Foreshadowing in Stories

Foreshadowing in Jericho
Foreshadowing in Jericho

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What is meant by foreshadowing?

It is the surreptitious hint in a story that will act as foundation to a pay-off or ‘ah-ha’ moment later on in the tale.

In writing, every narrative event ought to have clear consequences. This is especially true in writing a screenplay, which uses fewer pages to tell the story, than in writing a novel.

If the writer intends to plant a knife in a scene in order to foreshadow an important event later on, it has to be used in the scene, or at some later point in the story to justify its inclusion.

Foreshadowing the Pay-Off

In the television series, Jericho, for example, we notice that a gun in a frame on the wall is part of a display in a home where a couple of bogus cops are lurking. Later, we see that the gun has been removed, indicating that the potential victim is now armed and can retaliate. This is crucial in establishing the credibility of the character’s fight-back.

In the movie, Mask, Stanley’s dog shows us his prowess by catching a flying frisbee. This action sets up the pay-off later on in the plot, when the canine crucially jumps to retrieve the magical mask in mid-flight.

But how best to handle foreshadowing and its pay-off?

Firstly, foreshadowing should never draw attention to itself, but form part of the story’s natural development. Secondly, a pay-off ought to be held back for as long as possible, and revealed only when it can deliver the most dramatic impact.

Summary

Foreshadowing and pay-offs are specific events in the plot that make story surprises more believable. Foreshadowing forms the justification for a later crucial event, without drawing attention to itself, while a pay-off is delivered at the moment of highest dramatic impact.

Published by

Stavros Halvatzis

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

2 thoughts on “Foreshadowing in Stories”

  1. Great Post . It’s interesting how the smallest detail captured in a frame can be a big hint of how the story will play out. In Saving Private Ryan we see the trembling hand of the main protagonist Captain John H. Miller. Their is a reason why Spielberg does this. By the time the film reaches its climax Captain Miller has died in battle – However his death is a emotional relief because his hand will never tremble again. It’s the same in a series. In season 1 of Gotham the character Ivy comfits herself by tending to a plant. By season 3 she is able to use the power of plants to meet her own needs. She is the future villain poison Ivy.

    In Short : The smallest detail can have the greatest significance.

    1. Yes indeed, Gerhard. And the point about small details is that they are easy to hide so as not to telegraph the pay-off later on in a story.

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