Before today, we haven’t once mentioned what the topic of this week’s episode is. That’s terrible foreshadowing! Hopefully we do better in the podcast itself, because today’s topic is foreshadowing. How much do you need? How do you include it without making the twists too obvious? Does it need to be believable or guessable? We’ve got the answers, plus the best way to include a T-Rex in your story.
Generously transcribed by Clementine. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris…
Oren: …and I’m Oren.
Chris: And this time, I am foreshadowing. For what our topic is going to be. Can you guess what it is?
Oren: No, Chris, we can’t do this topic. We didn’t foreshadow it last week.
Chris: Oh no.
Oren: We’re bad at this.
Chris: Yeah. Before shadowing is too soon, you can’t foreshadow right before the reveal.
Oren: I mean, you can.
Chris: You can, it’s a— it’s not going to do it. [laughs] It looks very contrived.
Oren: Whenever we say you can’t do something, the truth is that you can, but you shouldn’t. [Laughs] It remains in some ways, a free country. Therefore, you can make whatever bad story decisions you want, but I’m telling you now they won’t work out for you. And that’s foreshadowing. [evil laugh]
Chris: We can be prescriptivists, but we can’t actually send you to story jail.
Oren: Can’t do that. Not yet.
Chris: So, yeah. Foreshadowing, what is it?
Oren: I actually came up with an interesting conceptual model for it the other day; that audiences like surprises. But they don’t like surprises that feel random. They want to feel like the story is working within some kind of established constraints. And foreshadowing is how you establish those constraints—or one of the ways you do it.
Because anybody can write and then a T-Rex ate him. And that’s technically a surprise in most stories unless it’s Jurassic Park. But most of the time that won’t be satisfying, that’ll be annoying. It’ll be like, oh, okay, I guess a T-Rex was there. And a big part of the reason why is that—that doesn’t feel like that took any skill. That was just, you wrote a random thing down that happened. If the character got eaten by a T-Rex in a movie that had foreshadowed the existence of T-Rexes then it could be like, oh cool surprise. We didn’t know that T-Rex was right here. But we knew that they existed in the movie and now it feels like the author is playing fair and is working within the constraints that they established instead of just putting in whatever random thing occurs to them.
Chris: Yeah. I like to think about it as being about expectations. And, that expectations about the rules of the stories playing by are the basis for believability. And foreshadowing is how you set the right expectations so that when you have a twist or reveal later, they fit those expectations. But I think that once you take expectations into account, you can kind of see the full range of when things stopped being believable. Or again, if we’re using the old suspension of disbelief model, when they violate that, I think expectations model is a better way to look at it than suspension of disbelief.
Oren: Yeah. I think suspension of disbelief is more specific—is how I would look at it.
Chris: Or, I might say that people can suspend their disbelief as long as you’ve set the right expectations. Like if we’ve established that there’s magic in this world, they know to suspend their disbelief for magic. But then if you like have a T-Rex just there… Okay, there was no agreed-upon…they expected a T-Rex to appear so they knew ahead of time, not to be like, why is there a T-Rex here?
Oren: The way that I think of it is like setting expectations is setting up the things that are in your world. So that even if you don’t set up exactly, what’s going to be there. It’s in a way that it feels like it follows from what you did set up. And that’s setting expectations.
To me, suspending disbelief is when you just need an inherently unbelievable thing for your story to work. Like the urban fantasy trope of, “no one uses guns” because guns would make that—so we couldn’t have cool Kung Fu fights in urban fantasy stories and we want those. And so we basically, for most of this genre, we agree to pretend that guns don’t exist and that is suspending disbelief.
Chris: Right. I mean, I also think that a lot of times those genre conventions also follow expectations, though.
Oren: Oh no, It was expectations all the way down.
Chris: It was expectations all along. I mean like the masquerade in urban fantasy, so many urban fantasy stories use the conceit that people just don’t know about magic. That shows can even get away with not explaining it. And even it’s so conventional that you can get away with a certain level of characters, purposely hiding the existence of magic for other people. Without explaining why they’re doing this behavior that only, I think, does start to reach some limitations. Once they’re making serious sacrifices to preserve the secrecy of magic, especially from other protagonists or friendly people. That’s like, why can’t you just tell your friend that you’re a wizard. After a while, that starts to break down. Right. I do think there’s also a certain level of like rule of cool. It’s like, okay, T-Rexes maybe not realistic in this world, but they’re so cool. We’ll let it go.
