The Right Way and the Wrong Way to Foreshadow a Story

The Right Way and the Wrong Way to Foreshadow a StoryPart 11 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel

Really, your job as an author can be summed up in one simple word: control. It is your responsibility to control readers’ experience of your story, to make them think and feel very specific things. One of the most important and powerful ways in which you do this is by understanding how to properly foreshadow a story.

Accurate foreshadowing, wielded with just the right amount of subtlety and clarity, creates a seamless and fulfilling experience for readers. It tells them what to expect, then rewards them for those expectations.

On the other hand, sloppy or forced foreshadowing will leave readers feeling either (best case scenario) confused or (duck and cover!) manipulated.

Unluckily, the balance between the two can be a very fine line to walk, and even storytellers as aware and excellent as Joss Whedon can miss the mark. Learn how to navigate the tricky technique of foreshadowing and control your readers’ experience of your story to everyone’s best advantage.

Why Avengers: The Age of Ultron Makes Me Very, Very Grouchy

Welcome to Part 11 in our ongoing look at the highs and lows of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe.

I’ve got to admit it upfront: Joss Whedon’s highly anticipated Avengers sequel Age of Ultron is easily my least favorite entry in the entire series. This isn’t so much because it’s the worst movie (Incredible Hulk wins that award, with Iron Man 3 grabbing silver), but rather because the techniques employed within it make me mad—as both a viewer and a writer.

Let’s preface this by saying I was incredibly psyched for Age of Ultron. Having just come off Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the best movie in the entire franchise, and following that with the startlingly good chaser of Guardians of the Galaxy, I was pumped with the possibilities for how Whedon would advance the collective storyline.

Loki Yeah

The fact that I was so excited inevitably contributed to how disappointed I ended up being, but the reasons for that disappointment are objectively solid causes, which all writers can learn from. Largely, I chalk up Ultron‘s problems not so much to poor storytelling (although that’s the result) as to Whedon and his crew admirably trying to outdo their work in the first Avengers. Nothing wrong with that. The problem enters because the ways in which they try to one-up themselves are not appropriately set up in either this movie itself or its predecessors.

In short, this is how not to foreshadow a story.

I’m sitting here trying to think of a few positive things I can say about the movie for the usual highlights reel that’s supposed to go in this section of the post. But, frankly, there is very little I really like about this movie. At best, it leaves me feeling meh. For example:

  • I was seriously bummed we didn’t get another “assemble” sequence in the First Act, since I was eager to see what the various characters had been up to in the aftermath of their own stories.

Avengers Age of Ultron

  • Whedon’s usually delightful and character-centric trademark humor felt forced and out of sync with the general tone and direction of the story, especially this gem:

Black Widow Beep Beep

  • There’s too much going on. Way, way too much. Thor’s important vision subplot got seriously shortchanged as a result of introducing half a dozen new characters. (Contrast that to Civil War‘s near seamless integration of two brand-new major subplot characters, Black Panther and Spider-Man.)

Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch Avengers Age of Ultron

  • The acting isn’t terrible by any means, but I did feel the cast (particularly the usually super-solid Chris Evans) struggled more in this film than any of the previous ones.

Chris Evans Captain American Avengers Age of Ultron

On the plus side:

  • The Scarlet Witch-induced dream sequences were awesome.

Age of Ultron Avengers Steve's Nighmare Peggy

  • I loved the First Act party scene, the only time we really see the Avengers gelling together.

Avengers Age of Ultron Party

  • Oh, yes, and… this twitch. (More on that in a bit.)

Steve lifting Mjolnir

I rewatched Ultron earlier this year, in preparation for this series, and while I wasn’t as emotionally involved this time around (and thus less irked by its problems), its issues are still glaring. Now that we’re post-Civil War, I’m happy to breathe a sigh of relief and say the series is still a force to be reckoned with, because Ultron could so easily have marked its descent into mediocrity or worse.

Let’s take a look at why.

The Wrong Way to Foreshadow a Story

Joss Whedon tried to do some very big things with Ultron. He tried to take the series in a new direction, do unexpected things, and subvert clichés. That’s all to the good.

So what’s the big problem?

The problem is that none of these things were set up in earlier films. Here’s a fundamental storytelling principle: Because he had no ability to control audience expectations in the setup for this movie, he ultimately had no control over their reactions to his plot developments.

In short, he didn’t give audiences what they expected. The result, however unintended, was that he did not play fair with audiences. If you do this in your story, the best you can hope for is that audiences will simply close your book feeling unfulfilled. The worst? They leave your story feeling betrayed.

If we examine Ultron as, shall we say, forensic storytellers—trying to piece together what went wrong—we can identify four specific aspects that will always benefit from a tightly considered control over foreshadowing.

How Not to Foreshadow Character Relationships

One of the most important aspects of character development in any story is found within a character’s relationships. It is in his interactions with other characters that his self is revealed to readers (and sometimes to himself as well). But relationships, as much if not more so than any other aspect of character development, must be created organically.

This means not just realistic pacing (no everlasting love at first sight please), but also an appropriate use of foreshadowing. The best relationships are those with history and weight, those the audience can follow along with, and to some degree, anticipate.

