After reading this spoiler-filled but very funny dismantling of the Dark Knight Rises, I started thinking about foreshadowing in fiction. I’m comparing and contrasting three broad methods, here – there may well be additional ways to foreshadow that I’m not thinking of, but this is me just kicking an idea around rather than writing with academic rigour, so.
The Screenwriter’s Boomerang is the term used in the linked review, which I think is a fantastic description of what it is: it’s big, it’s heavy, and you know it’s coming back later. It’s the sort of foreshadowing so heavy it’s almost fourth-wall breaking – a little note to the audience that says “Keep an eye on this; it doesn’t look important now but it will be later!”
The Lego Mystery is a phrase I’ve coined to describe a lot of contextless detail, called out by the narrative, that you have to trust will be assembled into something coherent by the time the arc finishes. You get one brick at a time and no real guidance on how they go together, so you have to use your imagination. It sort of revolves around the question “Is this incongruity part of the plot, or is it just an everyday oversight? Is this plot hole meant to be here, or is it an accident?” I first saw this in anime, where you can be barraged from episode one with things that make no sense but will be explained later (you hope) but it also pops up in Inception, in pretty much every plot-generated-on-the-fly roleplaying game ever and (really badly) in Lost.
Chekhov’s Gun is the classic example of this sort of thing – a gun is loaded in the first act, not mentioned in the second, and used in the third. I think it incorporates the previous two, in a way: Lego mysteries are a hundred little Chekhov’s guns – Chekhov’s shotgun, if you will – while the screenwriter’s boomerang is more of a Chekhov’s elephant gun. But I’d like to keep Chekhov’s gun in its own category because unlike the other two it’s understated*. The setup needs to be simple enough that it doesn’t draw undue attention, but resonant enough that when the payoff arrives the audience immediately flashes back to the setup and realises how clever you were.
*I say understated. I might actually mean ‘really sodding difficult’.
The Sherlock Holmes Fuck You is how to foreshadow badly. The audience are presented with a mystery, a bunch of clues and invited to speculate on their meaning. Then the sleuth arrives and solves the mystery in an unexpected manner by using a clue the audience was never presented with. It’s shooting someone in the third act with a gun that has never been mentioned until now. I remember this happening a lot when I read the old Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories – hence the name – but that was fifteen years ago and I was on a lot of post-appendectomy drugs so I might be mistaken. On the other hand, the Hound of the Baskervilles episode of the modern Sherlock is a textbook model of this so I might not be mistaken after all.
There’s a principle in roleplaying games, which I think holds true in primarily visual media like TV, films and comics as well, that anything the narrator goes to the trouble of describing (or that the camera takes the time to observe) has to be important. In TV and film this is also reinforced by the soundtrack – if you watch CSI you can always tell when a detail is important because the music guy adds a sting when the camera sees it. This makes subtle foreshadowing really difficult – the question in the mind of the audience is not so much ‘is this important?’ but rather ‘how is this important?’ And that means that screenwriters and GMs need to adapt their foreshadowing style rather than just hanging lampshades on things which are going to make a return appearance later.
End Note: Kill Bill is a fantastic example of this kind of storytelling. Almost every single scene in those films is either a setup, a payoff, or both. Anything which isn’t, is an illustration of character. Which reminds me of a comic-writing maxim I once read: every panel should advance the plot, show character, or both. You can apply the same thinking to scenes in a film or locations in a dungeon adventure or pretty much any other form of entertainment. Advance plot, show character, or cut it.