How To Use Foreshadowing In Your Screenplay

Scissors can be used to foreshadow your screenplay

Scissors can be used to foreshadow your screenplay Image via Wikipedia

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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Jurgen Wolff offers a new screenwriting tip here every Tuesday; also see his site, and his book, “Your Writing Coach.”


What Screenwriters Can Learn From Documentary Filmmakers

Recently I taught a workshop to a group of documentary filmmakers, and I was reflecting on how much easier we screenwriters have it. The docu-makers may have a general story idea in mind, but often in the course of filming it turns out that reality doesn’t cooperate.

Sometimes one of the people they’re filming dies or decides to stop cooperating. Sometimes they’re following a process with an unknown ending–for instance, the life of a contender in the Olympics. If she wins gold , they have a great story. If she gets silver or bronze, it’s still a good story. If she comes in fourth, there’s the drama of such a near miss. But if she comes in sixth, or has to pull out because of an injury, the story line isn’t so clear.

Sometimes documentary makers end up with hundreds of hours of footage without a clear story spine. That’s when they have to dig deep and sometimes they find a story that’s much more interesting than the one they hoped to get. In the case of the Olympic athlete, for instance, it might be her relationship with her father, who is also her coach. Or it might be the aftermath–what does an athlete do when it’s clear she’s peaked?

I think what we can learn from documentary makers is to pause before we launch into the obvious story and dig deeper to see if there’s a more interesting, perhaps more subtle, one lurking underneath.

Jurgen Wolff offers a new screenwriting tip here every Tuesday; also see his site, and his book, “Your Writing Coach.”