How Age of Ultron Failed to Foreshadow Character Relationships

Whedon threw audiences everywhere a curve ball when he set up a Black Widow/Incredible Hulk romance. Not only is this completely unprecedented in the comics (a small excuse, since, even had it been, the cinematic story can only be foreshadowed within itself), but the previous movies included faint but seemingly definite foreshadowing to the contrary.

Black Widow Hulk Avengers Age of Ultron

Whedon’s own original Avengers movie set Natasha Romanov up with a powerful bond to fellow non-super Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye. She showed her emotions for the first (and arguably the most powerful) time in the entire series. Although there were no definite romantic sparks between them, fans everywhere expected a romance—which was subtly reinforced by actress Scarlett Johansson choosing to wear an arrow necklace in Winter Soldier, as a link back to Hawkeye’s archery skills.

Granted, Avengers also set up a sympathetic relationship between Natasha and Bruce Banner, but nothing that indicated the huge advances in their relationship by the time Ultron smacked us in the face with their unforeseen and largely unwanted new roles.

How You Can Properly Foreshadow Character Relationships

Well, let’s be honest: it all starts with you knowing who your characters end up with. This doesn’t mean you have to know right out of the gates, if you’re not an outliner.

But by the time you do figure it out, you must return to rewrite early scenes in order to properly control your readers’ expectations and desires for your characters. Give readers the wrong desires, ask them to support one romantic interest, only to throw him over in favor of another—and readers will not emotionally engage with the new relationship, even if it is otherwise the right choice within the story.

How Not to Foreshadow Character Backstories

Character backstories are in the back, right? Why would you have to foreshadow them?

What you need to foreshadow, of course, is the revelation of the backstory within the main story. Just because you’re withholding information about your characters’ pasts doesn’t mean readers won’t be forming assumptions about that past and your character.

If you fail to create the proper foreshadowing for the eventual revelation about the truth of your character, readers with either be jarred by the new information or possibly even reject it in favor of their own interpretation thus far.

How Age of Ultron Failed to Foreshadow Character Backstories

Take a look at Clint Barton. The new developments regarding his backstory in this movie create two massive disconnects with viewers.

One is simply that the backstory viewers were led (however subtly) to believe turns out to be utterly false.

The other is that, in its place, a new and entirely unforeshadowed backstory is introduced.

This development is, of course, the existence of Clint’s wife and two and a half kiddies—a revelation which is only slightly helped by the fact that none of the Avengers, save Natasha, knew of their existence either.

Hawkeye's Family Avengers Age of Ultron

Now, don’t get me wrong: I actually really like the idea that one of the Avengers has a family. It brings an added dimension to the team as a whole and to Clint in particular. However, it works much better in retrospect than it did in real time. The onscreen revelation in Ultron is nothing short of jarring, even in light of the film’s desperate attempts to hint at it early on, via Clint’s jokes about not having a girlfriend.

How You Can Properly Foreshadow Character Backstories

Again, it starts by knowing your characters’ backstories. Largely, I feel this lack of knowledge was the biggest problem in the execution of Ultron. Had Whedon—and other directors—known about these developments during the production of earlier movies, everything could have been set up without a hiccup.

Consider the big reveals in your character’s past. Then examine the early chapters where that backstory is still largely a mystery. Have you sown hints to the truth? And just as importantly, have you avoided any clues that will contradict that truth by giving readers the wrong expectations about your character?

How Not to Foreshadow Plot Twists

Plot twists are all about the unexpected. Therefore, you’d think the last thing you’d want to do would be to foreshadow them.

There are, in fact, two important aspects of foreshadowing plot twists.

One is via misdirection, pointing readers at the wrong thing, so they won’t fixate on the right thing and see it coming a mile off.

The other is properly setting up reader expectations so, even if what they end up getting isn’t what they expected, it’s still what they want. This is the only way to create emotionally satisfying plot twists.

How Age of Ultron Failed to Foreshadow Plot Twists

I’m talking plot twists here, so you know it’s coming—SPOILER!

Ultimately, I could have forgiven the poor foreshadowing of Natasha’s new romance and Clint’s old family, but the final jerk on my chain was the “twist” of Quicksilver dying to save Hawkeye.

Quicksilver Dies Avengers Age of Ultron

I’ve talked about this explicitly elsewhere, but suffice it that this entire scene was set up throughout the movie to manipulate the viewers’ expectations. Hawkeye was blatantly, even melodramatically, set up as death bait. The resultant twist didn’t feel like an escape from the noose (although I was glad to see the character survive), but rather a Ha! Gotcha!

The problem wasn’t a lack of foreshadowing, but rather an excessive and misleading use of misdirection. The result fulfills none of the goals of a good plot twist: it’s neither satisfying nor important to the development of either the characters or the plot.

How You Can Properly Foreshadow Your Plot Twists

First of all, repeat after me: Never include a plot twist just for the sake of the twist. A good plot twist must exist to serve the story, not just to fool readers.

Second, you must shape the story so the eventual ending is the only one readers will possibly find satisfying within the scope of the story. If they would have preferred the non-twist ending, then you have a problem.

Third, you must then create organic misdirection that keeps your readers’ attention away from the foreshadowing. When they look back, they should be able to see the foreshadowing and realize everything fit into place. Prior to that, however, you need to keep them distracted.

