Foreshadowing is a common storytelling technique. It’s also one that can be difficult to effectively and skillfully employ. Most writers are familiar with foreshadowing, but for those of my readers who may not be, I’ll define quickly: foreshadowing is any device by which an author suggests to a reader future developments in the plot. The same mechanisms can be employed in any other storytelling medium, be it film, comic book, or video game. One film, for instance, in which it was used rather skillfully (whatever you may think of the director’s later work) was “The Sixth Sense“.
Employed clumsily, foreshadowing can drain the suspense, drama, or readers’ enjoyment from a story (and I realize there are some out there who have that criticism of the movie I mention above, though I’ll respectfully disagree). This happens when the foreshadowing essentially reveals all of the story’s secrets before the foreshadowed events come to pass.
When I was very young (shortly after reading the Prydain Chronicles I mentioned a few days ago and became enamored of fantasy literature) I started writing a fantasy story in which the main character, a young orphan boy, obtains a sword on which magic runes are inscribed. Inexplicably, the character is able to read the runes, and learns that the sword can only be wielded by the rightful king. He is, of course, able to wield the weapon very effectively. This was a very clumsy and youthful attempt at foreshadowing, as it very early in the story gives away the eventual development that the young boy will be found to be the true king and lost heir. (While the fantasy novel I am working on today, not to be confused with the short story I’ve mentioned in my blog, is the spiritual successor to that story I started writing as a boy it thankfully bears virtually no resemblance to that awkward and unskilled scribbling.) This attempt at foreshadowing contrasts very strongly with more skillfully employed uses of the technique.
Effective foreshadowing does not broadcast or give away the ending of the story. Instead, it does one of two things (or both): it provides a logical framework within which the later plot developments make sense, or it provides a symbolical motif which causes the later developments to resonate emotionally with readers.
In the aforementioned “Sixth Sense”, for instance, numerous clues appear in the movie which can at first be interpreted within the context of the nominal story: that of a psychologist attempting to help a troubled young boy while growing increasingly estranged from his wife despite repeated efforts to mend that relationship. By the end of the movie, however, most of these clues are completely reinterpreted within the context of the film’s twist ending. Those clues provide a logical narrative structure that allows the twist ending to make sense without the audience feeling cheated (although those who “figured it out” before the end may have felt cheated instead). The use of the twist ending, in fact, appears to require a skillful use of foreshadowing because without, the ending will feel tacked on, arbitrary, and meaningless.
Alternately, effective foreshadowing can provide a symbolic layer to a story that enhances the ending. One example I’ve been thinking of recently is within the story of Jesus Christ. Regardless of whether you believe in that story in a religious sense, the narrative itself is very functional, and replete with foreshadowing.
When Jesus changes the water into wine at the wedding, for instance, the guests remark at how incredible it is that the best wine was saved for last. Wine, with its deep burgundy-red color, is a potent symbol for blood, itself representative of the sacrifice made for the atonement of sins. In this way, Jesus’s transmutation of water into not just any wine, but the best wine, prefigures his role in Christianity as the final and greatest sacrifice for sin, overriding all previous sacrifices and ending the practice altogether. Later, his ability to feed the crowd of five thousand with only a handful of bread loaves and fishes suggests that what Jesus does will have far-reaching effects, “feeding” and spiritually touching the lives of many more than is reasonably expected. Then, in the lead-up to the climax of Jesus’s tale in the crucifixion and resurrection, he provides the context for understanding these earlier symbols during the last supper, when he breaks bread and passes wine to his followers, who will have to carry on his work. In this way, the story packs an emotional wallop by employing symbols and imagery that, particularly in the time of Jesus’s disciples, were very powerful and meaningful and which foreshadow the climactic events at Calvary and the Garden, giving the entire story added meaning and impact.
As I was working on my recent short story, it occurred to me that I needed to think about foreshadowing and what it meant. In the original version of the story, which I first wrote a couple years ago, there is a slightly unexpected twist at the end. I realized as I began writing this new draft that the twist kind of comes out of left field with very weak attempts at foreshadowing. This is largely because I didn’t have the ending in mind when I first started writing the story, so I didn’t know what to foreshadow.
Knowing that now, my choice in rewriting the story is either to moderate the ending considerably so it presents a less drastic departure from the reality constructed in the earlier part of the story, or foreshadow this twist with hints that the protagonist’s view of the world are not entirely accurate. So, as I write this new draft, I’m trying to make certain that I include a number of small hints and clues that, when taken together, will make the ending work. We’ll just have to see whether I’m successful.
For those of you out there who are also writers, hopefully this discussion will give you a few good ideas on how to better use foreshadowing in your own stories. Happy writing.