Foreshadowing & Chekhov's Gun–Don't Blow It

Photo via LE Carmichael WANA Commons

Photo via LE Carmichael WANA Commons

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!!!!!!

*smooths shirt*

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.


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!


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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  1. My friends say I have a mutant talent. I can guess whodunit in just about every movie or tv show (and book) within the first 15 minutes, or as soon as the bad guy is introduced.

    It used to drive my dad crazy that he would ask me to watch NCIS with him, then at the 15 minute mark, I would get up and walk away. He finally got me to tell him why–that was when I figured out the killer. He didn’t believe me, so he started asking me who it was. So I started telling him, and I was never wrong.

    I don’t enjoy mysteries and thrillers for this reason.

    It works better for me for the bad guy to be introduced early, maybe with POV from him/her, or, in the case of series, introducing someone that starts good and turns bad.

  2. Sorry, you’ve put me on the spot. All I can think of are examples from my own books. Not that it’s all about me…wait, it IS all about me.

  3. Great example, and such a great practical lesson in storytelling. One thing I love to do is read movie reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. Reviews of good movies, bad ones… ones I liked and ones I didn’t. Those movie reviewers are amazing at pointing out “lighter problems”… i.e. things that don’t work if you’re trying to make people care about the yarn you’re spinning.

    Thanks for another useful post!

  4. There are some great instances of foreshadowing in Up. Can’t name them off the top of my head, of course, but I remember noticing them when I watched it the second and third times. 🙂

  5. I think I’m far too easy to please with films: people tell me something bugged them and I’m like, “Yeah, but at the same time, the rest of it was great…” and I don’t get why not everyone thinks like this. It’s something I’m trying to master so I can be pickier with my books.

    • Renee on January 14, 2013 at 2:58 pm
    • Reply

    “Bad choices, baggage, close-range antagonists, false starts, wrong turns, protag’s immaturity are all ways we can keep readers wanting more.”

    Yes! A thousand enthusiastic yeses! Man, I couldn’t agree more. Hi, Kristen and blog followers. Here is what gets me to twitching and kvetching… this movement of “too stupid to live.” As a humble romance writer, I’m struck by how virulent reviewers and critiques can be. “This is a too stupid-to-live heroine.” TSTL. But “butt-kicker” perfect heroines leave me cold, and I believe most folks identify with the clumsy underdog. When I think of a perfect butt-kicker type, I imagine Jillian Michaels flashing me her abs in her yoga pants… and slapping me before I step on the scale. (heh heh)

    Maybe some readers crave a cross between Carrie Bradshaw and Linda Hamilton from “Terminator II.” The heroine wears stilettos and can brandish a semi-automatic! She’s a PhD in physics, can pilot a plane and flaunt a mean sheathe dress on the red carpet! Or there’s the heroine who’s living in an era when women are allowed no property takes on the grumpy sexist men and shows them a thing or two. I think re-writing history isn’t nearly as interesting as putting a smart woman who is living in a repressed era and having her be resourceful in spite of it. Maybe I’m thinking ‘courage’ here, pluck – real pluck and fortitude, not the stuff that feels contrived.

    Thing is, all of us make dumb choices, and I gotta tell you, when fiction characters do it – such as Gillian Flynn’s magnificent books – it makes for spellbinding reading. My husband and I devoured the first season of Showtime’s “Homeland” this weekend, (freebie preview, thank goodness for those in this recession). What a splendid series. Claire Danes is breathtaking. Totally imperfect. She makes really bad choices, she can be a know-it-all, and all of a sudden her eyes well with tears – tour-de-force acting, writing, storytelling, you name it.

    This has me wondering, though, if YA sells briskly because the genre allows for more imperfections and angst. Because it allows for more bona fide threats.

    Offering an example of a payoff – (SPOILER ALERT) –foreshadowing of something significant, is the male lead (a marine POW who spent 8 years in captivity and is suspected of being brainwashed / being a terrorist working for Al Qaeda) – he and the CIA agent have an affair, and while he sleeps, he has a nightmare and cries out a name. As the first season wraps, Claire Danes’s character realizes this connects him to the Al Qaeda terrorist – as she’s about to undergo an electric shock treatment.