How Not to Foreshadow In-Jokes

Comparatively, this one is a tiny, tiny issue within Age of Ultron. It’s also one few authors will have cause to worry about in their stories. However, the more books you write, especially in a series, the greater your responsibility grows to maintain consistency, even in the little details, from book to book.

One of the delightful aspects of the Marvel movies is their consistent inclusion of little in-jokes from movie to movie. One of the most obvious is the Stan Lee cameo in each film. Another is the post-credits scene at the very end.

stan-lee-avengers-age-of-ultron-750x346

How Age of Ultron Failed to Foreshadow Its In-Jokes

To date, Age of Ultron is the only Marvel movie not to feature that post-credits scene. However small a disappointment that is, it’s still a disappointment.

Whedon chose not to do a post-credits scene because he felt he couldn’t top his shawarma scene at the end of the first Avengers. He wasn’t trying to jerk viewers’ chains or fool them into sitting through fifteen minutes of credits only to discover … nothing. He even tried to get word out in pre-release interviews that there would be no post-credits scene. But for viewers who didn’t get the word and who sat in that dark theater waiting for the expected in-joke, it did kinda end up feeling like the joke was on us.

How You Can Properly Foreshadow Your In-Jokes

Not all of you will have in-jokes or traditions within your stories. But if you can come up with them, they’re awesome. They’re a ridiculously great way to invest in readers and make them feel like they’re part of something special that only true fans really get.

But… the big caveat here is, of course, once you set up the pattern, you must maintain it. Readers who expect certain aspects of your story to appear from book to book will be disappointed when they fail to find them. The disappointment isn’t likely to be enough to alienate them, but why go there if you don’t have to?

The Right Way to Foreshadow a Story

Now that I’ve picked apart Ultron‘s foreshadowing, let’s talk about one example where it absolutely knocked its foreshadowing out of the park. Largely, this victory is the result of the fact that it created its own foreshadowing within itself, rather than messing with the foreshadowing and setup from previous movies in the series.

So please consider…

How to Foreshadow a Plot Twist

And again… SPOILER!

One of the very few moments in this story that totally worked for me on every level was the scene in which Vision lifts Thor’s hammer. It couldn’t have been more perfect. I literally gasped out loud.

Vision Mjolnir Avengers Age of Ultron

Why did this work so well?

Easy (or at least the movie made it look easy). Think back to our three qualifications of a good plot twist from above. The scene with Vision and Mjolnir aces every single one.

1. The Plot Twist Must Move the Plot

Vision’s ability to lift Thor’s hammer proves his “worthiness,” which is absolutely critical to the story. Without this proof, the Avengers would have no reason to trust Vision, but instead would have been compelled to try to destroy him, just as they were trying to destroy Ultron.

2. The Plot Twist Is Satisfying

Without even realizing it, viewers were set up to expect someone to lift Thor’s hammer. The early scene at Tony’s victory party, in which each of the Avengers attempts to prove his worthiness by lifting the hammer is a brilliant setup.

On its surface, it seems to be nothing more than a funny scene showing the team kicked back and having fun before Ultron spoils everything. But what it is really doing is hammering home (hah!) the fact that only someone truly worthy can lift the hammer. It’s the ultimate personal test, one none of the Avengers (with arguable exception of Cap) can pass.

When Vision then raises the hammer without warning (not even to claim it for himself, but to return it to Thor), the significance is instantly and utterly clear to viewers.

3. The Plot Twist Is Protected by Misdirection

The early hammer-lifting contest is such a funny and organic scene in its own right, viewers don’t even realize they’re watching foreshadowing.

Foreshadowing sometimes can’t help being blatant, but the best foreshadowing will always flow so well with the characters and the plot that it isn’t clear until hindsight that it was priming readers. Instead, readers are eased into a state of preparation for coming events without even knowing it.

That’s power. That’s control. That’s foreshadowing.

Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about why Ant-Man chose the wrong antagonist… or did it?

Previous Posts in This Series:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What events will you need to foreshadow a story in your work-in-progress? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Another great post. I remember watching Ultron for the first time, and that scene leading up to Quicksilver’s death, I was squirming in my seat so badly, expecting it to be Clint. I’m sure everyone else did, too. Plus, you have his catchphrase, which he keeps saying TO CLINT, “What? You didn’t see that coming?” It almost felt like Joss was mocking the audience.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I really believe what Whedon was trying to do in this scene was subvert the usual tropes that let audiences know which character is going to die (especially since he promised an “Avenger” was going to bite it). The problem is that he went so far in the opposite direction, with the misdirection, that the result still felt cliched, without being nearly as satisfying.

      • My Dad would tease me while watching the original Star Trek TV show that we knew, despite how they crafted the weekly previews, that none of the regulars would every actually die (only someone in a red shirt). Hill Street Blues was the first to actually put main characters in peril when Ed Marinaro’s was suddenly gunned down. Then ex-Trek producer Ron “The Executioner” Moore turned everything on it’s head in Battlestar Galactica, where anyone was at risk in any given week.

        Your post specifically reminded me of an episode of The Unit. Previews let it be known that someone would die. One of the team members was seriously wounded in Beirut, and they hid from Hezbollah in an apartment, holding a family at gunpoint while simultaneously trying to gain their trust. The wounded guy was slowly slipping away, but at last the truck arrived and they all rushed down to the street. I let out a breath and relaxed, “They made it!” and then suddenly a sniper put a fatal round through one of the other unit members. Then I cried.

