Foreshadowing is used to either make something more believable or to increase tension. In the former, the foreshadowing makes it seem more likely that something might happen. In the latter, it makes the reader worry that something might happen. But what if that something never happens, or it does and the results aren’t what readers were primed to expect? That’s when you get unfulfilled foreshadowing, and it is a major source of frustration for readers. Today we’ll examine some high-profile examples so that you can see some of the common ways foreshadowing goes unfulfilled.
Spoilers: Abhorsen, Ant Man, Red Seas Under Red Skies, Neuromancer, Fahrenheit 451.*
1. Unlikely Betrayal, Abhorsen
Abhorsen is the third book in a trilogy of magic, undead, and a world-ending cataclysm. One of its main characters is Mogget, a cat-familiar to the Abhorsen family. In addition to being sarcastic and knowledgeable, Mogget can turn into an evil, but extremely powerful, magic spirit if his collar is removed. So he’s a useful cat to have around.
Early in the book, Mogget is briefly captured by another powerful spirit. He then escapes and is very cagey about how he did so. As the book goes on, he starts acting strangely, and the other characters grow suspicious of him. Clearly, this is foreshadowing to build tension about whether Mogget might betray his fellow protagonists. Who knows what that other spirit said or did to him?
Unfortunately, this foreshadowing falls flat because it’s completely unbelievable. Remember, this is the third book, so we know the characters pretty well by now. Mogget has already shown that he’s fully loyal to the Abhorsen family, even if he often demonstrates that loyalty in the form of sarcasm. What’s more, the big bad of this book wants to literally destroy the world. If the villain wins, all of existence will cease. Even if we didn’t know Mogget so well, it’s hard to see why he’d ally with someone like that.
Since there’s no reason for Mogget to willingly join up with the big bad, that only leaves mind control. While the villain does have that ability, it would still be unsatisfying. If Mogget were mind controlled, there are far more direct ways he could sabotage the heroes, and all he does is act a bit strangely. Plus, the heroes have an easy way to send Mogget away if they’re suspicious of him,* and since they don’t use it, they don’t seem too worried.
Of course, in the big battle at the end, Mogget sides with the good guys, because why wouldn’t he? We aren’t surprised or satisfied, because there was never a serious chance that anything different would happen. Instead, we’re left wondering why Mogget acted strangely in the first place.
2. Heroine Doesn’t Prove Herself, Ant Man
Ant Man has a lot of problems, but perhaps the worst is how Hope Pym is treated. The premise is such: Hank Pym has created a super suit that lets the wearer shrink down and also control ants.* He has a dangerous mission that requires the suit, but his poor health means he can’t use it himself anymore. His daughter Hope has been training with the suit for years, is an expert martial artist, and wants to take on the mission.
Naturally, Pym says no, because Hope is a girl – I mean because Hope is his daughter and he’s worried about her. Instead, he hires some Random White Dude to wear the suit, and now Hope has to train this schmuck. This setup is so protagonist Scott Lang can be completely unprepared for his mission and also have a badass mentor to get him into shape. However, it serves another purpose. In several scenes, Hope challenges her father, asserting that she’s fully capable of taking on this mission. He denies her, insisting the mission is too dangerous.
This is clearly foreshadowing for Hope to prove her controlling father wrong, yes? Probably in a scene near the climax, she’ll bust in wearing a suit of her own and turn the tide of a hopeless fight. Stunned by his daughter’s bravery and determination, Pym will realize he was wrong the whole time. Everyone goes home happy.
Except that never happens. Hope accedes to her father’s demands and stays out of the action, leaving the poorly prepared Scott to fend for himself. This is an amateur mistake. It not only makes all of Hope’s clashing with her father seem pointless but also amps up the film’s sexism since the only female protagonist is completely sidelined in favor of a man. Instead of the obvious choice of letting Hope kick ass and take names, the film ends with Pym deciding on his own that he shouldn’t treat his adult daughter like a child and giving her a second suit that he’s made.
This doesn’t fulfill any expectations or provide satisfaction, because Hope’s actions played no role in Pym’s decision. It puts the focus on him when it should be on her, and it goes against what the film implicitly promised to do.
3. The Obvious Explanation, Red Seas Under Red Skies
Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies is a really good book. It has compelling characters, a strong plot, good representation of women and people of color, and awesome sea battles. That said, it is also home to some really bad foreshadowing. The book opens with a flash forward where the protagonists from the previous book, Jean and Locke, are trying to kill each other. Anyone who’s read the first entry in the series knows these two have a bond stronger than blood, so what could possibly make them turn on each other?
After this high-stakes opening, the first few chapters are fairly slow. It’s a rude trick to use such a flash forward to keep readers going through the boring early chapters; it’s better to make the early chapters high stakes. But it’s also common, so we’ll give Lynch a pass for now. As the story unfolds, we keep wondering what might happen to make Jean and Locke turn on each other. Will one of them fall under the control of sorcery? Will they find a score so valuable they can’t agree to split it? Excitement builds!
