Thursday, August 30, 2012

How to Write: Foreshadowing is Harder

Whoa, okay, I think...I think I'm back...

Sorry I'm a day late on this week's post, Internet. One of my hard drives has started dying and I had to scramble and reformat to try and eek as much life out of it as possible. Between that and school I unfortunately couldn't write anything meaningful without that awful, awful blue screen. I still have nightmares. The problem still persists but I think I've kicked enough life back into the old girl to keep things groovy for a while. Still, I'm a man who hates missing deadlines so to make it up to you guys, I'll also be posting a SSSBP this weekend. Yay for you!

On the subject of school; I started school this week! It was partially the reason why this post is happening a day later rather than just later in the day. I'm almost stupidly excited for the semester because I'm at a shiny new college and finally up to a level where I can focus on my major and do actual literature stuff instead know; everything besides my major. It also benefits you guys directly because while I'll have less time to myself, I'll get a whole new set of ideas for blog content; something I'll openly admit I'm on the cusp of running out of. It's the heaviest reading list I've ever had with the most written work and I'm apparently a masochist because I can't wait to dive right in.

My reading list with a 5" Mega Man action figure for reference. Yes, I have a Mega Man action figure. I also have a complimentary Rush action figure.
While we're still even barely on the subject of topics and content, let me speak on that for a bit. When I started this blog, I did so with the intention of basing my content on what my readers asked to hear about. In my mind, there were two outcomes; people read and contribute or no one reads or contributes. I hadn't accounted for what actually happened; plenty of people read but very very few contributed. 42 posts in and most of the subjects are mine, I've received scant few reader suggestions and I can't help but feel that it's probably on me. So let me ask you, the reader, directly because how you respond, if you respond at all, will directly affect the future of this blog. It's hard coming up with three quality topics every week by myself and difficult knowing that of those three, only one's likely to actually happen unless I like it enough to make it a SSSBP or it makes a comeback in a following week, something which has not famously happened a whole lot.

So what I have to ask you is this; I want to keep this democratic process going and I'd love to see this become more of a community project but it's becoming harder and harder to personally come up with three times as many workable ideas each week that I'll end up using. If you're a reader, regular or not, who would be interested in contributing topics, ideas, and arguments to the blog then at what point did I lose you? At what point did you decide that giving input wasn't what you wanted to do? Was it specificity? lack of options? Too many options? Or did you just not know that you could? Alternatively, if it turns out that no one was interested in the idea of community-directed material, the other thing I could do would be to remove that aspect of the blog and only write about the topics I choose. It wouldn't be totally draconian; I'd still be open to community suggestions, but the poll would be removed and I would largely be the singular director of where this blog goes. The up side of this would be that I'd be way more able to come up with topics, not only because I wouldn't have to come up with as many topics a week but also because it would allow me to specialize my topics to my purviews; a thing I had been avoiding for the regular posts to keep people interested in the polls. It would also free me up time-wise, possibly enabling me to write more than one post a week because I wouldn't have to wait six days for the poll to time out. 

Okay, that was a lot of talking about what we're not actually talking about this week. Let's get on with it.

How to Write: Foreshadowing is Harder
So you read that post from a couple weeks ago and were like "Hey, these are some good ideas! I'm going to write a character!" And you did, maybe he was called Fredrick, and you started writing a nice little story about Fredrick and after you finished you exclaimed in frustration "Tom! You are awful at this! I wrote my character and he/she/it was good but mostly uninteresting! There were no surprises! What surprises there were seemed arbitrary and contrived!" to which I would reply "Don't blame me just because you don't know how to foreshadow properly"

"Foreshadowing? What in Sam Tucket's Diamond-Studded Breeches is that?!"

Well, my non sequitur-spouting, hypothetical reader, foreshadowing is when a story very quietly alludes to a future reveal, event, or; if you're really sneaky; a pervading theme. 

The effects of proper foreshadowing vary depending on its use but by and large the most popular and useful outcomes are to get a jump on establishing themes very early on and to challenge your audience to think critically; to try and puzzle out what you're alluding to before you actually get there and subsequently reward them for their investiture with a satisfying payoff. 