        It was good, but I thought would have been even better if I didn’t already know that someone was going to die. I’ve stopped watching previews.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Hah. When my sister and I used to watch shows together, I’d have to calm her anxiety about beloved characters’ fates by reminding here, “Don’t worry, they have contracts.” 😉

  2. Ooh, I had a hard time with the Natasha/Bruce romance. Not only that it was out of the blue, it just really didn’t work for me. And it could’ve been taken out and not really have changed the plot. But Ultron was easily my least movie; I still haven’t watched it since viewing it in the theater. 😛

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think most people (myself included) really *liked* the idea of the Natasha/Clint romance, so it was disappointing to see it cast to the curb so casually. Whedon said he wanted to allow Natasha and Clint to remain platonic to show that men and women can be friends without romance, but, frankly, I think Cap and Natasha’s friendship in Winter Soldier did a far better job of this while still leaving the door open for Nat and Clint to get together.

      • I agree. I absolutely loved Cap and Nat as friends, and they brought home that point far better than what happened in Ultron (although I do appreciate Whedon’s intention).

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          In thinking about this further, I believe the reason Nat and Cap as friends is better than Nat and Clint as friends is because, as it turns out, what we see of Nat and Clint onscreen is exactly what there is of their relationship, no more or less. Had there been a romantic angle, that would have been something *more–subtext–waiting to be developed. Nat and Cap, on the other hand, are a bundle of contradictions and dichotomies and the very fact that two such disparate people found their way to friendship at all is vastly interesting in itself.

  3. On the bright side, Whedon redeemed himself for the truly awful Cap costume from the first film with the best Cap suit to date. 🙂

    Very well thought out reasoning for why many of these elements didn’t work. Your explanations about pulling from the previous films for foreshadowing also does a great job highlighting why the moments that worked for me did.

    The twitch was hands down my favorite moment in the movie. I’m Team Cap all the way, and Marvel had wonderfully used three movies at this point to show us Steve’s worthiness. Thor’s face was priceless, and showed that as far as he’s come in his own three appearances, there was still some of that cocky boy still in him.

    The Vision also worked well for me because Jarvis had been an intimate part of Tony’s life through his prior four film appearances. Using him as the cinematic universe’s way to bring the Vision into the fold was brilliant. Similarly, Ultron’s conception out of Tony’s need to protect the world was well foreshadowed too from IM3. Unfortunately, he came off as a bit too ‘one note’ , even though he also works well as Tony’s dark reflection.

    Very intrigued by your Ant-Man teaser, as it’s not clear where you’re headed now on one of my Marvel faves.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I don’t think I can go so far as to say this is my favorite Cap outfit, but it’s definitely, absolutely, without question better than that Spandex version in the first Avengers. :p

      • I love the Winter Soldier outfit, but this one had the classic and iconic red, white and blue look. And while the costume in Civil War was very similar, incorporating the white on the sleeves in Ultron makes it my favorite star spangled suit.

        I know return you to your regularly scheduled program of informative story advice… 😉

  4. Oh if only you knew… in “fear itself” the avengers fight Odin’s evil brother (his power is derivative of the fear he spreads) and during the battle Thor looses the grip on miholnir. Meanwhile Captain was fighting and his shield gets shattered. what does Steve do? he picks the hammer

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Black Widow picks it up too in one of the storylines, which adds a nice bit of subtext her insistence that picking up the hammer is a “question she doesn’t need answered.” :p

  5. I agree that the romance between Natasha and Bruce came out of nowhere, as did Hawkeye’s family, but I LOVE how they used the knowledge that Hawkeye is a dad to raise the stakes in `Captain America: Civil War.’ It made my heart melt that the Marvel-verse could take something that seemed out of the blue, incorporate it back into the story, and use it to add layers and layers of subtext.

  6. An excellent post, as usual. However, my only concern is the downplaying of “lots of things going on”.
    I *love* having lots of things going. I may be one of the few who thought “Stark Trek: Into Darkness” was fantastic, because it had so many hidden layers that I had to re-watch the movie and discuss with my brother just to pick up on. I thought the pilot episode of Quantico was brilliant for the the many things they were able to introduce and keep track of without losing my interest. And the many threads of development happening in Ultron wouldn’t have bothered me if they had delivered on all of them. Maybe Joss did toss too many balls in the air for a 2 and half hour movie to catch, but if he had caught them, it would have been just that much more awesome.

    Adding breadth and subplots, if done properly, just makes the experience so much richer, in my opinion, especially if you can tie them back in at some point. I really liked Dreamlander, for example, but the structural tightness just put so more pressure on the main plot to deliver emotionally. Every little bit of detail you put into Lael relieved that pressure and added to my sense of wonder and emotional investment. In fact, I was left wanting much more of that, but that’s just my own preference, I guess. Just food for thought.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good point. Lots of things going on definitely isn’t a problem in and of itself. Civil War had a *ton* of stuff going on, and almost all of it worked out beautifully. But therein lies the trick: if you’re going to juggle lots of subplots, you have to *juggle* them. Otherwise, you end up dropping everything all over the floor, like Whedon did. Thematic coherence is a big part of that.

