Tag Archives: Foreshadowing

Plants and Pay-Offs: Unearthing Buried Treasure

Buried Treasure

Buried Treasure

In a previous post I discussed the importance of foreshadowing, suggesting that the term covers a wide variety of narrative elements, including theme and symbol — elements that one might best describe as meta-narrative, that is, a layer of significance that sits above, or at the base of a story and does not necessarily participate directly in the plot.

In this post, I want to focus exclusively on narrative elements that create foreshadowing, yet are very much part of the plot — actions and objects that participate directly in the story. It may be best to describe this sort of foreshadowing as planting and paying-off to differentiate it, for the sake of precision, from foreshadowing though theme and symbol.

Planting for the Pay-Off

In writing, every narrative action ought to have clear consequences. This is especially true in screenwriting, which uses fewer pages to tell the story than are afforded a novel. If the writer plants a gun in a scene, it has to be used in the scene, or at some later point in the story to justify its inclusion. 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 fight back. In the movie, Mask, Stanley’s (Jim Carrey) dog shows us his prowess by catching a flying frisbee, setting up the pay-off later in the plot, when it crucially jumps to retrieve the magical mask in mid-flight.

Where is the best place to put plants and pay-offs? A plant should remain innocuous and be situated at a natural and believable point along the story spine — as part of the story’s natural development. Its pay-off ought to be held back for as long as possible, and revealed only when it can deliver the most dramatic impact.

In Summary

Plants and pay-offs deal with specific elements in the plot. The main characteristic of a plant is that it should appear innocuous, while a pay-off should be delivered at the moment of highest dramatic impact.


If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.


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.