The Right Way and the Wrong Way to Foreshadow a Story
Part 11 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel
Really, your job as an author can be summed up in one simple word: control. It is your responsibility to control readers’ experience of your story, to make them think and feel very specific things. One of the most important and powerful ways in which you do this is by understanding how to properly foreshadow a story.
Accurate foreshadowing, wielded with just the right amount of subtlety and clarity, creates a seamless and fulfilling experience for readers. It tells them what to expect, then rewards them for those expectations.
On the other hand, sloppy or forced foreshadowing will leave readers feeling either (best case scenario) confused or (duck and cover!) manipulated.
Unluckily, the balance between the two can be a very fine line to walk, and even storytellers as aware and excellent as Joss Whedon can miss the mark. Learn how to navigate the tricky technique of foreshadowing and control your readers’ experience of your story to everyone’s best advantage.
Why Avengers: The Age of Ultron Makes Me Very, Very Grouchy
Welcome to Part 11 in our ongoing look at the highs and lows of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe.
I’ve got to admit it upfront: Joss Whedon’s highly anticipated Avengerssequel Age of Ultron is easily my least favorite entry in the entire series. This isn’t so much because it’s the worst movie (Incredible Hulk wins that award, with Iron Man 3 grabbing silver), but rather because the techniques employed within it make me mad—as both a viewer and a writer.
Let’s preface this by saying I was incredibly psyched for Age of Ultron. Having just come off Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the best movie in the entire franchise, and following that with the startlingly good chaser of Guardians of the Galaxy, I was pumped with the possibilities for how Whedon would advance the collective storyline.
The fact that I was so excited inevitably contributed to how disappointed I ended up being, but the reasons for that disappointment are objectively solid causes, which all writers can learn from. Largely, I chalk up Ultron‘s problems not so much to poor storytelling (although that’s the result) as to Whedon and his crew admirably trying to outdo their work in the first Avengers. Nothing wrong with that. The problem enters because the ways in which they try to one-up themselves are not appropriately set up in either this movie itself or its predecessors.
In short, this is how not to foreshadow a story.
I’m sitting here trying to think of a few positive things I can say about the movie for the usual highlights reel that’s supposed to go in this section of the post. But, frankly, there is very little I really like about this movie. At best, it leaves me feeling meh. For example:
- I was seriously bummed we didn’t get another “assemble” sequence in the First Act, since I was eager to see what the various characters had been up to in the aftermath of their own stories.
- Whedon’s usually delightful and character-centric trademark humor felt forced and out of sync with the general tone and direction of the story, especially this gem:
- There’s too much going on. Way, way too much. Thor’s important vision subplot got seriously shortchanged as a result of introducing half a dozen new characters. (Contrast that to Civil War‘s near seamless integration of two brand-new major subplot characters, Black Panther and Spider-Man.)
- The acting isn’t terrible by any means, but I did feel the cast (particularly the usually super-solid Chris Evans) struggled more in this film than any of the previous ones.
On the plus side:
- The Scarlet Witch-induced dream sequences were awesome.
- I loved the First Act party scene, the only time we really see the Avengers gelling together.
- Oh, yes, and… this twitch. (More on that in a bit.)
I rewatched Ultron earlier this year, in preparation for this series, and while I wasn’t as emotionally involved this time around (and thus less irked by its problems), its issues are still glaring. Now that we’re post-Civil War, I’m happy to breathe a sigh of relief and say the series is still a force to be reckoned with, because Ultron could so easily have marked its descent into mediocrity or worse.
Let’s take a look at why.
The Wrong Way to Foreshadow a Story
Joss Whedon tried to do some very big things with Ultron. He tried to take the series in a new direction, do unexpected things, and subvert clichés. That’s all to the good.
So what’s the big problem?
The problem is that none of these things were set up in earlier films. Here’s a fundamental storytelling principle: Because he had no ability to control audience expectations in the setup for this movie, he ultimately had no control over their reactions to his plot developments.
In short, he didn’t give audiences what they expected. The result, however unintended, was that he did not play fair with audiences. If you do this in your story, the best you can hope for is that audiences will simply close your book feeling unfulfilled. The worst? They leave your story feeling betrayed.
If we examine Ultron as, shall we say, forensic storytellers—trying to piece together what went wrong—we can identify four specific aspects that will always benefit from a tightly considered control over foreshadowing.
How Not to Foreshadow Character Relationships
One of the most important aspects of character development in any story is found within a character’s relationships. It is in his interactions with other characters that his self is revealed to readers (and sometimes to himself as well). But relationships, as much if not more so than any other aspect of character development, must be created organically.
