My Favourite Plot Devices: Foreshadowing

Some of the paid work I do has given me some interesting inspiration for this here blog. One of these was examples of foreshadowing in fiction. What is foreshadowing?

Wikipedia defines it as:

a literary device by which an author explains certain plot developments that may come later in the story. It is used to arouse and mentally prepare the reader or listener for how the story will proceed and unfold.

I’ve broken foreshadowing into three basic concepts (though I am sure there are more):

  • Teasing the viewer / reader – exploring our playful, mischievous side as a writer. “Look, I am giving you the answer and you still can’t see it!”
  • Hint / clue dropping – to prompt the reader to remember some thing or event for later on –
  • To impart a sense of foreboding – building tension / anticipation for the reader

Most examples of foreshadowing in books, films, TV and video games are one of those examples – sometimes more than one of them. I love it as a plot device and have used it a little in my novel Dieu et Mon Droit. On the last edit, I inserted some text – mostly dialogue – about the nature of the protagonist’s character that despite his high position as a church man, he is a little bit of a rebel and will fight back when pushed. This is critical information for later though I saw it more as a plot device so that his later actions did not come as a complete surprise.

My favourite examples of foreshadowing

Most of these have major series spoilers so you have been warned…

Babylon 5 – Foreboding

A Shadow Ship
babylon5.wikia.com

Ah Babylon 5, your awesomeness is eternal. Joseph Michael Straczynski is a superb writer and no other series so fully created such a rich and detailed universe and individual and distinct cultures for their alien races. Religion featured heavily for three of the major races: the Minbari, the Narn and the Centauri. The whole five-year plot arc focused on the re-emergence of an ancient race known as Shadows.

They first make a tentative appearance around halfway through the first season. The Centauri are deeply superstitious people. In an episode called Signs and Portents, a Centauri nobleman arrives on the station to collect an important relic to take back to the Emperor. His aunt – a prophetess – instantly sees a possible future in which the station will be destroyed. Lord Kiro tells Ambassador Mollari not to worry because she has made many predictions including that he himself would be “killed by a shadow”. He is… at the end of the episode the ship he is travelling on is attacked by a mysterious ship belonging to these Shadows.

Reservoir Dogs – Teasing

whatculture.com

Quentin Tarantino is a genius. No other film feeds you so many clues. It follows a bungled diamond heist at a bank and the group reassemble to figure out which of the men was the rat. Every time some of the characters are discussing who might have been the undercover cop, a prop appears on screen in the colour of the code name of the person who is responsible. See this image above in which Mister White (Harvey Keitel) and Mister Pink (Steve Buscemi) discuss the problem in the bathroom of the warehouse. On the table are three coloured bottles – white, pink and… orange. In another scene, Nice Guy Eddie is having a furious phone conversation in his car and is anxious to find out who it was that derailed the heist. As his car turns a corner, an orange balloon passes behind it.

Anybody who has seen the film knows that Mister Orange (Tim Roth) is the undercover cop and the revelation comes around halfway through. What about that conversation at the beginning in which Orange grasses up Pink for being a cheapskate and not believing in tipping? He can’t wait to tell Joe.

 

Bioshock Infinite – Hint / Clue Dropping

Seriously, could they make it more obvious?  gamingsymmetry.com

 

The protagonist Booker DeWitt is to travel to the floating city of Columbia to rescue a girl and “all debts will be paid”. As the story begins to unravel, we start to see what a haunted figure he is – he was at Wounded Knee and was terribly traumatised while there. He gave away his only daughter to a mysterious man (whom we later identify as one of the Luteces) but later had second thoughts and tries to take her back as she slips through an inter-dimensional portal. It eventually transpires that DeWitt is Comstock – the theocratic self-professed Prophet of the city of Columbia – it is himself from another universe. The clues are drip-fed through the parables of Comstock and through his words if we are able to read between the lines. The biggest clue though is this image above which appears right at the beginning of the game when DeWitt arrives at the lighthouse. There is no more obvious clue than To Thine Own Land Shall I Take Thee. For more information on the game, please see my analysis of Bioshock Infinite

The Passage – Foreboding

There is no one particular instance in the book that you can point to as being a great example of foreshadowing the apocalypse that is to come, it is simply all there: from the autumnal atmosphere that is deliberately chosen to emphasise the turning tide and death to follow, from personal regrets to seemingly unimportant people, events and situations, to the bizarre and alien thoughts of the Virals (vampires) before they escape and take over the world… Cronin loves his hints and portents. He also loves scaring the reader about potential disasters and tragedies to come, particularly through human recklessness and the slow disintegration of the cities that had been designed to keep the virals at bay. The power will fail eventually, the walls will crumble… it’s all a matter of time.

It’s the mood that really makes this book. I highly recommend it. I have not yet read the second book (The Twelve)

 

Some sources for further details:

Author’s Craft
grammar.about.com
novel-writing-help.com

“My favourite plot devices” may become another series… I don’t know yet.

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10 thoughts on “My Favourite Plot Devices: Foreshadowing

  1. Excellent explanation of the technique and examples! I love re-watching movies and catching those clues the second time round. It’s like, I should have known!

    First time through, though, the foreshadowing completely goes into my subconscious. My husband and I will be watching something and right before the end when we discover “who did it”, I blurt out the answer, smug with superiority for figuring it out. But honey bunny (that’s what I call him), just sits there and points out exactly in the show when the foreshadowed event or clue is dropped. Totally steals my thunder every time. 🙄

    1. I have a mixed history with figuring things out – I’ll pick up on vague clues but miss the obvious ones sometimes.

      When used correctly, you can be overawed with the cleverness of the writing.

  2. I love foreshadowing also, I used it throughout the Paradox War trilogy for all the above reasons, the first chapter reads completely differently if you have read the whole series as almost every paragraph foreshadows something later.
    I think my preumbric (if that isn’t the right word there’s something wrong with English) tendencies are what let me really sink my teeth into second and third drafts, wanting to perform a little foreshadow topiary.
    Thanks for reminding me, as I’m winding up my first draft, of what I can look forward to next.
    (C:

      1. No, they both refer to the specific shadows caused during the various astronomical events that are generally known as eclipses. I stand by my made up word. (C;

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