Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing, in story-telling, is a technique used for creating mood, supporting plot, and deepening character. Robert McKee defines it as the purposeful arrangement of early events intended to prepare us for later ones. The use of foreshadowing is not just limited to events, actions, or dialogue, however. Every decision a writer makes regarding setting and genre also plays a role in setting up the context for conflict — the essence of story-telling — and is, therefore, a part of foreshadowing.

How the Inciting Incident Foreshadows the Obligatory Scene

Foreshadowing creates anticipation, either directly or indirectly, through character predictions, warnings, and new information, and, through setting. Shakespeare, for example, uses inclement weather, and bizarre occurrences (such as horses eating each other — Macbeth: Act 2, Scene 4), to ramp up anxiety and foreboding in his plays. While foreshadowing takes many forms, perhaps its most important function is to heighten the sense of impending crisis to be played out in the obligatory scene — the climactic moment in which the protagonist confronts and answers the chief dramatic question of the story: will the primary goal be achieved, despite setbacks and opposition? In the example below, we look at foreshadowing with specific reference to a story’s overall dramatic question.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

In Eternal Sunshine, Joel Barish (Jim Carey) learns that his ex-girlfriend, Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet), has had her memory of their failed relationship erased through a new scientific process performed by Lucana Inc. Devastated, Joel decides to follow suit. While undergoing the procedure, however, he realises that he’s made a mistake. He attempts to hide memories of their relationship inside other more obscure ones, in order to preserve them, but ultimately fails. The story is an interwoven catalogue of Joel’s memories, wishes, fears, and influences stemming from the Lucana procedure, ending where it began — with Joel and Clementine running into each other again, as if by accident, destined to try again.

Foreshadowing and the Dramatic Question

The inciting incident, in which Joel learns that Clementine has had him erased from her memory, asks the question: how will Joel deal with the news? Prior to the story’s mid-point, Joel’s answer is to try and forget Clementine ever existed. This provides the dramatic context for the first half of the movie, allowing the scenes to rally around it. But this early version of the dramatic question also foreshadows the overarching question, which is answered only in the obligatory scene: will Joel and Clementine manage to get together again? Joel’s realisation, at the mid-point, that memories are precious, provides the context for the second half of the story. Seen in this light, foreshadowing is the pilot that keeps the story on track, endowing events with a sense of inevitability and truthfulness. In Eternal Sunshine, the suggestion is that love is transcendent — greater than the pain rooted in individual memories.

In Summary

Foreshadowing prepares us for the story climax and resolution. It takes its lead from the inciting incident and culminates in the obligatory scene. Used skillfully, foreshadowing helps to give cohesion and context to your stories by asking and answering the main dramatic question.

If you enjoyed this post, please leave a comment and let’s get chatting on the subject.

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Stavros Halvatzis

I'm a writer, teacher, and story consultant.

7 thoughts on “Foreshadowing”

    1. Thanks for the comment. Yes, the pay-off is the reward for all the foreshadowing, but will be trateted in a separate post.

  1. I didn’t know this had a name or a formal means of looking at it. I’ve always just added it to make sure scenes move forward at breakneck speed. It also helps in establishing the meaning/interpretation of a screenplay. For example, the mention of a nightmare that a guy has in the beginning of “Mulholland Drive” helps to establish the great majority of the movie as a dream. That’s kind of what I’m doing with my screenplay at the moment. You can read it as 3 different stories or you can look into it deeper and find many meanings. Hopefully. I can’t say for sure, but that is what I’m attempting to do.

  2. I love the reminder here. I took a Robert McKee workshop many years ago. As I’m co-writing another screenplay with my grandson, your post stirs up some questions regarding our story. Certain images echo what needs to transpire for the story to involve the reader or viewer from beginning to end.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Diana. Yes, certainly, I think a formal or structural approach is useful in helping us shape our stories, although, of course, without the inspired content, they would come to naught. I haven’t had the privilege to take one McKee’s workshops in person yet, but his book is just full of great all round story-crafting advice.

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