Foreshadowing is one of those tricks in the writer’s toolbox which when used properly goes unnoticed.
Let’s face it, we’ve all read books where the hero of the story (I’m being gender neutral with the use of the term hero) suddenly develops a hitherto unknown skill such as karate to get them out of a sticky spot. For me, this is a huge red flag that the writer has painted themselves into a corner, scratched their ear for a minute or two and then come up with a quick fix to their problem without fully thinking it through.
The dictionary definition of foreshadow is “be a warning of or indication of a future event”. So far as I’m concerned, that definition says everything.
Take our previously mentioned character who’s all of a sudden mimicking Bruce Lee. Had the author shown them training in a dojo, washing their Karate suit, complaining about stiff / soreness from training or better still – because it has conflict – arguing with a loved one about the dusting of Karate trophies, then we the reader would know of their Karate skills.
When it comes to real example of foreshadowing in action, I’m going to use the film Die Hard as an example as it has massively wonderful foreshadowing that has the biggest payoff I can think of.
I’m going to take it that you who are reading this are aware of the film’s basic premise whereby a cop John McLane has to rescue his wife from terrorists who’ve taken over her office building. I’m going to disseminate the keys points of the film which show, not just the foreshadowing, but the payoff and follow up.
- The film starts with McLane flying and looking nervous. A fellow passenger suggests that when he gets to his destination he takes his socks and shoes off and then make fists with his feet when standing on a plush carpet as a way to unwind
- McLane is doing just this and giving a wry comment about it working when terrorists attack. He grabs his gun and escapes the terrorists without bothering to put his shoes back on.
- A little later after fighting with the first of many terrorists and killing him, McLane pulls one of the terrorist’s trainers off and places it against his own foot before tossing it away with the line, ‘nine million terrorists in the world and I have to kill one with feet smaller than my sister.’
- Further into the movie, McLane comes face to face with the terrorist leader, Hans Gruber, who’s pretending to be an innocent hostage. McLane and Gruber share a smoke and chuckle when McLane can’t stub his cigarette out the way Gruber has. McLane rumbles Gruber and the two of them get drawn into a chase through the building with Gruber and his psychotic henchman, Karl chasing McLane.
- McLane ends up corralled in an office by Gruber and Karl. Gruber turns to Karl and utters the line Sheiss Dem Fenster. Karl looks puzzled, until Gruber repeats the line in English. ‘Shoot the glass!’ Karl shoots all the office’s glass walls into smithereens and the director cuts to a barefoot McLane crouched down and surrounded by broken glass. His only escape route when a flash bang grenade is slid into the office is also littered with shards of glass.
- The next we see of McLane is him in a bathroom pulling a large shard of glass from his bleeding foot. Bloody footprints are also shown.
- The director or continuity person also had the good sense to keep rudimentary bandages on McLane’s feet for the rest of the film.
So there you have it, a marvellous example of foreshadowing which shows every possible facet of the art. To clarify I’ve identified each of the seven points and their role in the film
- This is the reason. It tells us why McLane was barefoot.
- The circumstance. We’re shown that McLane had to be barefoot because he didn’t have time to put his shoes on.
- The reminder. Here we’re reminded of McLane’s barefootedness and also shown an exacerbation of the problem when he tries to resolve it and can’t.
- The sharing. This part also doubles as a second reminder although for me this scene’s main role is to inform Gruber, and show him being informed, that McLane isn’t wearing anything on his feet.
- The payoff. And what a payoff it is as McLane is faced with jeopardy on all sides.
- The result. This shows the damage inflicted upon McLane’s feet, but also shows his bravery and determination in running barefoot across broken glass.
- The aftermath or aftershadowing. Just because it’s happened, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be reminded. A later scene sees him limping and wincing to further remind us of this and another has him kicking at a window and leaving bloody smears.
I use foreshadowing in my own writing, and while I think it’s a great tool, it should also be used sparingly otherwise it can become obvious.
I hope this explanation and its accompanying example helps you with your own writing.
(c) Graham Smith
About Fear in the Lakes by Graham Smith:
When Laura Sinclair arrives home, she is horrified to discover her sweet, kind, husband James close to death. But this is no robbery gone wrong. There are over 200 breaks to his bones, each apparently applied carefully, symmetrically, methodically…
Laura insists that James is a man with no enemies. But how much does she know about her husband? And what secrets are hidden in the email account she discovers, filled with cryptic messages?
When two bodies are then pulled from Lake Windermere exhibiting similar injuries – it becomes clear that the killer they are calling the Sculptor is on a mission.
But Detective Beth Young is too. She knows that if she can work out the secrets of James’s past, she has a chance of locating The Sculptor’s next victim… and maybe the killer too.
Order your copy online here.