Suddenly writing sounds a lot like...economics? I feel like we missed a step.
So let's start with how you actually foreshadow. Foreshadowing itself actually isn't hard. In fact, it's really kind of embarrassingly easy. You've definitely done it once before if you've ever told any kind of story, possibly even just earlier today. Any story that begins with "Once on a dark and stormy night" relies on foreshadowing; not only is it giving valuable details, it's using an established trope to foreshadow that we're about to hear a story which might try very hard and ultimately fail to be scary, possibly on purpose. If I were to preface, say, Rocky Horror Picture Show with that line, it'd put most everyone in the correct mentality; something dark, sketchy, and ranging from a bit to more than a bit silly. 

Foreshadowing itself is easy, yes, but so is talking; even a moron like me can talk. Like talking, foreshadowing well is where the real challenge lies. Let's look at that same line, "On a dark and stormy night..." It seems simple enough but what happens when we take away the telling details? "Once.." Well now we could very well be listening to office gossip for all we know; it prepares us for nothing. It may not necessarily harm the story but it's certainly not helping and that can be harmful enough sometimes.

What happens when we keep all the details but spruce them up a bit? Maybe add a bit of flash. "Once, when it was dark enough that the night itself seemed to become a thick, dense soup to wade through, flashing lightning only briefly lighting my way..." Then everything changes, doesn't it? It's still a dark and stormy night but it's lost the camp cliché; whatever story comes after this sentence would probably scare the shit out of whatever campers were unfortunate enough to share a fire with me. 

"And then he shoved that goddamn speculum right up my...Oh, wait, no...I think I forgot where I was for a minute."
This is, however, only the simplest and most common use of foreshadowing. Hell, it's so simple that it's almost not even foreshadowing at all; it's not really hidden and the payoff is almost immediate. To get into the real nitty gritty of foreshadowing, we need to think a little more long term. 

Think back to any film, novel, or video game where a character wasn't who they appeared to be. Go watch, read, or play it again if you like because unless it was especially awful, there was likely some kind of foreshadowing. For this example, let's use the Sixth Sense, also known as "one of the only M. Night Shyamalan movies anyone openly admits to liking"

Everyone should, one way or another, know this movie's big twist, right? If not, skip this section until you do because Jesus Christ you are a rare breed, don't spoil it for yourself. Seriously.

So Bruce Willis is dead and everyone knows it but Bruce Willis and the audience. The fact that he's dead isn't officially revealed until the end of the movie but if you're clever, are paying close attention, and ideally have a good idea of the kinds of tricks writer/directors like to pull in movies like this, you might have called it way before then. How? Because Shyamallamalan was dropping hints through the whole damn thing; some small, some very very big. Most of them small.

The very first scene of the film is of Bruce Willis' wife going down into the cellar and getting the chills which isn't all that unusual because this is New England after all. We're lead to believe that this is the creepy "Run an ice cube up your spine" chills though, just to let everyone know "Hey, if you weren't already aware, there's going to be ghosts and shit." This is Sixth Sense's version of "Dark and Stormy Night"

So then bad stuff happens, a disturbed guy shoots Bruce Willis and Bruce Willis, rather uncharacteristically, does not have a snappy comeback for him.

"Yippie-kay-yay mother fu--Sir, where are your pants?"
But then wait, hold on, everything's okay. It's an initially unspecified amount of time later and Bruce Willis is following some kid into a church. What? If this is your first viewing you might be confused and that's okay, you're meant to be. Something went awfully wrong but then suddenly everything's okay again, weird, right? Except nothing is okay and the next one hundred minutes or so will be spent quietly reinforcing that idea.

One thing you notice right away is that Bruce Willis' wife, who we will now and then never again refer to as 'Lady Willis,' is now not only not on a speaking basis with her husband, she's not even on an 'acknowledging his existence' basis. Somehow their relationship has deteriorated so badly that it's implied she might be seeing other men. It's like he's not even there. Wink wink.

