A screenwriter sent me an email saying she understands the need for foreshadowing but wasn’t sure how to do it. Of course the specific content depends on the story but here are some general ways you can adapt:
1. A visual clue. A very obvious one is letting us glimpse a gun in a drawer when your protagonist is looking for a pair of scissors. We know that gun will be used at some point.
2. An innocent verbal clue. This could be something that we don’t even notice standing out in any way, but later it pays off. For instance, someone might mention that he used to enjoy hunting, and that makes sense later when we see that he’s a great shot.
3. A verbal cue that stands out. By this I mean something that is out of the ordinary and you do notice it. For instance, if somebody is asked casually which school they went to and they answer, “I don’t see why that’s important,” it signals that at some point in the story we’ll find out a reason why they’re touchy about that subject.
4. A musical cue. This often is the province of the director and the person who composes the sound track. In a thriller, for example, a particular piece of music may tip us off that something awful is about to happen.
To avoid having any one element of foreshadowing be too obvious, often the writer will throw in some red herrings–some things that could be foreshadowing but in fact don’t pay off or pay off in a different way than we expect.
The person who has the gun in the drawer may become an immediate suspect in our minds, but later maybe we see him use it to light his cigarette and we realize it’s not a real gun (of course he may have a real one somewhere else….). That kind of misdirection keeps the audience guessing.
The goal is to make your foreshadowing subtle enough that it’s only in hindsight that the visual or verbal cue takes on significance.
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