      And thanks very much for the kind words about Dreamlander. 🙂

  7. Age of Ultron – as with most of the Marvel Universe – left me feeling especially cold and now I can appreciate why. There is so much subtelty to good foreshadowing while bad foreshadowing is as subtle as that hammer Thor gets around with.

    You offer a lot here KM which is already getting me thinking about my current work in progress. And I think I may have cracked a couple of “nuts” that have been especially hard to crack.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Excellent. 🙂 Honestly, I think the toughest part of writing is simply being able to recognize what the “nuts” are.

  8. If you want to talk about bad backstory, look at Star Wars Episodes 1-3. They were designed to fill in the backstory from the first trilogy. They were dull. First of all, they created an unlikeable character, Jar Jar Binks, who did nothing more than annoy the audience (thankfully, his role was reduced in episodes 2 and 3). Second, there was too much emphasis on talk, and the breakdown of the Republic. The first trilogy had a much better balance of action and talk. Third, even Episode 1 started in the middle of the story. Episode 1 was supposed to be the beginning. Fourth, most of the characters from the original trilogy were missing. Luke and Leia weren’t born until the end of Episode 3, Anakin Skywalker didn’t become Darth Vader until the end of Episode 3, Obi-Wan Kenobi wasn’t the wise old Jedi, and Han Solo didn’t even appear. I’ve heard people say that if Episode 1 really had been the first episode released, there wouldn’t have been any others. Thankfully, when JJ Abrams and Disney took over Episode 7, The Force Awakens, last year, they brought back what the audience was expecting. It was set 30 years after Return of the Jedi, so they could use the original characters, while introducing new ones. The story was a bit of a rewrite of the original Star Wars, but it did incorporate the original trilogy well. The ending was a cliffhanger for Episode 8, so we’ll have to see what happens.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree. Honestly, if you want to talk about bad writing, there isn’t much, period, about Episodes I-III we can’t mention.

  9. I believe it was Age of Ultron where Scarlett Johansson was pregnant during the filming of the movie. They used her head Photoshopped onto someone else’s body. Black Widow couldn’t do the action scenes while pregnant. That might have been an interesting story, the pregnant superhero. The fact that this is the most interesting thing I remember about the movie speaks volumes about the movie.

  10. Another disappointment for me was the first Star Trek movie back in 1979. There was a big buildup to the first new live-action Star Trek project in the 10 years since the TV show had been cancelled. I got to the movie theater, watched the movie, and thought, this is what I waited for? 2 hours of what Mad Magazine described as “an immense cloud of incredible boredom”? *Spoiler Alert* The revelation that the “villain” was just a 20th century space probe? Then I found out they spent over $40 million on this movie, which made it one of the most expensive movies ever made up to that time. Even Paramount said it was a waste. Ironically, it was the box office success of Star Wars that led Paramount to make this movie. The second movie, Wrath of Khan, was much better. Here, there was a backstory, which was an episode of the TV series. There were also some other backstories involving Captain Kirk, but those were laid out over the course of the movie. Another bonus was that, except for reusing some special effects scenes, they ignored the first movie. The movies were like night and day.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s interesting, because someone was just telling me how good it was–better than Khan. Guess I better get around to watching it. :p

  11. Ultron was the best DC Universe movie yet, certainly better than Batman v Superman or Suicide Squad – so some love for Ultron, please!

    Now, on to your teaser for next week. I was just thinking about the antagonist for Ant Man and have come to the conclusion that no, he is not the “proper” antagonist, not structurally nor for the story. Cross is Hank Pym’s antagonist and because Pym forces Scott Lang into the action, Cross becomes Lang’s antagonist too. It’s a weakness of the story they cover by making Lang battle himself in the first half.

    Did I mention Ultron was awful? I covered that? Okay, I’ll go now.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah! Yes, however much I complain about Ultron, at least it has the foundation of a generally great series to bolster it… unlike poor DC.

      And, yes, you’re totally on the right track about next week’s post. 😉

  12. I read this with anticipation realizing I’ll need to use extensive foreshadowing in much of my wip and found it really helpful… as with the comments/comments (theirs/yours).

    In point 3 of foreshadowing a plot twist, how to do it organically, really helpful; the contrasting image… it made me think of (I think it was the opening scene) Kung Fu Panda 2 where Po is going through his exercises, he catches and uses a drop of rain/dew in the process, demonstrating his skill. However, watching, it was obvious to me it would somehow play into the story later, which bugged me.

    • Actually, it was Po’s teacher, Master Shifu, who is practicing with the water drop.

      • Gah, that means the scene was so bad it messed up my memory??

        • Po actually does practice with a water drop too, but it’s not until right before the climax. The time in the beginning was Shifu. Maybe having such a similar scene twice is why the foreshadowing felt overt? (I didn’t mind it or I wouldn’t be squeeeing at the mention of Kung Fu Panda, but I can see how the second time with the raindrop could come across as a neon `this is important’ sign as well as a symbol for Po accepting his past.)

          • I did a search for clips of the scene, both of Shifu and Po. And while well animated, it probably was the overt nature of the foreshadowing that bugged me, especially when, in the first movie they did it so organically with the Wuxi finger hold that you didn’t even realize it was foreshadowing when Po said ‘Not the Wuxi finger hold!’ (‘Oh… you know this hold?’)