This means not just realistic pacing (no everlasting love at first sight please), but also an appropriate use of foreshadowing. The best relationships are those with history and weight, those the audience can follow along with, and to some degree, anticipate.
HOW AGE OF ULTRON FAILED TO FORESHADOW CHARACTER RELATIONSHIPS
Whedon threw audiences everywhere a curve ball when he set up a Black Widow/Incredible Hulk romance. Not only is this completely unprecedented in the comics (a small excuse, since, even had it been, the cinematic story can only be foreshadowed within itself), but the previous movies included faint but seemingly definite foreshadowing to the contrary.
Whedon’s own original Avengers movie set Natasha Romanov up with a powerful bond to fellow non-super Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye. She showed her emotions for the first (and arguably the most powerful) time in the entire series. Although there were no definite romantic sparks between them, fans everywhere expected a romance—which was subtly reinforced by actress Scarlett Johansson choosing to wear an arrow necklace in Winter Soldier, as a link back to Hawkeye’s archery skills.
Granted, Avengers also set up a sympathetic relationship between Natasha and Bruce Banner, but nothing that indicated the huge advances in their relationship by the time Ultron smacked us in the face with their unforeseen and largely unwanted new roles.
HOW YOU CAN PROPERLY FORESHADOW CHARACTER RELATIONSHIPS
Well, let’s be honest: it all starts with you knowing who your characters end up with. This doesn’t mean you have to know right out of the gates, if you’re not an outliner.
But by the time you do figure it out, you must return to rewrite early scenes in order to properly control your readers’ expectations and desires for your characters. Give readers the wrong desires, ask them to support one romantic interest, only to throw him over in favor of another—and readers will not emotionally engage with the new relationship, even if it is otherwise the right choice within the story.
How Not to Foreshadow Character Backstories
Character backstories are in the back, right? Why would you have to foreshadow them?
What you need to foreshadow, of course, is the revelation of the backstory within the main story. Just because you’re withholding information about your characters’ pasts doesn’t mean readers won’t be forming assumptions about that past and your character.
If you fail to create the proper foreshadowing for the eventual revelation about the truth of your character, readers with either be jarred by the new information or possibly even reject it in favor of their own interpretation thus far.
HOW AGE OF ULTRON FAILED TO FORESHADOW CHARACTER BACKSTORIES
Take a look at Clint Barton. The new developments regarding his backstory in this movie create two massive disconnects with viewers.
One is simply that the backstory viewers were led (however subtly) to believe turns out to be utterly false.
The other is that, in its place, a new and entirely unforeshadowed backstory is introduced.
This development is, of course, the existence of Clint’s wife and two and a half kiddies—a revelation which is only slightly helped by the fact that none of the Avengers, save Natasha, knew of their existence either.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I actually really like the idea that one of the Avengers has a family. It brings an added dimension to the team as a whole and to Clint in particular. However, it works much better in retrospect than it did in real time. The onscreen revelation in Ultron is nothing short of jarring, even in light of the film’s desperate attempts to hint at it early on, via Clint’s jokes about not having a girlfriend.
HOW YOU CAN PROPERLY FORESHADOW CHARACTER BACKSTORIES
Again, it starts by knowing your characters’ backstories. Largely, I feel this lack of knowledge was the biggest problem in the execution of Ultron. Had Whedon—and other directors—known about these developments during the production of earlier movies, everything could have been set up without a hiccup.
Consider the big reveals in your character’s past. Then examine the early chapters where that backstory is still largely a mystery. Have you sown hints to the truth? And just as importantly, have you avoided any clues that will contradict that truth by giving readers the wrong expectations about your character?
How Not to Foreshadow Plot Twists
Plot twists are all about the unexpected. Therefore, you’d think the last thing you’d want to do would be to foreshadow them.
There are, in fact, two important aspects of foreshadowing plot twists.
One is via misdirection, pointing readers at the wrong thing, so they won’t fixate on the right thing and see it coming a mile off.
The other is properly setting up reader expectations so, even if what they end up getting isn’t what they expected, it’s still what they want. This is the only way to create emotionally satisfying plot twists.
HOW AGE OF ULTRON FAILED TO FORESHADOW PLOT TWISTS
I’m talking plot twists here, so you know it’s coming—SPOILER!
Ultimately, I could have forgiven the poor foreshadowing of Natasha’s new romance and Clint’s old family, but the final jerk on my chain was the “twist” of Quicksilver dying to save Hawkeye.
I’ve talked about this explicitly elsewhere, but suffice it that this entire scene was set up throughout the movie to manipulate the viewers’ expectations. Hawkeye was blatantly, even melodramatically, set up as death bait. The resultant twist didn’t feel like an escape from the noose (although I was glad to see the character survive), but rather a Ha! Gotcha!