Oren: As long as you set the expectations that they’re there. If I was just watching a normal, urban fantasy show and a frigging T-Rex showed up out of nowhere. I’ll be like, okay. But, if I was reading a Dresden files book, which established a) that necromancy is a thing which uses the bodies of the dead as a way to bind their souls and have them serve you. And b) that there is a huge T-Rex fossil on display at the Chicago museum. Then, it doesn’t feel at all weird when Dresden rides a necromancy T-Rex into battle at the end of that book, because you set those things up and there they go.
Chris: And, should mention that foreshadowing isn’t just for your shocking reveals. It’s also just for, if you want to change the nature of the story, just like we were talking about a T-Rex just suddenly appearing and into an urban fantasy breaks theme, right. We established some facts about what type of story this is. And there’s other things where if your story, for instance, takes place entirely in one village and then halfway through the story, you want your character to travel somewhere else. If you just leave that as is, the story feels like unbalanced. Feels like we just kind of changed what we said is the conventions of this story. And we thought it would be stationary because they stayed in the entire village for like the entire first half. Expectations are generally set in about the first third of the story, but can also use foreshadowing to establish that they might leave and to talk about other places and have people from elsewhere arrive have the character want to go somewhere, right. You can change the expectations. So that it’s—feels more natural when halfway through the story, the character takes off.
Oren: Most of the questions about foreshadowing I get though are definitely about foreshadowing reveals or twists. Sometimes they’re not exactly reveals like foreshadowing that a specific plot event is going to happen.
Chris: That’s what people worry about the most. And sometimes writers actually worry about this too much. Technically, it’s a problem to have too little foreshadowing, and having too much foreshadowing is fine, but foreshadowing can be difficult. And if you have more than you need or more specific foreshadowing than you need, that can cause you to give away something you wouldn’t give away or just have like awkwardly inserted exposition in there. If it’s not handled carefully, foreshadowing can be awkward. So you know, worrying about it too much can still cause problems.
The first question to ask is whether or not this reveal that you have is something where your protagonist is going to use it to solve a problem. They’re actually going to come up with it themselves and then use it to fix something or win the day or whether this is actually supposed to be a tense reveal. Where like a friend turns out to be a traitor or somebody suddenly gets fired from their job or, you know, their perfect plan. They implemented it in, then it just doesn’t work. Those are all tense twists as opposed to something and be like, hey, I know this is the enemy’s secret weakness. Now I’m going to use that to save the day. That lowers tension. That resolves a conflict. So those two are like two different levels of burden when it comes to foreshadowing. And the thing that I find is that sometimes writers think that they have to do a lot of foreshadowing for those tense things when they don’t.
Not that there doesn’t need to be anything, but I would basically call these two different levels: the plausibility level and the guessability level. So if your reveal just needs to be plausible, you don’t need as much foreshadowing. All you need to do is a) make sure that you have nothing in the story that actively contradicts what you’re about to reveal. For instance, if you’re going to reveal that your protagonist is suddenly fired from their job, have you previously shown a scene where the boss is like, oh, you’re doing such a great job. [chuckles] I value you as an employee. Business is going great, right? Because then if they’re suddenly fired, that starts to feel implausible because you have specifically contradicted that situation earlier. Similarly, if you have a friend that turns out to be a traitor, is that friend significantly helping them. And if they’re a traitor, why did they do that? So that’s the first thing you have to do with plausibility.
Writers tend to get too specific with their foreshadowing. What you want is a general context that makes it just so that the twist, kind of fits in with what they already know. Again, it doesn’t have to be guessable, which means that you can look at all the clues and guess it. They just need to fit in. If the boss seemed to be like, hey, wow, you did a great job, but they seem a little nervous because the employee is showing them up, for instance. We don’t necessarily guess that they’re going to turn around and fire the employee, but it fits now. Or if their friend has lots of, for instance, debts. That could inspire them to work for the bad guy for money. Like being in debt definitely doesn’t make somebody a traitor. [laughs] You could never guess what the friend is a traitor by knowing that, but now you have something where it’s like, okay, that fits with what we know about the person. So it enhances like the plausibility of it.