Also notable is the fact that Bruce Willis wears the exact same shirt throughout most of the film. Sometimes he's also wearing a stylish tie or a jacket when he needs to be shot from behind but seriously, it's the same light blue shirt. It's only when he turns around sans jacket that we finally see the blood stains and collectively go "ooooohhhhh..."

One of the big strengths of good foreshadowing is that it's open to interpretation. Sixth Sense plays with this constantly, allowing you to interpret and justify events like the fact that his wife never talks to him, it happens to get cold every time he walks into the room, or the fact that there is zero evidence of him having a single healthy relationship with anyone outside of one disturbed grade schooler who claims to see dead people. You could very easily dismiss these details with unrelated justifications and interpretations and indeed, Bruce Willis even does at some points which is ostensibly the point of the whole movie but it's not until he, and by extension; you, starts considering these seemingly unrelated facts in the context of one another that things start to click.

There's no joke here, this is just to let everyone who skipped the section about Sixth Sense to know they can start reading again here. 
Okay, so that's some good concrete foreshadowing; that is, foreshadowing story details, specifically. What about Foreshadowing a theme? I mentioned that earlier, didn't I? Themes, at least themes worth mentioning, are usually some relatively higher-up stuff. Most stories of any description have a theme, even if it's not especially well realized all the time, sometimes it's just as simple as "Friendship" (My Little Pony) or "Enforcing Conservative Values Through Trendy Teen Literature!" (Twilight. No really, Twilight.)

Now if you thought concrete foreshadowing was some pretty sneaky business then you're in for a whole new level of sneaky because not only is there all the same sort of trickery going on but the payoff isn't always as clearly explained. Actually, sometimes it isn't explained at all. Storytelling's weird like that.

To explain this, we'll be looking at the game Bioshock and spoiling it heavily in the process. It was a wildly popular game so I imagine most gamers won't have a problem with this and I figure it a given that most non gamers will probably never play it but like with Sixth Sense, if you're in that narrow group who hasn't, but wants to, then you should probably skip this section because it's worth it.

Man, this post is really shafting that extra tiny minority of people who fall into both demographics. You guys have like almost no post left.
Good theming in games is rare, which is unfortunate because the medium has such great potential to do so, as exemplified by the first Bioshock. The entire game is a critique on Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged which is already more literate than all the other first person shooters of the last forever put together. In the game you crash over the open ocean and wash up on this random lighthouse, randomly jump into a bathosphere because why not and are whisked away to an underground dystopia named Rapture; a city built on the ideas of progress without the limitations of morality and that a man is entitled to his own creations. The City was founded by Andrew Ryan, by the way. Also known as an almost-anagram for Ayn Rand.  Right away you see indications that this is not a positive critique; the city is in ruins, everyone appears to be a psychotic killer, and most of the population is addicted to a gene-bending concoction called "Adam."

That's not what we're talking about though. Bioshock does amazing things with how it conveys its theme but what we're looking at is how it quietly hints at it when you're not looking. Anyone who has played the game will be able to tell you that there's one seemingly innocuous phrase sprinkled throughout it; "Would you kindly." Specifically, a man going by the name of Atlas (Yes, Atlas) says it every time he needs you to do something for him. Something bad happens, Atlas says "Would you kindly fix that" and this being a video game you don't really have much choice but to fix it if you want to progress, so you do it. Wash, rinse, repeat.

So you do all this and you have a pretty great time while doing it because it's actually a pretty slick game overall. You do this all the way until you actually manage to find Andrew Ryan, the man responsible for this madness who inexplicably wants you dead at he tells you something interesting. Atlas is not, as you had expected, just a horribly polite Irishman and that you were not here by accident. Instead, you, the player, were a sleeper agent inserted by Atlas to assassinate Ryan (hence him wanting you dead) and who was hypnotically trained to follow any order that had been prefaced with the phrase "Would you kindly?"

