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How To Hide Foreshadowing

10-02-10a M4tik, Cameleon Ts Recently I noticed a brilliant use of foreshadowing to get around an otherwise “pull you right out of the story” moment. So neat was the use and timing of this, that in talking to someone else about it, they had missed its importance, believing that it related to another story point. In what and where had this been performed? I’ll tell you in a bit.

In its simplest form foreshadowing is steering the thoughts of the reader towards a particular thought or belief, by leaving clues that direct or misdirect the reader. Readers are used to the obvious misdirection in “Who-done-it” stories, or the ominous directing comment such as “…the forest. That’s not a place to be, after dark…” in a horror story. These are often deliberately blunt and heavy handed, eschewing subtlety for guaranteed recognition.

But there are times when a different use of foreshadowing is required, one where the readers must be unwittingly guided to accept a reaction or event on a subconscious level. For example, if your superhero was a man of steel, who had demonstrated that he was invulnerable to everything the planet could offer. Then the evil bad guy turns up and without explanation, downs him with a chunk of green rock. The result will be that your reader is torn from the story, his/her suspension of disbelief shattered.

Here, there are two problems. You need the reader to know that the superhero is vulnerable to green rocks, but you don’t want the reader to realise that the evil bad guy is likely to use any green rocks until the moment he springs his trap. If you introduce the vulnerability in a clumsy manner, then you give away too much and you spoil the story for the reader. If you don’t introduce it, then your reader is pulled out of the story when it occurs.

One way out of this is to use misdirection on the vulnerability. When introducing it, make it seem that it has been raised for another important yet spurious reason. If you can make the other reason not spurious but twined in a different part of the arc, then it’s all the better for the story.

So what made such an impression on me?

Was it the moment in Avatar when the Jake Sully avatar is blown off a monster gunship and plunges a thousand feet or so to the ground?

In part, yes it was.

Why was it so special? Because it didn’t blip my suspension of disbelief. I could accept everything that happened in that scene, right up to when his/its feet touched the ground. In this case it wasn’t a new vulnerability that demanded viewer acceptance, in Avatar it was a toughness normally found in a super-being.

I will point out that I didn’t accept it because I was enamoured with the film. There was a lot going on that had me boiling inside, but that’s all technical stuff and not for ranting about here.

When it happened I had to ask myself why I accepted Sully’s descent, the answer to which gave me one of those “Ah-Ha!” moments and I reflected, ‘so that’s why that was included, and that, and that’.

My normal belief is that when a large creature falls out of the sky, it picks up speed, lots of speed, even on a lower than normal gravity planet. So by the time it hits the tree tops, if it grabbed onto a vine or plant, then the force would rip its arms from its body.

But James Cameron uses three pieces of foreshadowing to make this impossible event acceptable;

1) First debriefing: The Colonel describes the Na’vi as being very strong, having natural carbon fibre reinforced bones.

2) First debriefing: The Colonel describes the Na’vi as being incredibly hard to kill.

The misdirection with these two is that they are minor points included in a speech directed towards the “other” worse dangers beyond the perimeter.

3) During his training by Neytiri, Jake Sully watches Neytiri drop safely a hundred feet and more to the ground, using the large foliage on the way down to break her fall. He then tries to copy her but with limited success and is unharmed by his final impact(s). The misdirection here is in the voiceover comment that Jake Sully makes, stating that Neytiri gave no easy route to learning, “you either did, or failed,” making the viewer think it was all about the demands of her lessons. (I will admit to thinking at the time, that it was included to provide material for the video game.)

So the foreshadowing planted the belief that the Na’vi can break a fall from tremendous heights, using their extreme intrinsic toughness and the natural jungle canopy. Because of this, suspension of disbelief is maintained at the point when it is most needed.

However, what made the biggest impression on me was that the foreshadowing had been so effectively cloaked and yet it had still done its job. By using simple misdirection and clever placement, it informed without broadcasting.

So when you find the need to do some foreshadowing in your story, think of James Cameron and Avatar and see if you can’t wrap a bit of camouflage and misdirection around your words.


Photo; Cameleon Ts, cc M4tik

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3 comments to How To Hide Foreshadowing

  • This is definitely one of the hardest things to get right. I hate it when writers are unsubtle about foreshadowing and there is always a pleasant Aha! moment when they get it right. As a writer you have to know what you’re doing and be very self-conscious about it. Unfortunately, this means that, as a reader (and watcher) you become sensitised to it and it can really spoil the surprise!

    The quote you often hear in writing classes about not having a gun on the stage unless you plan to shoot someone with it (aka “Chekhov’s gun”) is good advice (don’t introduce elements into your story that are not needed.) However, it works against subtle foreshadowing for the very reason that the reader expects everything to have significance. That’s why the misdirection is so important.

  • Johnny Carson said, “If they buy the premise, they’ll buy the bit.” You have to sneak the necessary skill set into the story so that when it’s needed, the reader accepts it.

  • Nicely explained. The trick is misdirection – like being an illusionist. (And actually, the illusionist’s art draws heavily on storytelling.)