The problem wasn’t a lack of foreshadowing, but rather an excessive and misleading use of misdirection. The result fulfills none of the goals of a good plot twist: it’s neither satisfying nor important to the development of either the characters or the plot.
HOW YOU CAN PROPERLY FORESHADOW YOUR PLOT TWISTS
First of all, repeat after me: Never include a plot twist just for the sake of the twist. A good plot twist must exist to serve the story, not just to fool readers.
Second, you must shape the story so the eventual ending is the only one readers will possibly find satisfying within the scope of the story. If they would have preferred the non-twist ending, then you have a problem.
Third, you must then create organic misdirection that keeps your readers’ attention away from the foreshadowing. When they look back, they should be able to see the foreshadowing and realize everything fit into place. Prior to that, however, you need to keep them distracted.
How Not to Foreshadow In-Jokes
Comparatively, this one is a tiny, tiny issue within Age of Ultron. It’s also one few authors will have cause to worry about in their stories. However, the more books you write, especially in a series, the greater your responsibility grows to maintain consistency, even in the little details, from book to book.
One of the delightful aspects of the Marvel movies is their consistent inclusion of little in-jokes from movie to movie. One of the most obvious is the Stan Lee cameo in each film. Another is the post-credits scene at the very end.
HOW AGE OF ULTRON FAILED TO FORESHADOW ITS IN-JOKES
To date, Age of Ultron is the only Marvel movie not to feature that post-credits scene. However small a disappointment that is, it’s still a disappointment.
Whedon chose not to do a post-credits scene because he felt he couldn’t top his shawarma scene at the end of the first Avengers. He wasn’t trying to jerk viewers’ chains or fool them into sitting through fifteen minutes of credits only to discover … nothing. He even tried to get word out in pre-release interviews that there would be no post-credits scene. But for viewers who didn’t get the word and who sat in that dark theater waiting for the expected in-joke, it did kinda end up feeling like the joke was on us.
HOW YOU CAN PROPERLY FORESHADOW YOUR IN-JOKES
Not all of you will have in-jokes or traditions within your stories. But if you can come up with them, they’re awesome. They’re a ridiculously great way to invest in readers and make them feel like they’re part of something special that only true fans really get.
But… the big caveat here is, of course, once you set up the pattern, you must maintain it. Readers who expect certain aspects of your story to appear from book to book will be disappointed when they fail to find them. The disappointment isn’t likely to be enough to alienate them, but why go there if you don’t have to?
The Right Way to Foreshadow a Story
Now that I’ve picked apart Ultron‘s foreshadowing, let’s talk about one example where it absolutely knocked its foreshadowing out of the park. Largely, this victory is the result of the fact that it created its own foreshadowing within itself, rather than messing with the foreshadowing and setup from previous movies in the series.
So please consider…
How to Foreshadow a Plot Twist
And again… SPOILER!
One of the very few moments in this story that totally worked for me on every level was the scene in which Vision lifts Thor’s hammer. It couldn’t have been more perfect. I literally gasped out loud.
Why did this work so well?
Easy (or at least the movie made it look easy). Think back to our three qualifications of a good plot twist from above. The scene with Vision and Mjolnir aces every single one.
1. THE PLOT TWIST MUST MOVE THE PLOT
Vision’s ability to lift Thor’s hammer proves his “worthiness,” which is absolutely critical to the story. Without this proof, the Avengers would have no reason to trust Vision, but instead would have been compelled to try to destroy him, just as they were trying to destroy Ultron.
2. THE PLOT TWIST IS SATISFYING
Without even realizing it, viewers were set up to expect someone to lift Thor’s hammer. The early scene at Tony’s victory party, in which each of the Avengers attempts to prove his worthiness by lifting the hammer is a brilliant setup.
On its surface, it seems to be nothing more than a funny scene showing the team kicked back and having fun before Ultron spoils everything. But what it is really doing is hammering home (hah!) the fact that only someone truly worthy can lift the hammer. It’s the ultimate personal test, one none of the Avengers (with arguable exception of Cap) can pass.
When Vision then raises the hammer without warning (not even to claim it for himself, but to return it to Thor), the significance is instantly and utterly clear to viewers.
3. THE PLOT TWIST IS PROTECTED BY MISDIRECTION
The early hammer-lifting contest is such a funny and organic scene in its own right, viewers don’t even realize they’re watching foreshadowing.
Foreshadowing sometimes can’t help being blatant, but the best foreshadowing will always flow so well with the characters and the plot that it isn’t clear until hindsight that it was priming readers. Instead, readers are eased into a state of preparation for coming events without even knowing it.
That’s power. That’s control. That’s foreshadowing.