This week’s video shows you how to balance foreshadowing and misdirection in your fiction to create resonance without giving away your story’s ending.
Foreshadowing and misdirection: two words you don’t often hear together. Because aren’t they dichotomous?
Foreshadowing is about planting clues to prepare readers for coming events. It’s important because it puts readers in the right frame of mind, and also because it makes your book seamless: the beginning hints at the end; the end fulfills the beginning.
Misdirection, on the other hand, is all about preventing readers from seeing what’s coming. After all, we don’t want them to guess the ending, right?
Both foreshadowing and misdirection are important tools, but how can you possibly use them together in the same story?
William Wyler’s classic World War II drama Mrs. Miniver is a beautiful example. (For those of you who haven’t yet managed to see this movie sometime in the last seventy-five years, be warned: I am about to spoil the ending.)
This is a movie that foreshadows death in every possible way. It’s a war movie, right? That, in itself, is practically watertight foreshadowing that somebody is going to die.
The movie very subtly leads viewers to believe the doomed party is Mrs. Miniver’s RAF pilot son. He’s the only soldier in the movie, so he’s the obvious choice. This is reinforced through the fear of the son’s young wife, who dreads him going off to battle.
That’s the foreshadowing, which is fulfilled when someone does indeed die.
Now, ready for the misdirection?
It isn’t the son who dies. Rather, it’s his wife, who is shot during an air raid.
It’s important to note it’s the subtlety—the non-specificity, as it were—of the foreshadowing that allows this to work without its being a gimmick. (In contrast, to the heavy-handed foreshadowing and resultant awkward misdirection in Avengers: Age of Ultron, which I discuss here.)
The only thing the foreshadowing actually promises is that death is imminent. It never tells us who’s going to die. It merely lets us draw our own conclusions—and then neatly pulls the rug from under us.