday, December 18, 2012

How to Manage Expectations, Step 9: More Fun With Foreshadowing

We’ve talked about several forms of foreshadowing already, from obvious methods like using a framing sequence, flashforward, or voiceover to hint at what’s coming, to more subtle methods, like reversible behavior or imagery that create subconscious anticipation of an inevitable reversible.

But there are lots more methods of foreshadowing. Let’s list just a few:
  • Most obviously, whenever a scene cuts away right before a big reveal, or when the camera refuses to show the face of an important person in the room.
  • Interrupted dialogue: somebody sounds like they’re about to say something important, but they get cut off, leaving the audience to perk up their ears in hopes of filling in the blanks.
  • Whenever we only hearing one side of the conversation, or even when we hear both but something still doesn’t add up, the audience assumes that this is a big clue (So let’s hope it is!)
  • Whole unexplained cryptic scenes: Who are these people having some secret meeting that seems to have nothing to do with the story? What is that ally of the hero dropping off a mysterious package somewhere?
  • Dangling questions: someone asks a leading question “why does this keep happening?” and gets no answer…
  • Unpaid debts weigh heavily on an audience’s mind. In both Chinatown and The Godfather, a debt is incurred in the first scene that gets called in at an ironic moment later in the movie. Likewise with threats, or vows of revenge. Use them to keep the audience on their toes …until they finally forget about them, which is the moment you deliver the pay-off.
  • Brian McDonald in “Invisible Ink” (I finally read it, J.S., and it’s great!) talks about “clones”: minor characters whose struggles mirror the hero’s in miniature. When one of those characters meets a bad end, it foreshadows doom for the hero as well.
I used to think that this sort of obvious foreshadowing was just showboating by writers: They know what’s going to happen and we don’t so they’re rubbing it in our faces. But now I realize that heavy-handed foreshadowing is more often a way to tie together a plot that might not otherwise come together.

There are two reasons that time-travel stories use more foreshadowing than any other type of story:
  • First of all, it’s easy and fun to do so: if your characters are already jumping backwards and forwards in time, then it’s easy to show us cryptic glimpses of what’s to come.
  • But the far more important reason is this: TIME TRAVEL STORIES MAKE NO DAMN SENSE!
Think about that moment at the end of The Terminator when we realize that Reese is John’s father, or that moment at the end of Twelve Monkeys when we realize that Bruce Willis was traumatized by his own death. What were you thinking about? You were thinking, “Oh, cool, this was foreshadowed all this time but I’m only now putting it together!” What you weren’t thinking was, “That makes no damn sense!

The more unbelievable it is, the more you have to foreshadow, they’ll be too busy saying “Ah-ha!” that they’ll forget to ask “Say what?” Source Code was another time-travel head-scratcher that papered over lots of problems in this way. (What about the guy that body belonged to??) It’s messy, but what are you going to do? People cut you a lot of slack with time travel stories…as long as you don’t let think about the contradictions. There’s a reason that Back to the Future is famous for having more plant-and-pay-off than any other movie!

Okay folks, that was supposed to be the end, but tomorrow, we’ll get a little backfill as I go back and clarify some earlier thoughts…

1 comment:

j.s. said...

Glad you finally got to read INVISIBLE INK and found it useful. Brian McDonald also has a blog where he posts about once a month:


Some of my favorite of his posts are appreciations of well-known films like REAR WINDOW and TERMINATOR 2. He's got a knack for explicating the hidden depths of stories that are so popular we sometimes take them for granted.