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Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 56: Unfulfilled Foreshadowing

Most Common Writing Mistakes (Unfulfilled Foreshadowing)Sometimes writing feels like magic. You look back at the story you’ve created and it seems like it came from beyond you. One of the coolest examples of this is with foreshadowing.

Some little something you wrote in the early chapters without even thinking about it ends up being a huge clue or bit of symbolism that foreshadows something major later on.

Talk about your subconscious rocking this joint!

But the flip side is that sometimes you’ll accidentally plant things that will seem important and portentous–only to have them end up as disappointing unfulfilled foreshadowing.

The problem with unfulfilled foreshadowing is simple: it’s a broken promise to your readers. Due to the way in which you’ve presented an event, or chosen your wording, or even just copped to a familiar genre trope, readers will have certain expectations about where the story is going.

Their expectations could be a blatant iteration in their conscious (“oh, I see a fistfight coming up”), or even just a niggle in the subconscious (which might not be thought about until the story’s over, but which will leave a sense of dissatisfaction with the loose ends).

What’s the result?

Best case scenario: Your book feels ever so slightly disjointed and incomplete, like that lumpy afghan Aunt Lou gave you when she was still learning to knit.

Worst case scenario: Readers will end up disgusted with the progression of the story because it went in a completely different direction from the one you told them it was headed—like maybe Aunt Lou started out knitting you an afghan, then decided halfway in that it should be a muumuu.

Either way, unfulfilled foreshadowing is not something you want lurking in your story (anymore than anyone wants a lumpy muumuu). Here’s how to spot it and lick it.

3 Different Types of Unfulfilled Foreshadowing

There are three basic types of foreshadowing you may find yourself accidentally creating as you’re writing your story.

1. Tonal Foreshadowing

One of the easiest ways to create subconscious foreshadowing is simply through your manipulation of the story’s tone. A skilled writer can turn even the most mundane passage into one dripping with portent and the undeniable sense that something is about to happen.

Consider the entire first half of Ridley Scott’s Alien, in which nothing much actually happens, but the tension and the tone is just about enough to strangle you.

Alien Ridley Scott Eggs

Can you imagine the problems that would have resulted had the tone of tension and foreboding in Aliens ended up as unfulfilled foreshadowing?

Or how about this progressively creepy passage from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, in which new governess Jane is being given an innocent tour of her employer’s grand mansion Thornfield Hall:

Mrs. Fairfax stayed behind a moment to fasten the trap-door; I, by drift of groping, found the outlet from the attic, and proceeded to descend the narrow garret staircase. I lingered in the long passage to which this led, separating the front and back rooms of the third story: narrow, low, and dim, with only one little window at the far end, and looking, with its two rows of small black doors all shut, like a corridor in some Bluebeard’s castle.

Red Scarf Jane Eyre 2006 Thornfield Hall

Even the slightest of clues, such as the mysterious red scarf in the upper window at Thornfield Hall, must be paid off in order to avoid being unfulfilled foreshadowing.

Sometimes tonal foreshadowing ends up being a wonderful thing. It can be the source of those “magic” bits of foreshadowing you didn’t even know you were sowing. But it only works when you end up paying it off. Scary music playing in the background is never cool if there’s not actually anything scary (or at least ironically unscary) about to pop up around the corner.

2. Blatant Hook Foreshadowing

Another type of foreshadowing you may plant but forget to pay off is a blatant hook. This is when you outright tell readers to be on the watch for a future development. This might happen via a character’s internal thought process in the narrative or via dialogue.

There’s a great example of this type of unfulfilled foreshadowing in Howard Hawks’s classic western Red River when Walter Brennan’s toothless sidekick character watches an impressive display of shooting skills from two young characters who are “pawing at each other, seeing what they’re up against.” At the end of the scene, Brennan pronounces, “Those two are going to tangle for sure.”

Red River Montgomery Clift John Ireland

Even masters like director Howard Hawks get it wrong sometimes in creating dead-end scenes that lead to unfulfilled foreshadowing.

That’s about as blatant a foreshadowing hook as you’re likely to get—but it’s never paid off. The two characters become friends and allies and never tangle at all.

This type of unfulfilled foreshadowing is even more egregious than the first, since the more blatant you are, the more conscious readers will be of the discrepancy.

3. Important Event Foreshadowing

You will also create an impression of foreshadowing in readers’ minds by scripting “big” and important events within your story. When these events happen early on, readers will see the obvious importance and expect these events to matter later.

In order for the foreshadowing to be properly fulfilled, these events must have proper consequences later on. There must be cause and effect; there must be foreshadowing plant and payoff. Otherwise, the story will feel decidedly lopsided and readers’ expectations will go unsatisfied.

Think about the bank robbery at the beginning of Chuck Hogan’s The Town. The bank-robber protagonist ends up falling in love with the bank-teller witness who was briefly his hostage. Think how unsatisfying the payoff would have been had she never discovered his identity as the bank robber and had he never been forced to deal with the consequences of this major early event.

The Town Rebecca Hall Bank Robbery

Big events must end up having equally big consequences. Otherwise, readers will experience the same effect as in all unfulfilled foreshadowing—and call foul.

5 Causes of Unfulfilled Foreshadowing

Now that you understand the three most common ways you can go wrong with unfulfilled foreshadowing, stop and think about some of the reasons you might accidentally be creating it in the first place. Here are five.

1. You’re Trying to Create Tension in the Story

This is probably the most common. There you are, up to your elbows in a scene. You may even have the whole thing plotted and know exactly where it’s going. But while in the midst of the actual wordplay, as you’re trying to delicately twine sentences to create the right amount of tension and interest for readers—you may end up sticking in a bit of false foreshadowing.