    The second season of “Justified” was superb. The female matriarch / antagonist poisons people with her homemade liquor, and in the final episode, poisons herself with it. It was like a perfect bookend, opening with a poisoning, and closing with it. Really stellar acting and tension.

    Am reading “Sharp Objects” (wow, that’s all I’ll say – wow) – and I know the broken teeth are going to be significant in some way. I don’t know why the killer is doing this yet, and the protagonist makes me way uneasy. I cannot turn the pages fast enough.

    Maybe I’ll come up with more examples after I’ve had more coffee. Can’t come up with a Zippo lighter example yet.

    1. Oh, man, I should’ve listened when you said “Spoiler Alert”, but I didn’t know you were gonna talk about “Justified”!!!! (I get so nervous whenever that jug of “Apple Pie” comes out!)

  6. What about when it comes to a series? Think Hobbit and LOTR? I read Hobbit when I was a teenager and the ring was a nice little sidebar…. and then there was LOTR.

    Also, I’ve searched your blog for tips on writing a series (which I’m doing) and haven’t found anything. Can you provide links? I’d love your imput.

    • Yvette Carol on January 14, 2013 at 3:23 pm
    • Reply

    My writing teacher, Kate de Goldi, said whenever she reads a new book, she looks for intelligent foreshadowing. If the foreshadowing is dropped like little red flags waving on the page, that’s her cue to stop reading. But when the foreshadowing is done so skifully that she’s still not completely sure until the big thing happens, which clues are real clues, she feels it is worth her while to keep reading; this is a good book. I’ve always remembered that!

  7. I hate watching “b” movies just for this reason. I can’t believe crap like some of that stuff actually makes it into production. So anyways some of my favorite movies are “Brave” 2012, “Jane Eyre”2010, ” “Skyline” 2010, and I’ll stop with “Pandorum” 2009. Each of them uses foreshaddowing in a beautiful way.

  8. I do agree wholeheartedly on the ‘lighter’ example. What a waste!
    Red herrings are a good idea IF they clearly show up as red herrings later – not fizzle into obscurity.

  9. I love how J. K. Rowling foreshadowed and planted red herrings her books.

  10. Ugh, the trailer sucks. But I can imagine how obnoxious that stupid lighter would be. One of my favorite things to watch—well, technically 3—is the Mr. Plinkett reviews of Star Wars Episodes 1-3. If ever there were better movies to show you what NOT to do with story, these are it. And he explains exactly why. Now whenever I’m writing, I can hear a Mr. Plinkett in my head asking how does this certain thing make sense if this other thing is happening and so on. Warning, he does use a bit of coarse language, but man, are these reviews spot on!

  11. On New years day I was watching “The Black Swan” with my date of the previous evening…Lead character had a spot under her shoulder that she kept scratching and digging at. Kept being referred to in dialogue. My date asks, “What, does she have fleas?” to which I reply “No, it’s a metaphor for her sprouting the wings of the black Swan as she becomes the dark side of her psyche.” Dead silence from the date, and then “Wow, that’s profound.” Turned out I was right, of course…to me, the foreshadowing was obvious almost to the point of being annoying, but my companion wouldn’t have gotten it at all if I hadn’t said anything.
    So, there you go. Good foreshadowing or bad? Guess it depends on the audience!

  12. Chekhov’s gun is one of my favourite tools, I like planting a bomb somewhere in the beginnnig of a story and then it explodes :))). Hollywood uses this too, I wrote about this last year using This Means War romcom as an example

    • Aikidomama on January 14, 2013 at 8:50 pm
    • Reply

    One of the most obvious examples of foreshadowing is in The Lord of the Rings when Gandalf gives Frodo the speech about showing Gollum mercy. It’s mercy that saves Frodo and the world in the end.

