Foreshadowing & Chekhov's Gun–Don't Blow It
The best way to have a successful novel is to learn to be a master at generating tension and conflict on every page. Of course we need to have an overall story problem that the protagonist needs to resolve by the end of the story. But, a lot of the story tension responsible for turning pages will be generated by things other than the Big Boss Troublemaker (antagonist responsible for the main story problem in need of solving).
Bad choices, baggage, close-range antagonists, false starts, wrong turns, protag’s immaturity are all ways we can keep readers wanting more. We generate questions that beg answers and give just enough for the reader to keep going, but not enough for the reader to feel quite satisfied.
If we don’t generate questions needing answers, the reader grows quickly bored. On the other hand, if we never give even little answers, the reader will grow frustrated.
It’s a fine balance to strike and one that requires simple practice and study to master.
One fabulous tool for generating tension is foreshadowing. This is where we hint that something will happen or be necessary later in the story. Ah, but as artists we need to make sure that every loop is closed by the end or we risk annoying the reader. It’s Chekhov’s Gun—never introduce a gun in Act I that we don’t intend on firing by Act III.
Readers are perceptive. In fact, we as writers are counting on readers to be perceptive otherwise foreshadowing won’t work. Right? Ah, but as I said, readers are perceptive, so if we merely introduce some element because we need a contrivance to keep a reader hooked? They can catch that, too, and that’s bad juju.
I happen to love scary movies and thrillers. This past weekend I watched The House at The End of the Street, which is actually a really good movie to watch for an example of how NOT to use foreshadowing. Now, the movie is fun to watch for a
decent an okay thriller and there were some great storytelling elements, namely how to hide the real antagonist by masking him with diversionary antagonists (tactic used in most mysteries).
But, though the movie was fun, the ONE THING that bugged me was a lighter. The mom keeps playing with this Zippo lighter that belonged to her ex-husband who was in a band. She plays with the lighter in Act I. Daughter even mentions this. Mom plays with the lighter in Act II and the camera even focuses on the lighter.
Ooooooh. Something important about this lighter.
In ACT III, when real bad guy is revealed, Mom is critically injured and protagonist gets a hold of a gun. She fires, hitting three propane tanks which we hear start leaking gas.
Cool thing is at least movie people
did their homework watched Mythbusters, and at least knew that shooting propane tanks (despite what zombie FPS games show) DO NOT explode when we shoot them. But, they DID make them leak GAS after SHOWING US A LIGHTER TWO FREAKING TIMES!!!!!!
It is at THIS point I expect Mom to dramatically toss daughter Dad’s Zippo and as they haul tail out of there, they blow bad guy into the troposphere. Aha! Dad never paid child support, but at least if he wasn’t useful, his LIGHTER was useful.
Lighter is never mentioned or shown again and no BOOM! and I was super bugged.
DON’T FORESHADOW WITHOUT CLOSING THE THREAD *eye twitches*
In your story, feel free to show guns, knives, lighters, totems, personal items, diaries, letters, and kittens using grenade launchers, but if we focus on them, they must serve a purpose other than filling space.
Okay, kittens using grenade launchers are okay, but only cuz they’re super cool and not used nearly enough in literary fiction.
Here’s the trailer for those interested. Bad and okay movies are good homework, because they show us what NOT to do. Ask yourself—Why was I bored? Where did I lose interest? Why did I want Such-And-Such character to be devoured by voodoo-undie-fleas?
*cough Anakin Skywalker*
As I said, this movie is an okay flick, but the lighter thing bugged me and so now it will bug you too!
MUAH HA HA HA HA HA HA!
What do you think? What are some of the best uses of foreshadowing you’ve seen or read? What are some of the worst?
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