Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 56: Unfulfilled Foreshadowing
Sometimes writing feels like magic. You look back at the story you’ve created and it seems like it came from beyond you. One of the coolest examples of this is with foreshadowing.
Some little something you wrote in the early chapters without even thinking about it ends up being a huge clue or bit of symbolism that foreshadows something major later on.
Talk about your subconscious rocking this joint!
But the flip side is that sometimes you’ll accidentally plant things that will seem important and portentous–only to have them end up as disappointing unfulfilled foreshadowing.
The problem with unfulfilled foreshadowing is simple: it’s a broken promise to your readers. Due to the way in which you’ve presented an event, or chosen your wording, or even just copped to a familiar genre trope, readers will have certain expectations about where the story is going.
Their expectations could be a blatant iteration in their conscious (“oh, I see a fistfight coming up”), or even just a niggle in the subconscious (which might not be thought about until the story’s over, but which will leave a sense of dissatisfaction with the loose ends).
What’s the result?
Best case scenario: Your book feels ever so slightly disjointed and incomplete, like that lumpy afghan Aunt Lou gave you when she was still learning to knit.
Worst case scenario: Readers will end up disgusted with the progression of the story because it went in a completely different direction from the one you told them it was headed—like maybe Aunt Lou started out knitting you an afghan, then decided halfway in that it should be a muumuu.
Either way, unfulfilled foreshadowing is not something you want lurking in your story (anymore than anyone wants a lumpy muumuu). Here’s how to spot it and lick it.
3 Different Types of Unfulfilled Foreshadowing
There are three basic types of foreshadowing you may find yourself accidentally creating as you’re writing your story.
1. Tonal Foreshadowing
One of the easiest ways to create subconscious foreshadowing is simply through your manipulation of the story’s tone. A skilled writer can turn even the most mundane passage into one dripping with portent and the undeniable sense that something is about to happen.
Consider the entire first half of Ridley Scott’s Alien, in which nothing much actually happens, but the tension and the tone is just about enough to strangle you.
Or how about this progressively creepy passage from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, in which new governess Jane is being given an innocent tour of her employer’s grand mansion Thornfield Hall:
Mrs. Fairfax stayed behind a moment to fasten the trap-door; I, by drift of groping, found the outlet from the attic, and proceeded to descend the narrow garret staircase. I lingered in the long passage to which this led, separating the front and back rooms of the third story: narrow, low, and dim, with only one little window at the far end, and looking, with its two rows of small black doors all shut, like a corridor in some Bluebeard’s castle.
Sometimes tonal foreshadowing ends up being a wonderful thing. It can be the source of those “magic” bits of foreshadowing you didn’t even know you were sowing. But it only works when you end up paying it off. Scary music playing in the background is never cool if there’s not actually anything scary (or at least ironically unscary) about to pop up around the corner.
2. Blatant Hook Foreshadowing
Another type of foreshadowing you may plant but forget to pay off is a blatant hook. This is when you outright tell readers to be on the watch for a future development. This might happen via a character’s internal thought process in the narrative or via dialogue.
There’s a great example of this type of unfulfilled foreshadowing in Howard Hawks’s classic western Red River when Walter Brennan’s toothless sidekick character watches an impressive display of shooting skills from two young characters who are “pawing at each other, seeing what they’re up against.” At the end of the scene, Brennan pronounces, “Those two are going to tangle for sure.”
That’s about as blatant a foreshadowing hook as you’re likely to get—but it’s never paid off. The two characters become friends and allies and never tangle at all.
This type of unfulfilled foreshadowing is even more egregious than the first, since the more blatant you are, the more conscious readers will be of the discrepancy.
3. Important Event Foreshadowing
You will also create an impression of foreshadowing in readers’ minds by scripting “big” and important events within your story. When these events happen early on, readers will see the obvious importance and expect these events to matter later.
In order for the foreshadowing to be properly fulfilled, these events must have proper consequences later on. There must be cause and effect; there must be foreshadowing plantand payoff. Otherwise, the story will feel decidedly lopsided and readers’ expectations will go unsatisfied.
Think about the bank robbery at the beginning of Chuck Hogan’s The Town. The bank-robber protagonist ends up falling in love with the bank-teller witness who was briefly his hostage. Think how unsatisfying the payoff would have been had she never discovered his identity as the bank robber and had he never been forced to deal with the consequences of this major early event.
5 Causes of Unfulfilled Foreshadowing
Now that you understand the three most common ways you can go wrong with unfulfilled foreshadowing, stop and think about some of the reasons you might accidentally be creating it in the first place. Here are five.