Oren: Or let me put it this way. Some readers will guess it because some readers just by the law of averages will guess every reveal you’re planning to make. But most of them probably won’t and even the ones who do are probably not going to feel frustrated. They might even feel extra smart because they guessed it.
Chris: Yeah. I mean, I would say that, again, trying to make it so that nobody guesses it is oftentimes just too high of a bar. If you have 10 beta readers and one of them guesses it, I think that’s a plenty good record.
Oren: An example that always comes to my mind is because I always think of how much foreshadowing is too much. Cause it’s noticeable when it happens. He really noticed like, oh, that was a little heavy-handed. In Star Trek into Darkness, they revive Kirk by injecting him with some super regenerating blood from Khan, and the way that they foreshadow that is, McCoy injects a dead Tribble with the super blood from Khan and that brings the Tribble back to life. And I remember watching that scene of being like, I guess they’re going to use this to bring someone back to life later. Was the issue there that that was too much foreshadowing or that it’s a contrived plot way to get out of a character death. What’s—what’s going on?
Chris: Let’s talk about what makes it too much or too little, or makes it obvious or not obvious. So a big thing here is the existing conventions in the stories. That’s why it’s hard to give it a hard and fast rule about how obvious your foreshadowing should be because it does depend on what other stories are doing. In this case, stories are constantly bringing characters back to life, more than they should be. At this point, I would recommend just don’t do that. Don’t kill a character, bring them back. It’s just makes deaths completely meaningless and it’s so obvious. You can usually see it coming. Like right now with current story conventions if you don’t see a character divided up into like 20 pieces and then each piece burned—I’ve even read one story where a character was melted by acid, down to their bones and they were still like brought to life by like a miracle.
Oren: Good, good job. The strong work miracle. [laughs]
Chris: So at this point, I don’t recommend killing a character only to bring them back to life. It’s too common, but because it’s so common, people are going to be actively looking for it, which means it takes much less foreshadowing for people to see it coming. So in this case, if you have any type of magic or science mechanics that would allow you to bring anything back to life, you can almost guarantee that’s going to be used in a protagonist at some point in the story.
The best way to not have the foreshadowing be obvious is you have to disguise it as something else. Because people can tell when there’s no, or at least we can tell [laughs] people besides us, there probably are some people who can’t tell. But especially if you’re not expo dumping everywhere, which you shouldn’t be just dumping random exposition everywhere. If there’s something that you put in there that feels out of place and leaves the audience wondering why that’s there. Usually, the answer is foreshadowing. It’s like, why did we just give this character some backstory where we talked about how they don’t know their parentage. [laughs]
We haven’t for all the other side characters, talked about a backstory where we don’t know their parentage.
Oren: Spoilers for the novel, Skin of the Sea, which is generally quite good. I would actually recommend it, but there is one part that, oh my god, [laughs] So the main characters have arrived at the village that they were going to because they need it to go there for the plot. And they’ve discovered that the MacGuffins they were after along with some kids have been kidnapped by the big bad. And they’ve acquired a few new party members in notably like two childhood friends of, one of the main characters have joined their group. And then the king of the village is like, you will also take this guy.
And points to this dude we’ve never seen before. He is my most trusted soldier. You will take him with you.
Chris: Also he’s new. He just joined up. He comes from the city. That was, for me, the most obvious.
Oren: Right. And then later when they’re talking about their backstories and the protagonist is like, I didn’t catch where you were from and he’s like, I didn’t say. Is this a red herring? I was like, this is obviously the trickster. I was thinking like, this is— it’s so obvious that this guy is the antagonist. Cause the antagonist is a trickster God that this has to be a red herring. Like we’re supposed to get suspicious of him. And then it turns out that it’s not him, but no, it was him the whole time. And he’s—does this big aha, none of you guessed it was me. And it’s like, well, I mean I did.[laughs]
Chris: Again, we specifically mentioned that he had recently joined. And he’d come from elsewhere. And probably because otherwise it wouldn’t be plausible for him to be a bad guy, because it’s like, wow, you’re playing the long game. You’re playing a long con. Cause it, this is a village where everybody knows each other. It’s like, you’ve lived in this village for 30 years just to get to this point.
Oren: Although then later, just to like drive-in how weird this is, we find out that the trickster God has perfect face mimicry and can make himself look like anybody.
