Narrative Foreshadowing

Image courtesy of Chaospet - a pretty apt assessment of Terminator Salvation if you ask me!

There’s a fairly clever concept within the notion of storytelling. Well, to be fair, there’s several, but today I’m going to focus on just one – narrative foreshadowing. So what is it?

Well, narrative foreshadowing is when something in the story hints at what’s going to come. Not so much outrights says it, but simply hints. This is usually without the character’s knowledge, thus still remaining a surprise.

The hardest form of foreshadowing was the way things are implied by mentioning an element that will be used later in the story. Usually it is mentioned in passing the character’s mind or as seemingly insignificant. A well-known example is that of Chekhov’s gun: when a certain setting is described, it is mentioned that a loaded gun is hanging on a wall. Much later on, this is taken off the wall and fired. To draw the reader’s attention to the otherwise subtle foreshadowing element, writers may often make repeated references to the object throughout the story. – Wikipedia

A recent example of this is in Dr Who (The 6th series of the new stuff) where Amy Pond has had/is having the baby (I haven’t seen it yet, but please don’t spoil). This was hinted at in the previous season when they were in the dream. Likewise, Rory died in the dream, only to be killed later on that season.

Looking fed up. But is it of the pregnancy, or is it because Tim has an irrational hatred of her?

Final Destination thrived on this idea – characters being killed off in foretold ways. Yet, even though we knew hints about how the characters would be exterminated, there’s still a lot of guess work. Say for example, in Final Destination 2, we have a scene where one character gets the hint that another will be killed by hooks. What is unexpected is that the character is startled by hearing the news of how she will be killed next, knowing a guy with hooks is behind her, tries to escape, becoming ensnared in his hooks. The struggle then leads to the characters head being trapped between the doors of the lift, and slicing it off when the lift goes up. In effect, the hooks were only a single part of an elaborate conspiracy. It also showed the characters that their attempts to outsmart death become part of it’s plan.

That mother hooker! - Sorry, I had to...

But that’s a blatant version of narrative foreshadowing. Wikipedia also outlines a few other things about narrative foreshadowing:

Usually more subtle, foreshadowing works on the symbolic level. For example, if a character must break up a schoolyard fight among some boys, it might symbolically foreshadow the family squabbles that will become the central conflict of the story. Other times, it is seemingly inconsequential, with the goal of having the audience be surprised by the story’s climax and yet find it justified. If a character learns that a certain man was a regular at the diner where her mother worked many years before, it helps to justify the events later in which she learns that the man is her biological father.

If foreshadowing is not done carefully, the common experiences of life can make the foreshadowing too obvious and allow the audience to predict the outcome of the story. Example: a character behaves in an odd and erratic fashion and complains continuously of a headache, then later is diagnosed with a brain tumor. Foreshadowing can also be used dishonestly in a mystery, where a series of events which points to a conclusion is later found to be composed of unlikely coincidences which have been “dishonestly” added to the story by the author in an artificial way, with the sole purpose of drawing the audience into an incorrect expectation. In such cases, the audience feels manipulated, and the story may be less satisfying.

So used well, narrative foreshadowing can be very effective. Used badly, it can destroy a story. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to find out how effective the narrative foreshadowing is until you get a few people to read your stuff.



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