1. You’re Trying to Create Tension in the Story
This is probably the most common. There you are, up to your elbows in a scene. You may even have the whole thing plotted and know exactly where it’s going. But while in the midst of the actual wordplay, as you’re trying to delicately twine sentences to create the right amount of tension and interest for readers—you may end up sticking in a bit of false foreshadowing.
This can be as small and inconsequential as a single word choice. Sometimes just saying a character “looked grim” or had a “sinking feeling” can be enough to pump extra tension into a scene—and lead readers to the wrong conclusion, if it turns out there isn’t a good reason for all that sinking grimness.
What Should You Do Instead?
Nothing wrong with using your words skillfully to create tonal foreshadowing. Truly, it’s the stuff of great writing. Just be sure you’re always in a position to pay it off later in the narrative. Otherwise, you’ll either need to leave it out altogether, or maybe even reexamine why you feel this particular scene needs an extra bump in tension. Maybe you’d be better off taking your story in this tenser direction after all.
2. You Have to Give the Character Something to Do/Someone to Talk to
Sometimes you just have to feel your way through writing a scene. You don’t know how you’re going to reach the end of it until you do and in the meantime you’ve got to give the character something to do or someone to talk to. So far, so good. But sometimes these new additions can end up creating too many new complications.
What you originally intended as simply a casual, colorful chat between your protagonist and that Mafia hit man may end up seeming like much more to readers who will expect such a weighty character to show up covered in blood in the middle of the night at the protagonist’s door.
What Should You Do Instead?
Again, nothing wrong with introducing minor characters who have the ability to take the story in new and interesting directions—as long as that’s the direction you’re actually wanting to take. In a quiet romance, the village vicar might be a better choice for that casual conversation, especially if you can circle back and return him to the story at a meaningful point later on.
It’s also important to note that when you find yourself randomly adding interesting characters and scenarios to your story while “trying to figure out your scene,” what you might really be doing is clearing your throat. Be wary of adding interesting elements just for the sake of filling space and time, or even just because they’re interesting. Every part of a story needs to be there because it advances the plot, the character, the theme—or preferably all three.
3. You Want to Include the Gun, but Not the Bullets
The dramatic principle of “Chekhov’s gun” dictates you must:
Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.
But sometimes you may find yourself writing a gun into a scene just because you want the gun even though you don’t actually have a reason to fire it later.
For example, a scene in which a character drinks and then drives is foreshadowing just begging to be paid off with consequences (or at least irony) later on. As much as you may want the initial drinking scene, it will probably do your story more harm than good if you can’t bookend it appropriately later on.
What Should You Do Instead?
When you create a scene in which a character makes certain choices, readers will expect and desire consequences. Otherwise, however great the initial scene, it will fall flat. This means you must either ruthlessly pay off the foreshadowing with subsequent consequences, or cut the initial “gun” no matter how desirable it is in itself.
4. You Forget to Pay Off the Foreshadowing Later On
Inevitably, within the sprawling journey of writing an entire novel, you will fail to pay off early foreshadowing seeds simply because you forgot all about planting them in the first place. Usually, this is an easy fix. Just wield your red pen in revisions. You can either cancel the early foreshadowing or add an appropriate payoff toward the end.
Sometimes, however, you may find that removing the early foreshadowing plant or adding a payoff later on completely changes the story you ended up writing. This is always frustrating, since it means rewriting entire scenes or subplots.
What Should You Do Instead?
Whether the required revisions end up being large or small, they’re always worth making. You don’t want readers finishing your story and wondering if you even noticed that gaping plot hole. Cohesion is one of the most important elements in a well-written story, and fulfilling your foreshadowing is one of the most important ways to achieve that cohesion.
5. You End Up Taking the Plot in a Different Direction
Other times, you may plant your foreshadowing in early chapters with every intention of paying it off in specific ways later on. But… then your story takes over. A new idea strikes and your plot ends up going in an entirely unforeseen direction. The result? Your original foreshadowing not only doesn’t work, but you’re also lacking the foreshadowing you actually need for the new ending.
What Should You Do Instead?
Again, this isn’t a fun scenario. But it’s a straightforward fix: go back and rewrite. Frame your First and Third Acts, so they are asking and answering the same questions.
Frankly, it’s almost impossible to write a first draft that doesn’t include at least a few instances of unfulfilled foreshadowing. But if you know what to look for and the reason you might be wandering astray with your story’s foreshadowing, you can catch yourself in the act and smooth out all the lumps. That way, you’ll be able to hand your readers a gift they’ll appreciate far more than that lumpy knitted muumuu of Aunt Lou’s.