Friday, November 03, 2023

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?

We’ve talked about several forms of foreshadowing already, from obvious methods like using a framing sequence, flash-forward, or voice-over to hint at what’s coming, to more subtle methods like the creation of parallel characters that foreshadow the hero’s fate. 

But there are many more methods of foreshadowing. Here are a few:
  1. When a scene cuts away right before a big reveal, or when the story pointedly refuses to identify an important person in the room. 
  2. Interrupted dialogue: Somebody sounds like she's about to say something important, but she gets cut off, leaving the audience to perk up their ears in hopes of filling in the blanks. 
  3. Whenever we only hear one side of the conversation, or even when we hear both but something still doesn’t add up, the audience assumes this is a big clue. (So let’s hope it is!) 
  4. Unexplained cryptic scenes: Who are these people having some secret meeting that seems to have nothing to do with the story? Why is the hero’s ally dropping off a mysterious package somewhere? 
  5. Dangling questions: Someone asks a leading question, such as “Why does this keep happening?” and nobody can answer. 
  6. 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. 
  7. Threats or vows of revenge. Use them to keep the audience on their toes until they finally forget about them. At that moment, deliver the payoff. 
I used to think that 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 there’s a lot more going on. Foreshadowing is a way to tie together a plot that might not otherwise come together. It’s also a way to trick the audience into caring about things they might not have cared about. You tease the audience with details about the future, which makes them feel cheated, which makes them demand to know what you’re not telling them. But if you hadn’t teased them, they wouldn’t care in the first place.

Rulebook Casefile: Foreshadowing Too Much in The Martian
Now let’s look at one aspect of The Martian that was stronger in the book than the movie, and figure out why. I saw the movie first, and one problem I had was with the scene where they decide to skip the safety procedures on the launch of Mark’s food re-supply. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you probably know what’s going to happen just from reading that: it blows up on the launch pad. And indeed, in the movie, it’s too obvious what will happen, ensuring that the explosion gets more of an eye-roll than a gasp.

Nevertheless, when I read the novel, even though I really knew what was going to happen, that scene didn’t spell its own doom, and the explosion is genuinely heartbreaking. What did novelist Andy Weir accomplish on the page that adapter Drew Goddard couldn’t accomplish on the screen? First let’s look at the book scene:
Then let’s look at the movie scene:
Most obviously, the book scene is much longer, with much more detail, so we get to focus more on the little dramas, without having to step back and consider the larger impact (and inevitable result) of the scene …but it’s more than that. In the book, Teddy feels like the hero of the scene: he’s willing to do anything to save Mark, even get creative with the timeline, and we admire him for it. In the movie, he just seems like a dick who’s heedless of the science.

One problem in the movie is that we don’t really feel Mark’s potential hunger (and therefore the urgency to resupply quickly) as much as we do in the book scene, but an even bigger problem is what Teddy says instead of talking about the hunger. I had to re-read the two scenes a few times to spot the key word: In the script, Teddy begins the scene by asking:
  • Let’s ask the very, very expensive question: Is this probe going to be ready on time?
It’s the word “expensive”, which wasn’t in the book scene, that gives the game away. In the book, he’s going to extremes to save a life, which usually pays off in fiction, so it’s shocking when it fails. In the movie, it sounds like he’s risking all to save money, which never works in fiction. The result is a series of scenes that are drastically inert, ending in an anticlimactic accident that generates no sadness.

I think one reason the movie did this was to try to turn Teddy into a little bit of a villain, but it was a bad decision: Adding a villain usually sharpens our emotional connection to the events, but in this case it dulled it. Weir knew what he was doing: Nature (and its close cousin chaos) is the only villain here, and the emotion comes from the pain of trying and failing to overcome it, despite everyone’s best intentions.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

NO. Not at all.  One problem with the improvisatory process is that they have no good idea where it’s going, so they can’t hint at it.  (No hint of her kids before they’re revealed, no hint of Jay’s girlfriend’s pregnancy, etc.)  On the DVD, they point out that the crew was baffled that the movie cut together, because they shot literally 1 million feet of film without much of a plan.


YES. Very much so.

An Education

YES. Lots of hints of disaster.

The Babadook

YES. Very much so.  The foreshadowing is the same as the framing devices, in this case. 

Blazing Saddles

YES. Lots of talk about how awful Mongo is, etc.

Blue Velvet

YES. Sandy has a dream of how the movie will end, keeping the focus on issues of good and evil, rather than the details of this crime.

The Bourne Identity

YES. We see three assassins being activated, so we know that the movie will end with a confrontation with the last one, but that turns out to be ironic. (The last one kills Conklin, not him)


YES. Somewhat.  We know that she’s bad on planes, see her rage building at the shower, etc.


YES. see above.


YES. Tons of it. 

Donnie Brasco

YES.  lots of unexplained half-scenes get us interested in what each gangster is scheming against the others.  

Do the Right Thing

YES. Sal takes out the bat early on, then puts it away unused,  Raheem fights a boombox battle with the Koreans, the Italian-American has his car soaked, etc.  

The Farewell

YES. The doctor says that they lied to his mother about her cancer but she died shortly thereafter. 

The Fighter

NO. Not really.  Russell is a very direct sort of filmmaker. Everything feels very raw and real, and that describes the characters as well.  He likes to disappear as a director, and not grant himself foreknowledge of their actions. There’s never any ominous camerawork or music. 


YES. They set up at the beginning that getting hit in the heart will be the worst, so we fear that and know what it means when it happens.

The Fugitive

YES. Each sequence begins with a brief advance look at the big set piece that’s coming (the dam, the parade, the sick kids they’re bringing in to the hospital, etc.)             

Get Out

YES. A tremendous amount of foreshadowing.

Groundhog Day

NO. Not really. There’s no foreshadowing that this mystical event will happen, and not much of where it’s going after that. 

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. The nature of the Night Fury, the nest, the injury, are all foreshadowed excellently.

In a Lonely Place

YES. the script uses metacommentary, the script Dix is working on keeps predicting what will happen next in his life in ironic ways. Solt keeps our focus off the investigation and on the relationship.

Iron Man

YES. We keep cutting back to Ten Rings, getting us wondering when they’ll come back, and distracting us from Stane as the big bad.

Lady Bird

YES. Danny’s gayness is certainly foreshadowed.

Raising Arizona

YES. The dreams about Smalls.


YES. We see odd glimpses of planning of his schemes before we see what he’s really doing.


YES. The killing of the girls creates fear of more killings.  The mention that King has just abandoned an unsuccessful campaign creates fear that that will happen again.

The Shining

YES. lots and lots.


YES. Lots of times the wedding almost comes up. Early shot of him doing crossword while driving establishes that he values doing the crossword over his own safety, so this sets up the fact that he accidentally confesses the wedding to her while doing the crossword. This would seem too careless if his carelessness had not bee well established.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. The slow reveals of Bill’s house, Lecter’s escape plan coming together scene by scene (such as when he takes the pen).

Star Wars

YES. “He has too much of his father in him.” “That’s what I’m afraid of.”  

Sunset Boulevard

YES. Max keeps hinting at his past.  The wind in the pipe organ plays horror music on its own. The narration keeps hinting at a dark ending. 

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