  13. My mother told me about productive trees. There are shade trees and productive trees. Productive trees are trees, which bear fruits. In an agrarian society people buy the fruits so one can have money if they do not want to enjoy and do not want to benefit from the fruits.

    Without an agent and without a publisher/editor I look at writing a fictional novel like planting a coconut. It takes a coconut tree ten years to bloom. From then on you can have full grown coconuts every three to four months for the next thirty years. Afterwards you can sell the barren coconut tree for lumber.

    I plan on writing as much novels as I can. If it takes ten years to find a publisher willing to pay me for my efforts and pay me for the finished product, I have full grown coconut trees in the outward appearance of novels sitting around waiting to be bought by a publishing house. – Daniel Escurel Occeno

  14. You had me with *cough Anakin Skywalker*, Kristen.

    I almost went out of the theatre in a hissy fit because of the way they played out Anakin’s “turn to evil”.. Yes, the screws had been being tightened by both the Jedi Council and the Senator Palpatine, but… I don’t think Lucas played his foreshadowing well enough to suggest that Anakin would instantly go from the heat of the fight he’d been in where he kills one of his Jedi masters to being willing to go kill a bunch of children, especially since he knew he was going to be a father soon himself.

    Oh, yeah… this was about foreshadowing… not bad characterization. 😉

    Like Lynn Blackmar above, I tend to believe that most thrillers and mysteries over-foreshadow. The only reason I tend to watch is in hopes that the author presents the story in a way that I didn’t expect–say that lighter was used to rope that dropped some blockade in front of the zombies…

    And have you ever noticed that one of the most common foreshadowing methods used is often the worst? The over-helpful character is almost always the bad guy?

  15. I believe I nearly had a stroke from all of the tension in Stephen King’s The Shining. That actually might be an example of overkill. (No pun intended, but I’ll take it.)

  16. I had a writing prof in college who turned this around a bit and said if someone is going to be shot at the end of the book, there’d better be a gun on the mantlepiece in the beginning. Interesting how he appropriated Chekhov’s line and made it his own. Maybe that’s something all writers do.

  17. Reblogged this on SkryfVars and commented:
    Great tips for any writer.

  18. Love reading your blog Kristen. That bugs the crap out of me too. Do not show me the lighter if you are not going to use it. lol I think because we write we notice plot fails or little hints even more. (It sounds like the lighter was not a little hint. ) It’s hard to find a movie now that I can not predict the ending, but at least tie up the loose ends and I’m happy.. Thanks for this post. I’m sure keeping this in mind will help with my current novel.

  19. Reblogged this on Christina Mobley and commented:
    A must read for any novelist.

  20. I’m going to sneak kittens with grenade launchers into my stories in tribute to you 🙂

  21. Reblogged this on Joshua Lisec.

  22. I know I’m commenting on this post a month late, but I’m just now getting to it in my email. (Bad, I know, but at least I’m reading it, right?)

    Personally, my favorite author for foreshadowing is J.K. Rowling. My goodness, the woman is a genius. In the first chapter of the first book she mentions Dumbledore’s crooked nose, and in every book after that there is a passing reference to it. Who would think anything about it other than to see it as a description of a physical quirk to identify Dumbledore? Finally in book seven–BOOK SEVEN!–she reveals Dumbledore’s nose was broken by his brother, Aberforth, at their sister’s funeral while also revealing Dumbledore’s past ties with a great dark wizard. *GASP!* Is it true? Dumbledore wasn’t always the wise wizard Harry Potter looked up to? He was young and full of himself, once, just like any brilliant teenager who thinks he can solve the world’s problems? WHAT’S GOING ON HERE?

    What makes Dumbledore’s broken nose so amazing is that Rowling didn’t make any reference to it aside from fewer than half-a-dozen words in each of the first six books. No hint that it would be an important link to Dumbledore’s back-story and tie in with the Wand of Destiny, which Harry would eventually discover belonged to Dumbledore himself. That’s masterful self-restraint.

    That’s just one example of foreshadowing in the HP series. Read them all, or read them again, to a master of foreshadowing at work.

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