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Actually, Po does try to practice it earlier in the movie, when he and the Fantastic Five are the boat. The water from the mast keeps dripping on his head, until finally he punches it and the whole thing spills onto him.

            And, I agree, the Wuxi Fingerhold scene in the first is a *fabulous* use of invisible foreshadowing.

          • Oh, forgot about that one. 😀 Like your use of ‘invisible’, too, great descriptor. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Overt foreshadowing is regrettably “in” these days (and especially in animated features). Storytellers often feel the need to clobber audiences over the head with foreshadowing that is as overt as they can make it. Still, it’s better to include too much foreshadowing rather than not enough.

      • Brings to mind an interview (Austin Film Festival’s On Story) where the writers on Daredevil made a conscious decision to trust that their audience was smart enough not to be ‘clobbered over the head’, and in the process saving them from having to lay out a lot of extra content.

        I think your example of Thor/hammer, and the foreshadowing in Kung Fu Panda shows how it can be done well.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Another interesting way to study subtle foreshadowing is to watch deleted scenes on movies. It’s often very interesting to see the on-the-nose scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor because the director realized the audience could draw their own conclusions with fewer cues.

          • Good idea! Never thought about doing that. Also a good illustration of you point in Outlining to throw ideas onto the page, knowing editing will follow.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Yes, foreshadowing is one of the many reasons I love outlining. If I know where the story is going, it makes it so much easier to set up the foreshadowing from the start.

  13. Hi there!

    It’s been a while since I’ve read anything here.

    Man, you really ripped this one apart. I didn’t really like Ultron at all. Much like you, I was pumped, but came away dissapointed. The Natasha and Bruce romance thing was corny and didn’t seem to fit. As a whole there was so much going on from so many directions it drained the story. I’m no expert but it didn’t resonate very high with me. Special effects were pretty cool though!

    Question: Do we need to foreshadow everything in the story? I think the answer may be obvious here, but wasn’t sure.

    Second, does all foreshadowing need to take place within the first act? Or can it be in the second act ?

    Thx

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      All major turning points need to be set up with foreshadowing of some sort.

      As for the timing, there are two different kinds of foreshadowing. One is “big” foreshadowing that needs to happen in the first half. A general rule of thumb is: the bigger the event, the bigger the foreshadowing needs to be.

      The second kind of foreshadowing is smaller happens much nearer to the actual event, as a reinforcement of the earlier foreshadowing.

      More in this post: Deliver Foreshadowing in a 1, 2, 3 Punch.

    • My opinion is that foreshadowing is a natural consequence of proper action-reaction sequences. The story is composed of various threads, each thread a sequence of action, then reaction, then action, and so forth, on and on, having a logical consistency connecting each, and having the threads interact with each other.

      Therefor, if everything is based on something else that has previously occurred, then they clues are laid for the future events. We can choose how obvious we make the clues.

  14. Hi K.M.! I’ve been following you for a little while now and am very appreciative of all your insights. But I have a different perspective on this one and so I thought I’d weigh in.

    I absolutely loved Age of Ultron and was very disappointed in Civil War. But in saying that I realize I stand on opposing ground to many ardent comic fans. I never read the comics and when a friend took me to see the Avengers I had no idea what I was getting into. Although I’ve watched a number of superhero movies, you could say I’m the token outsider who doesn’t know the traditions and history of these characters.

    I am a writer and I tend to watch every movie with a critical eye. But I would gladly sacrifice plot schematics and story structure to follow a storyteller on an unusual and character driven journey. Also, the emotional impact of the themes can be the dividing line for me of whether I like a movie or not. And I want to add that people are so diverse that they will often read the exact same characters in different ways, making it impossible for the storyteller to please everyone.

    Although Joss Whedon’s work is hugely popular, I would venture to say that his vision is unusual. Although parts of his work often hit with the masses, he is not your typical mainstream creator. For whatever reason, I caught his vision for this film.

    I absolutely saw the Black Widow/Bruce Banner romance coming and loved it. Black Widow is a callous spy, but Hulk scares her in a very real way, and yet Natasha is drawn to the compassionate, unsophisticated Bruce Banner.

    I loved the pacing of the movie. I loved the insights into each character and how they all seemed incredibly human (one of my biggest complaints against Civil War). I thought it was fascinating how Ultron was overly emotional instead of coldly logical like typical A.I. villains. I liked the surprise of Clint’s family and how it added so much depth to him and the story. I liked the Twins and how they came close to the line of cliche but always had an edge that made them incredibly real. And I was moved by the Scarlet Witch’s agonizing loss of her brother and her courageous stand at the end.