Chris: So when he could have just made himself look like an existing person in the village, he didn’t have to introduce a new character, to be the new guard.
Oren: Just at some point in the quest have him grab one of the two childhood friends, who steps behind a tree for a minute or something, and then replace them. And now you have a much more believable way that he infiltrated the group and that the other characters wouldn’t just immediately see coming.
Chris: And then what I would probably do is make it so that the protagonist who knows the character from childhood notes, that he’s different. If we have a character who is secretly the bad guy in disguise, who has replaced the person that he’s been mimicking, cause he got doppelganger powers. What you might do is bring out a full character arc for this character. And he’s like, oh, don’t you understand the recent hardships changed him, you know, but maybe he can get hope again or something. [chuckles] Pretend it has some other purpose in the story, pretend that this is like part of a character arc for the character, for instance, so that we know why we are saying these things and establishing these details. Because again, what currently happens is there’s very little, other reason to announce that this character just joined the village from elsewhere, other than it makes it plausible for him to be a spy.
Oren: It was just weirdly on the nose. Of course, later we find out that this guy is also really bad at impersonating people, even though he can do perfect shapeshifting. But that’s a question for another time.
Chris: I’ve also seen instances where people just maybe because they want people to remember or something, make their foreshadowing super obvious just by emphasizing it a lot. For instance, there’s this hilarious sequence from Sword of Shannara. We open with Allanon, who I’ve referred to as evil Gandalf because he’s just an asshole.
Oren: Jerkass Gandalf
Chris: But the opening of Sword of Shannara has Flick as the main character, but it turns out Flick is not actually the main character at all. It’s Flick’s brother, Shea. So we have the sequence where Flick is with Allanon and Shea has not even entered the story. I’ll read it. I’m talking about Allanon—the evil Gandalf. “He rubbed his craggy face with crooked fingers and looked beyond the forest edge to the rolling class lands of the valley. He was still looking away when he spoke again, you have a brother. It was not a question. It was a simple statement of fact”
That is the most random thing for evil Gandalf to say, it comes out of nowhere. And yes it’s set up for the fact that it’s Flick’s brother, Shea, that’s the actual chosen one of the story. But after that, it’s just, wow, that’s advertising, pointing, and shouting at your foreshadowing right there. Cause it just comes out of nowhere and it’s again, super—there’s no other reason for it to be.
Oren: My favorite is when the foreshadowing is so obvious that it circles back around, to me, wondering if this is even supposed to be foreshadowing, or if it’s just bad writing because it feels like if it was supposed to be foreshadowing, the characters would have picked up on it.
And my favorite example is Wanderers the spoilers for that book, I guess it’s several years old at this point, but who knows. It’s got a sequel coming out apparently. The big reveal is that Black Swan, the super-powered AI that guides the heroes through the entire story and basically has all the agency and does everything, is actually evil. And he’s actually the one who caused the plague that destroys all—most of humankind. And he’s a bad guy, a bad, bad AI. It’s like, okay. But that was already really obvious. Because he did things like determine who was going to live based on their social media posts, standardized test scores, and how healthy they were. So he was doing eugenics, which is generally bad. And the people that he picked to survive got this weird condition where nanites went into them and made them walk to where a shelter was. But if anything got in their way, they would explode and die. So the nanites would then go to someone else.
And it’s like, that’s pretty evil that your method of evacuating them would kill them if anyone tried to stop them from going somewhere. You know, there was a lot of other stuff. And I was just like, is that foreshadowing? Is that supposed to foreshadow that Black Swan is evil because it’s so obvious that how did the characters not notice it, but at the same time, maybe it’s not foreshadowing, maybe just in the morality of the book, those things aren’t supposed to be bad. And I don’t know which is worse.
Chris: I wish I could say that—obviously, that was supposed to be a sign that Black Swan was evil. But there are definitely plenty of people out there who would not understand the problem with doing eugenics based on social media profiles. [laughs]
Oren: Based on what I know of the author, I’m guessing that he just sort of assumed everyone would be like, oh, well, because Black Swan is evil, the social media eugenics program; they’ll also realize that was evil. They won’t. A lot of people won’t make that connection. They’ll think, well, I guess Black Swan is evil, but he had some good points about the social media eugenics program because was portrayed as fine in the book. And if you already know it’s bad, then it’s not going to make you think it’s good. It’s not going to brainwash you like that. But also, if you already know it’s bad, you’ll just be frustrated with the characters for not noticing.
