Do you like shadows? Of course you do. As one fine Internet meme says, they are proof that you've stopped the Sun's rays after their bajillion-mile journey to Earth. But what about FOREshadows?
One of the most important techniques in storytelling is foreshadowing: Setting up major events ahead of time that foretell of important turns later down the road. But a lot of writers confuse foreshadowing with other writing tropes, such as coincidences or bad writing.
What is foreshadowing? How do you do it well? What happens when you do it wrong?
Let's take a look.
SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THE FOLLOWING:
FIGHT CLUB, SHAUN OF THE DEAD, STAR WARS, PREDATOR 2
1) Predator 2: Trophy Case
It's the end of "Predator 2." If you're the director, you're probably just happy to be done with this interminable journey toward the heart of darkness. Everything hurts. Your soul is a ravaged husk, and you have no will to live.
But you want to throw in an Easter Egg to give yourself even a moment of pleasure. Something you can hold onto while the depression settles in like a squatter in your home.
So you throw the skull of a Xenomorph (the penis-aliens from Alien) up on the wall and let the fans squeal themselves into comas. Then, thirty years later, another director with a masochistic bend sets out to create "Aliens VS Predator."
This is NOT an example of foreshadowing. You see, the skull didn't actual foreshadow (or foretell) of anything. It was a little easter egg. A goof. An in-joke for the nerds watching at home on VHS. I doubt that anyone could have foreseen the "popularity" of the mash-up, or even thought it a remote possibility.
Also, since this was the end of the movie, there really wasn't much to foreshadow. Huge cinematic franchises weren't really a thing back then. Once movies ended, they really ended. It was a wonderful trait that has sadly been lost in modern cinema.
So what is an ACTUAL example of foreshadowing?
Fight Club: "My First Fight With Tyler"
If you've never seen or read "Fight Club," then stop reading this site and go back to bed. You're clearly a toddler and have no business reading this blog.
Fight Club tells the story of "The Narrator," an unnamed protagonist with a bit of an ennui problem. He meets a stranger named Tyler Durden aboard a flight and the two become fast friends. Things take a turn when Tyler turns out to be somewhat insane. Our narrator is dragged down into the abyss, growing closer and closer to becoming his new friend's doppelgänger.
But the truth is...THEY WERE BOTH THE SAME PERSON ALL ALONG.
The foreshadowing comes in the way of a bit of Voice Over (VO). Narrator is called into his bosses office for being a bit of a creep (he's getting into fights every night. It takes a toll). In order to avoid being fired, and to blackmail his boss, the narrator beats the crap out of himself. At one point, he remarks, "For some reason, I thought of my first fight...with Tyler."
Just like his first interaction with Tyler, and indeed, everything after, the fight was a one-man show. The Narrator really did beat himself up all those times, but we the audience are none the wiser. This is a great line that, upon second viewing, becomes all the more prescient.
2) Star Wars: "Fear is the Path to the Dark Side"
This is a sticky point, but follow me.
Foreshadowing isn't "telling the audience the theme." Foreshadowing is hinting at a future event. Foreshadowing demonstrates some amount of inevitability. Foreshadowing is the whims of the gods, not poor choices by whiny orphans.
In "Star Wars," muppet-wannabe Yoda lectures a child for being sad that he left his mother to die on a sand-planet. "Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to Anger. Anger leads to Hate. Hate...leads to suffering."
Fans of the series (there are a few) have decided that this speech foreshadows the fall of Anakin Skywalker to become Darth Vader. But fans of the original trilogy would say: "Yeah, f'n duh."
Darth Vader's storyline could have been incredible. Here was this hero of the Jedi ranks, a veteran of the "Clone Wars," and friend to Obi-thesearentthedroidsyourelookingfor-Kenobi. We waited decades to learn what led to the fall of the hero Skywalker.
And it's fear? No. Nope. Not buying it.
So the next two prequel films tried to demonstrate that fear led to Anakin turning into an evil robot with asthma. But really, that's not what happened. Anakin was seduced by power. His fear of losing Padme (Natalie Portman, and who can blame him) led him to pursue power. But all of the other instances feel forced.