    I guess what it comes down to is that I didn’t have expectations (for plot or characters) and I wasn’t looking for the film to fill a tidy spot in a long equation of movies. All I wanted was an adventure with the characters I had met in the Avengers, and I felt like Whedon more than delivered that. It was Civil War that I went into with expectations and just felt mad and frustrated. And I wrote a post about it here: http://ebdawsonwriting.com/?p=1023

    But I appreciate your perspective, because a lot of those things were things I’d never thought of before. One thing I will say is that my brain can be overactive when I watch and I hate it when things are too obvious, or on the other hand when they are way too complicated that you feel like an idiot by the end. I think my understanding of story is much more instinctual. Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree with you that Ultron offers many spectacular *parts.* For me, as you can see, those parts never came together in a cohesive whole, and I definitely think there are objective storytelling reasons why that is. However, at the end of the day, art is nothing if not subjective. Some of my favorite stories are those that are objectively flawed and yet they connect with me on a deeply subjective level. If Ultron worked that way for you, that’s awesome. Honestly, I wish it had worked that way for me too. :p

  15. Since Benjamin said about you ripping apart this movie, I feel I should mention that I really enjoyed `Age of Ultron’. That hasn’t lessened my enjoying of your commentary on it. Reading your thoughts makes me want to watch it again, this time with my storyteller scrutiny glasses on, so I can see if the story holds up or if I’m nostalgic because `Age of Ultron’ is one of the few movies I actually got to see in Theater. 🙂

  16. You article reminds me of a quote from Robert McKee’s “Story” where he says: “The key to all story endings is the give the audience what it wants, but not the way it expects.”

    As you said, it’s important to give the reader what they want, but a truly unique and successful story gives it to them in a way they were not expecting. It would seem there’s a very fine balance in foreshadowing so readers are satisfied in the end, but not in such a way that they are bored by a predictable result.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Exactly! This can be a really intricate balance to pull off, but when we do, it’s infinitely satisfying to readers–not just on the first read, but time after time after time.

  17. Great post, once again!

    A sort of off topic question. In The First Avenger, Howard Stark says to Steve, “Hydra won’t attack you with a pocket knife.” Then fast forward to The Winter Soldier doing just that with his knife. Would you say that was foreshadowing?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah. I never thought about that. If it was intentional at all, I’d say was more of an in-joke than foreshadowing.

  18. Andrewiswriting says:

    I’m with EB. And, to be honest, I’m a little grumpy with always hearing about how Hawkeye’s family made you grumpy.

    These movies don’t exist in a vacuum. Whether Jeremy Renner’s complaining about being sidelined in the first movie and demanding more screen time, or whether Fox has just put out their own movie with their own version of Quicksilver, these guys aren’t creating stories with a perfect greenfield, they’re operating within confining parameters.

    I’ve seen people banging on about various of these movies, especially the *yawn* DC hate, and oh man… DECADES of history. These things aren’t just creating universes out of whole cloth, they’re harking back to so many stories and timelines and characters and universes, and frankly if people can’t keep up, they should just get off the track.

    Anyone who ever read Ultimates clicked straight away with Hawkeye’s family. Move on. If you’re a fan, you also have some clue about the environment in which these things are made “Oh, what’s that? Fox has Quicksilver too? Hmmm wonder how that’s going to play out…”

    Marvel movies (and DC for that matter) aren’t out there to compete with The Secret Life of Pets and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. They’re better versions of Transformers – playing to all, but mostly to fans.

    I think Age of Ultron did some amazing things and Joss is a genius. Obviously the opening scene is a ‘months later after operating as a team for some time’ opener, and for mine is reminiscent of The Dark Knight opening with a phoned-in takedown of Scarecrow, the Big Bad of the first movie. The Widow/Hulk relationship is great, and to me felt like a natural progression. Was it cast aside at the end? Or was it just long-game foreshadowing?

    Like, did we NOT KNOW that Infinity War was on the horizon? I daresay there may be a resolution to the Widow/Hulk subplot somewhere in those two movies.

    And the Quicksilver thing? I liked it. I liked the way he and Hawkeye bantered back and forth throughout, (old-timers like me might remember the dynamic of Cap’s Kooky Quartet) and then the switch at the end. As much as I hated seeing Quicksilver die (I particularly liked this version) it was, in my opinion, well done and cleared the room for the Scarlet-Witch/Vision relationship to begin.

    Ultimately these things are art, and different strokes for different folks. As much as I agree with you about the Captain America movies, Age of Ultron remains my favourite in the series. The scene where Iron Man, Thor and Vision triple-team Ultron is a 45yr comic nerd’s Christmas.

    Now, that aside… I absolutely agree with you when it comes to the brand-new stuff I’m writing. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “Different strokes for different folks”–totally agree with that. Ultimately, the reason I reacted to Ultron with such strong negativity was *because* it emotionally engaged me. Not in the way intended, of course, but strong emotions are always a sign that the artist is doing something right somewhere along the way.

  19. I don’t dislike this movie nearly as much as you seem to, but it is definitely weaker than the first Avengers. Part of the problem is that it feels rushed, like a bunch of scenes were cut. Apparently the first edit was almost an hour longer. For all we know, a lot of important scenes like this missing foreshadowing and small character moments ended up on the cutting floor. I’d at least be curious to see an extended cut sometime, but the likelihood of Disney doing that isn’t too high.