Yes, I know that's a lot to swallow in one paragraph. Stick with me here.
This all feeds into a central theme of the game, most succinctly stated by Andrew Ryan himself, "A man chooses, a slave obeys." A point he drives home as he forces you to bludgeon him to death with his own golf club. This is another one of the themes in Bioshock, that in games, even games with moral choices, the player's decisions almost always come down to whatever the developer had prepared for. Even in most of the games which claim unprecedented freedom the player is simply exploring branching paths laid in advance by the developers. In the thick of Bioshock, your autonomy is never overtly questioned until this point except, perhaps, as a stab from Andrew Ryan over the loud speakers, a source you have long since dismissed as crazy. There is even a binary moral choice system in the game but all it really does is determine how difficult gameplay is and affect minor story points. Because it is a game though you plod on at every request because...I mean what else are you going to do? Hang around in the first room until you get bored and go do something else?

But if the "Would you kindly's" start to get noticed or if you actually start listening to Andrew Ryan's crazed rants, you might begin to think that maybe something's up with your new favorite best friend in the whole wide world. If you pay attention to your surroundings, you might come across what appears to be just another propaganda poster with the words "Who is Atlas?" smeared across the bottom. The game comes close to almost telling you that you don't have to listen to him, even though you do, and these are all things I'll more than happily admit that I missed on my first play through but took immense joy in finding on my second.

Full disclosure; I have not actually read Atlas Shrugged, though I am aware that this poster also ties into the critique of it. Also we're done with Bioshock now, you can come back.
Now the post is almost over and we've gone over a couple good examples but we still haven't exactly covered how to foreshadow effectively. Let's talk about that a bit as we close up.

If it's not extremely clear already, the actual act of foreshadowing requires a good deal of forethought. No matter what you're writing, you need to already have a very good grasp on whatever it is you'll be hinting at, whether it be a story development or recurring theme. One mistake I see constantly, even on the professional level, is to hint too heavily and reduce your foreshadowing to blatant plot spoilers. Heavy foreshadowing can cause poor response to your theme stemming from a feeling of being preached to and unsatisfying plot twists because everyone saw that shit coming and it wasn't even hard to figure out (See, Transformers). On the flip side, some people like to foreshadow too lightly for the kind of story they're telling which can lead to the exact opposite problem; a theme too deeply buried to be found with the cryptic clues provided and plot twists that seem arbitrary and contrived because there didn't seem to be anything leading up to them (See, nearly every other film that M. Night Shyamalan has created.)

Personally, I like to try to locate the level of hint I think is just about fair, that is I can see the logical leaps needed to get there, and then make it just a little bit more unfair either by making the information seem insignificant or by masking it with misinformation from conflicting sources. That second one can be tricky though and can lead to mixed messages and a confused reader if you're not careful. Bioshock actually does both of these fantastically though so...go play it.

Seriously it has it's flaws but it's one of Gaming's storytelling triumphs. Go play it.
One thing that you must must must remember though is that foreshadowing beyond that which is meant to establish mood, structure, or theme is essentially extra credit. You can make your story rely on it but do so at your own peril because unless you do it too heavily, as discussed above, not everyone's going to get it on the first run through meaning that a section of your audience could get cut entirely out of the loop. In general, I find it most advisable to structure your story so that it could, conceivably, function without any foreshadowing at all. Obviously it wouldn't be as rich or challenging but still functional. Then, once you have a workable frame, start weaving the foreshadowing into some important bits. The deeper foreshadowing, like in The Sixth Sense and Bioshock, acts like a puzzle for your readers to figure out as the story progresses and more pieces reveal themselves. It invites your audience to partake in the mystery as active participants and rewards their efforts with the twist. Make that puzzle challenging, teasing, but not impossible, and you're one step closer to having an excellent story on your hands.

I hope this has been helpful, long as it is. It's not definitive and there's certainly more I could say about the subject of foreshadowing but I'm pretty sure I managed to cover the basic idea here to some meager degree.  If you found this or my last post on writing to be helpful, share it with your friends and don't forget to vote or post your own suggestion for a topic.

Thank you, Goodnight.


  1. A bit off topic but have you seen this game?

  2. Totally off-topic, I can't see a single way to connect Planetary Annihilation to foreshadowing. That being said:

    Yes and I WANT IT SO BAD.

    SO BAD.