On another note, when you're writing the prequels to a story that already has an ending, you're not really foreshadowing. That's why no one gave a crap about young Boba Fett, or the plans for the Death Star. We didn't want three movies of "remember that?" We wanted to see the story that we couldn't already figure out.
A better example of foreshadowing would be...
Shaun of the Dead: "Shots at the Bar"
"Shaun of the Dead" is my favorite zombie film of all time. It is wonderfully written, brilliant acted, and unapologetically British. And then there's this scene.
Shaun and his best friend Ed sit down at a bar, drinking away their problems. Well, Shaun's problems. He's been dumped, and he's dealing with it the way any man-child would: With alcohol.
Ed, trying to cheer him up, lays out the plan for the next day. "A bloody Mary first thing, a bite at the King’s Head, couple at The Little Princess, stagger back here and bang… back at the bar for shots."
This is, nearly beat for beat, the plot of the movie. It's a brilliant hidden gem that hints at the danger to come, but you only catch it on repeated viewing.
3) The Lost World: The Lucky Pack
"The Lost World" was a terrible adaptation of a fantastic book. Okay, now that I have that out of the way, let's look at one particular scene, learn something, and get the hell away from this movie.
Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore) has a "lucky pack" that she takes with her wherever she goes. The dialogue is a little on the nose, but she says the bag has saved her on multiple occasions. It's a throwaway line about a prop...or IS IT?
Later, after failing to heed Jeff Goldblum's warnings (why do people always fail to heed Jeff Goldblum's warnings?), Sarah is nearly dropped down a terrifying cliff by a pair of T-Rexes. She is saved at the last second by grabbing onto...her LUCKY PACK!
It's actual a pretty smart scene, and the setup of the pack to the payoff works well. But then the screenwriter grew concerned that the audience wouldn't understand, so they threw in the line: "Your lucky pack."
Get it? GET IT!?! DO YOU MONKEYS GET THE ART I AM DUMPING DOWN YOUR THROATS???
4) Back to the Future: A Fistful of Dollars
I could write my thesis on "Back to the Future." It is, in many ways, a perfect trilogy. It has one of the best continuities of any film series ever made (Claudia Wells notwithstanding). It is hilarious and heartwarming, tragic and action-packed. It is incredible. And one moment of foreshadowing arrives to exemplify the technique.
Marty is in the darkest timeline when he confronts Biff about the Sports Almanac (a McGuffin of great import). Biff sits in a hot tub watching a movie on TV, ignoring the nerdy Marty. What movie is he watching? Clint Eastwood's "A Fistful of Dollars."
If you haven't seen AFOD, you are a bad person and wolves have been dispatched to your location.
In the film, Eastwood is gunned down by a group of baddies, only to reveal that he has a metal plate on underneath his shirt. He rises up and takes sweet revenge. So what? A throwaway scene in BTTF?
In "Back to the Future 3," Marty has to face off against Wild West Biff, and he is in no way ready to kill someone in cold blood. They have a duel, Biff draws first, and Marty is shot in the chest. OH NO!
Calm down, you wuss.
Marty stands back up and reveals that he too wore a metal plate underneath his poncho, and he takes sweet, PG-13 vengeance on the bastards of the Old West. Because he ain't no chicken.
So, to summarize, foreshadowing is not setting up elaborate coincidences. It is a subtle tell to the audience that something IMPORTANT is being learned or warned about. As the eminent David Mamet once said: If you show a gun in the first act, it has to be used by the third.
Foreshadowing is the gun on the table. It tells the audience that violence is ahead of them. Foreshadowing is a rough takeoff of an airplane at the start of the movie, letting you know the journey will not be smooth.
It's Dexter's mangled hand bleeding on his new wife's dress. It's the Usual Suspects opening with a lie so you know that no-one can be trusted. It's Sean Bean being in any movie ever, because that character now has an expiration date.
Foreshadowing is an amazing tool when used correctly. Do your homework and work out that plot before you put pen to paper. Give your audience a reason to go through the story a second time. Plant seeds and leave breadcrumbs that will amaze them the next time around.
But most of all, stop reading this blog and go write for an hour.