    When Captain America made the hammer twitch, I was almost thinking that he’d lift it sometime. Maybe not in this movie, but perhaps sometime in Infinity War. He actually does in the comics at one point, after Thor gets an upgrade from his father to battle an enemy almost as powerful as Odin himself. It’s in an overly complicated, unsatisfying event called Fear Itself (like Age of Ultron I suppose), but it’s still an awesome moment.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There’s a great fan theory that suggests Cap really *can* raise the hammer, but after he realized he could, he chose not to out of respect for Thor. 😉

  20. Christopher Chadwick says:

    I am relatively new to your site and want to tell you that I find your analytical style to be both entertaining and enlightening. Your Marvel series in particular I have enjoyed because I like using the parallel of films against writing fiction. In regards to Age of Ultron, I recently rewatched it and couldn’t help but trying to think how the script could have been tightened up to make the film better. I agree with all of the points you have made here, but I think that there is one simple way the film could have been improved. I believe that it is Scarlet Witch’s mind altering abilities that truly derailed the story structure. If you think about the sequences that didn’t jive with the rest of the film, the biggest stands out has to be the weird mind flash sequences and the hulk/iron man fight (witch served no purpose other than setting up banner to leave in the end). I’m not saying the flashbaks weren’t interesting or fun to watch, Cap’s in particular was excellent, but they totally interrupted the flow of the story. Also in a perverse way I think giving Scarlet Witch this ability makes her a less honorable character, someone who manipulates people rather than fighting them. Of course her mind altering abilities could have been added in a later film if the producers felt they were necessary for her character, but I think in this film having her be a straight telekenetic would have been better all around. Removing this power eliminates the pace-destroying flashback sequences, it eliminates the pointless hulk/iron man fight, it makes Scarlet Witch more of a straight up fighter, it makes Ultron more of a brutal character because he would have to force and bully people to do what he wanted (particularly the Korean scientist) rather than just have SW manipulate them, and it distinguishes AoU from Avengers 1 where Loki used a very similar gag. Of course there would have to be corresponding changes made to the script to tie up some of the loose plot points left hanging, but the second act would have been dramatically shortened and Ultron would have been set up as more of a menacing character.

    Tell me what you think.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Ah, good points. Ultimately, I felt the Maximoff twins were kinda extraneous period (although I do like Wanda in Civil War). They serve to give Ultron someone to talk to and to humanize Sokovia, as well as just generally to put a human face on the consequences of the Avengers’ actions. But if you dropped them, you’d not only take care of the problems you mentioned, you’d also get rid of the egregious subplot leading up to Quicksilver’s heroic sacrifice. :p I had never thought of it exactly that way. Interesting!

  21. This blog post is SO GOOD. Thank you.

  22. I think you pretty much hit the nail on the head here: proper foreshadowing is a process of setup and payoff. Like so much else in writing is; like you said: it guides the audiences expectations, and once you get them in the seats of a rollercoaster of expectation you have more control. If you just take off without them, they’ll be mad they didn’t get a chance to RIDE the rollercoaster!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      And, admittedly, the whole process gets much trickier within a series of continuing stories, as opposed to the much more controlled environment of a single, standalone story. So we definitely have to give Whedon and Marvel that.

  23. There is a chance that my superhero StarGirl and Vance might end up dating each other, since there seems to be some chemistry between them. What can I do in order to make them think that it’s not possible?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Introducing conflict between characters–either because of personality or because of differing opinions and methods–is a good approach.

  24. Gabriellyn Gidman says:

    Hmm. While I agree that Age of Ultron did fail on some parts: Thor’s vision, reaction for the action etc. I have to disagree of certain things said here.

    1. I totally disagree on Clint’s family. I felt that he was the rockstar of this movie. And I loved the way his family was introduced.
    2. I didn’t feel that Chris Evan’s acting was off in the least bit. If he seemed different, consider the arc his character is on. He is struggling to find his place in this new world, plus there is conflict being established between him and Tony.
    3. As to the humor, I felt that was 100% on point for this movie.
    4. Quicksilver’s death, while tremendously sad to me, wasn’t just for no reason. I have always thought that as they wanted to include the Maximoff twins, especially Wanda, (aka the next generation of Avengers) but didn’t have the rights to Quicksilver they walked as close to the line as they could without infringing on FOX’s rights but felt that it was too risky to keep him in the story line permanently. It also feels a little early to judge this twist as Marvel is a master at intertwining plots this may serve a large purpose. Plus, as we know from Coulson, he may not actually be dead. 🙂
    5. As far as the romance between Nat and Bruce, that was perfect. They are the perfect pair for each other, and I could definitely see the lead up to that.

    While I do agree with some of you frustrations, I disagree with many of them.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Ultimately, most of the frustrations you’ve mentioned here are subjective on my part. I’m glad they worked for you and some others. You got a much better movie-going experience out of it than I did. 🙂

  25. As much as I liked Quicksilver in the movie, I do think his death was a good way to push Wanda forward as an Avenger. If his death hadn’t happened, Civil War would be completely different. It would no longer be Cap, Clint, and Vision trying to help her through the accident at the beginning, but Pietro. Together, the characters seem a little bland, but now that Quicksilver is gone, Wanda can really become her own character. Plus, in Age of Ultron, Wanda had a really good reason to hate the Avengers, but now she has reason to want to be one. Her brother died saving Clint, which gives Clint a serious reason to watch out for her. All in all, I think it was a good move on Whedon’s part. Thoughts?

    • Yes! I totally agree! Although I still hold a faint hope that he could return…ever since Coulson you can’t tell anymore! 🙂

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Aaron Taylor-Johnson was signed for three movies, so you never know. 😉 Wanda does resurrect him in the comics.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Oh, I agree. The basic foundation is good, just not the execution. The basic problem is that Quicksilver’s character just isn’t set up deeply enough to make the death scene and all its foreshadowing and misdirection truly work. The ramifications that *follow*, however, are excellent.

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