Finally, the much anticipated scene arrives and the reveal is… It was a trick to fool some enemies. What? That’s it? That’s neither surprising nor satisfying, because it’s the first option we considered and discarded for being too obvious. Locke and Jean are professional con-men; tricking others is literally what they do for a living. In fact, they’ve pretended to be enemies on several occasions.
By starting the book with this flash forward, Lynch implied it was something out of the ordinary. After all, it was important enough to skip right to the front of the story. Instead, it was business as usual for our protagonists. And if something is routine for the protagonists, it feels routine to us. Fortunately, the book is good enough to overcome this problem, but it’s a major flaw that could have been avoided if the opening chapters hadn’t required a flash forward to keep readers interested.
4. A Ninja vs Cyborg Fight That Never Was, Neuromancer
Neuromancer is a foundational work of the cyberpunk genre. It features extreme cybernetics, blossoming AI, full immersion virtual reality, and… ninjas? For some reason the author thought old-fashioned ninjas* with swords and bows would fit right in among this high-tech wonderland. Mine is not to reason why.
The ninja in question is named Hideo, and he’s a bodyguard for one of the book’s antagonists. Even though he only appears onscreen near the end, we know about him far earlier because his reputation as a deadly fighter is constantly talked up. It’s established early and often that Hideo is a badass who will ruin your day, and he is held up as one of the major obstacles in the protagonists’ path.
One of those protagonists is a cyborg brawler named Molly. She has a long list of enhancements that make her super deadly in a physical confrontation. We’re talking upgraded reflexes, hyperawareness, and razor sharp blades in her fingertips, just to name a few. She’s even referred to by others as a “street samurai.” You know where this is going, right? At some point in the novel, Molly and Hideo are going to fight, a literal case of Future Ninja vs Cyborg Samurai. It will be a struggle as titanic as it is satisfying.
It never happens. When Hideo finally does meet the protagonists face to face, he switches sides and hunts down a different antagonist for them. Then, he’s out of the story. There’s no showdown or even the subversion of a showdown. Hideo and Molly barely interact at all.
By talking up Hideo’s fighting prowess, Neuromancer planted the expectation that he would be important. By including Molly, whose primary purpose is physical combat, the book seemed to provide Hideo with a worthy opponent. All the hyping of Hideo’s ability wasted page space and left us disappointed because the promised payoff never arrived.
5. A Mysterious Uncle: Fahrenheit 451
Fahrenheit 451 is a classic, and it’s not hard to see why. The protagonist, Guy Montag, is a “fireman” tasked with burning books so their unpleasant knowledge won’t ruin anyone’s consumerist good time. But Montag isn’t satisfied with his life. He knows there’s something missing, but being a product of his culture, he isn’t sure how to proceed.
His first nudge into rebellion comes from Clarissa, a young woman who questions everything and is deemed anti-social for not conforming to expectations.* In addition to inspiring Montag, Clarissa often mentions how she got her own talent for nonconforming from a mysterious uncle who loves to break the rules. The uncle comes up enough that even Montag thinks about him.
Clarissa later dies, run down by an uncaring or perhaps murderous motorist because that’s the sort of society this is. This leaves Montag at a loss. He wants to keep discussing his thoughts on the merits of books and knowledge, but he knows that sharing it with the wrong person could get him arrested. He wracks his brain, trying to think of someone he might know who’d be sympathetic, someone with a history of nonconformity and rule breaking.
For reasons unknown, Montag does not seek out Clarissa’s uncle. The uncle never appears in the story at all. Instead, Montag suddenly remembers that he once investigated an old English professor named Faber and decides to look him up. Why Montag took so long to think of Faber is never explained. Faber goes on to play the role of mentor to Montag, guiding him through the early stages of rejecting his cultural conditioning.
It’s frankly baffling why the author, Ray Bradbury, invented a completely new character for this role when the uncle was already established. It’s as if Bradbury got to that point in the novel, thought “damn, I need a mentor character, better invent one,” and completely forgot the work he’d already done foreshadowing the uncle. Since this book was supposedly written in a period of days on a typewriter rented by the hour, that seems a likely explanation.
Whatever the reason, dropping the uncle and conjuring Faber from nothing is a serious weakness for the story. We’re left wondering why Montag never thought of this conveniently placed English professor before and also wondering when this uncle is going to show up. Making the uncle and Faber the same person would have handily solved the problem and made the book far more satisfying.
Foreshadowing sets expectations, whether the author intends it or not. Emphasizing an element of the story gives the impression that it will be important later. If expectations are not met, readers will be disappointed. One instance of unfulfilled foreshadowing might not ruin a story, but it will make the audience less likely to take later foreshadowing seriously, which could lead to them putting the book down out of boredom or frustration.
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