Chris: But I have to say it for all that we’re talking about obvious foreshadowing, if your hints or your reveal, doesn’t follow a common story convention, like bringing a character back to life.
Or another example, one that would seem really obvious is a hero that has a mysterious pendant and becoming the heir to the throne or whatever. This is my secret parentage or something that stories do a lot. Then oftentimes you want it to feel on the not subtle side because your audience is never going to pick up as much as you think they are.
It’s going to usually seem more obvious to you than it does to them because you already know the answer. So generally when you’re not sure it’s better to air on the more blatant foreshadowing and more hint side of things. Just a bit, again, this is why beta readers are so valuable by just seeing okay, how many people guess it, and then making adjustments.
Oren: Yeah. One of the examples I can think of that felt completely out of nowhere. And then looking back, I can see, okay, I can see where you were trying to foreshadow that, but it wasn’t enough. Is the introduction of Dawn in season five of Buffy, because that just felt so weird and random. And I was like, what is happening? And I was like, did I miss something? Did I miss when this character was introduced? But—and, of course, I didn’t but there is technically some foreshadowing in there. There’s this—I think it’s a dream sequence where Buffy talks about a little sister is coming to visit her.
Chris: I think it might actually be Faith or something that says it.
Oren: Yeah. So it’s technically there. That is technically some foreshadowing, but man, it’s not enough. It’s too subtle. I missed it. I forgot that it happened. And then there was this new, random character. I was like, what, what is happening? What is going on?
Chris: But I think wherever you can if instead of being super specific to what you’re going to reveal, you set a general context that makes it fit in. Then you’ll be able to do a lot more without giving it away so easily. And then if you do have something where, oh yes, a protagonist is going to come up with this or they’re going to use it to solve a problem and they need to be able to guess it basically before they guess it, you give them one more clue. That’s more like directly pointing at what it is. Again, if you can keep it general and just set a context for the story where it fits in, instead of being super specific, that’s better.
Oren: Making it guessable is particularly challenging. And that’s why we always recommend the save one final clue, which allows the character to make the connection. Because otherwise, you end up with one of three potential problems, and ironically Sherlock Holmes has all three of these problems, depending on what iteration of Sherlock Holmes you’re talking about.
There’s the version where the protagonist just knows things that the audience doesn’t. He’s just been given information that the audience doesn’t have. Then he solves the mystery and that’s kind of unsatisfying because it’s like, man, if I knew those things, I could have solved the mystery too. Which is the original Sherlock Holmes because the original Sherlock stories are in Watson’s perspective and not Sherlock’s. So a lot of Sherlock’s super brilliant deductions are just that Sherlock is allowed to see things that we don’t get to see.
And then there’s another option of, well, he has all the information, but it’s not time for him to figure it out yet. So he hasn’t. And meanwhile, you’re just sitting there yelling at your TV. It’s the cab driver! It’s the cab driver! And then the last one is the character just makes absurd leaps of logic that don’t actually follow and just happens to be right. I’m not going to say it’s impossible that your hero could have all the clues. And then not figure it out until later, and it wouldn’t feel contrived, but man, is it hard.
Chris: And for the difference again, between a general context and a clue that’s much more specific. For instance, if someone was going to get fired from their job, general context would be showing that the business just doesn’t have many customers and then they get laid off. As opposed to having there being hints that layoffs are specifically about to happen. That’s the difference there, the more you can back away and look at the general context of the situation, the better.
And then if all else fails and you do have to be specific, I mean, you can also add— a red herring. Basically, come up with another thing that you’re foreshadowing could be hinting at besides the actual answer. So if it’s obvious, you know that you’re going to have something in there that’s clearly foreshadowing of some kind, you could create an alternate interpretation for the audience to latch onto. And then hide, actually that was a foreshadowing for this other thing.
Oren: Ha hah, all right. Well with that, we are going to reach the end of the episode, which you could argue that we foreshadowed because every episode has ended at about this time. So that’s foreshadowing, right? You could guess that the episode was going to end right now.
Chris: It’s believable.
Oren: Before we go. I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. We have Ayman Jaber, he is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo, she lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.
This has been the Mythcreants podcast, opening-closing theme, The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton.
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