This can be as small and inconsequential as a single word choice. Sometimes just saying a character “looked grim” or had a “sinking feeling” can be enough to pump extra tension into a scene—and lead readers to the wrong conclusion, if it turns out there isn’t a good reason for all that sinking grimness.

What Should You Do Instead?

Nothing wrong with using your words skillfully to create tonal foreshadowing. Truly, it’s the stuff of great writing. Just be sure you’re always in a position to pay it off later in the narrative. Otherwise, you’ll either need to leave it out altogether, or maybe even reexamine why you feel this particular scene needs an extra bump in tension. Maybe you’d be better off taking your story in this tenser direction after all.

2. You Have to Give the Character Something to Do/Someone to Talk to

Sometimes you just have to feel your way through writing a scene. You don’t know how you’re going to reach the end of it until you do and in the meantime you’ve got to give the character something to do or someone to talk to. So far, so good. But sometimes these new additions can end up creating too many new complications.

What you originally intended as simply a casual, colorful chat between your protagonist and that Mafia hit man may end up seeming like much more to readers who will expect such a weighty character to show up covered in blood in the middle of the night at the protagonist’s door.

What Should You Do Instead?

Again, nothing wrong with introducing minor characters who have the ability to take the story in new and interesting directions—as long as that’s the direction you’re actually wanting to take. In a quiet romance, the village vicar might be a better choice for that casual conversation, especially if you can circle back and return him to the story at a meaningful point later on.

It’s also important to note that when you find yourself randomly adding interesting characters and scenarios to your story while “trying to figure out your scene,” what you might really be doing is clearing your throat. Be wary of adding interesting elements just for the sake of filling space and time, or even just because they’re interesting. Every part of a story needs to be there because it advances the plot, the character, the theme—or preferably all three.

3. You Want to Include the Gun, but Not the Bullets

The dramatic principle of “Chekhov’s gun” dictates you must:

Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.

But sometimes you may find yourself writing a gun into a scene just because you want the gun even though you don’t actually have a reason to fire it later.

For example, a scene in which a character drinks and then drives is foreshadowing just begging to be paid off with consequences (or at least irony) later on. As much as you may want the initial drinking scene, it will probably do your story more harm than good if you can’t bookend it appropriately later on.

What Should You Do Instead?

When you create a scene in which a character makes certain choices, readers will expect and desire consequences. Otherwise, however great the initial scene, it will fall flat. This means you must either ruthlessly pay off the foreshadowing with subsequent consequences, or cut the initial “gun” no matter how desirable it is in itself.

4. You Forget to Pay Off the Foreshadowing Later On

Inevitably, within the sprawling journey of writing an entire novel, you will fail to pay off early foreshadowing seeds simply because you forgot all about planting them in the first place. Usually, this is an easy fix. Just wield your red pen in revisions. You can either cancel the early foreshadowing or add an appropriate payoff toward the end.

Sometimes, however, you may find that removing the early foreshadowing plant or adding a payoff later on completely changes the story you ended up writing. This is always frustrating, since it means rewriting entire scenes or subplots.

What Should You Do Instead?

Whether the required revisions end up being large or small, they’re always worth making. You don’t want readers finishing your story and wondering if you even noticed that gaping plot hole. Cohesion is one of the most important elements in a well-written story, and fulfilling your foreshadowing is one of the most important ways to achieve that cohesion.

5. You End Up Taking the Plot in a Different Direction

Other times, you may plant your foreshadowing in early chapters with every intention of paying it off in specific ways later on. But… then your story takes over. A new idea strikes and your plot ends up going in an entirely unforeseen direction. The result? Your original foreshadowing not only doesn’t work, but you’re also lacking the foreshadowing you actually need for the new ending.

What Should You Do Instead?

Again, this isn’t a fun scenario. But it’s a straightforward fix: go back and rewrite. Frame your First and Third Acts, so they are asking and answering the same questions.

***

Frankly, it’s almost impossible to write a first draft that doesn’t include at least a few instances of unfulfilled foreshadowing. But if you know what to look for and the reason you might be wandering astray with your story’s foreshadowing, you can catch yourself in the act and smooth out all the lumps. That way, you’ll be able to hand your readers a gift they’ll appreciate far more than that lumpy knitted muumuu of Aunt Lou’s.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Can you think of an instance of unfulfilled foreshadowing you need to fix? How about foreshadowing you did appropriately fulfill? Tell me in the comments!

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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. I’m definitely guilty of number 4. Great post!

  2. Great post. I’m struggling a little with this on my current story. My magical kingdom is in the middle of a cold wa, and I’m not sure how to reveal that without raising the expectation of an outright battle -which is not happening in this story.

    • cold WAR. Sorry, typo.

    • J.M Barlow says:

      All I can really suggest is if you decide to build suspense with the possibility of war, try to make the avoidance of any battles still very climactic. If it is someone’s goal to prevent total war, and they succeed, then you haven’t robbed anybody. But it’s got to be set up, and it has to be thrilling still.

      You’re basically asking for an exception to Rule 3 above. Well there is always an exception to the rule. Someone’s got a gun. Maybe both have a gun. They’re looking down each others’ barrels. If neither gun is fired, there ought to be a damn good reason. I suppose that’s your challenge here.

      Just my 2 cents.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I would put the emphasis on the politics and the “undercover war” (the spying, sabotaging, etc., that’s already going on). Instead of using the “cold war” as a setup for “real war,” show that the cold war is, in fact, a war in its own right.

      • Thanks! That’s a great suggestion. 🙂 Another thing I thought of after I wrote my comment is that my character is only seeing a small part of what is going on. I think if I can resist the urge to explaining the bigger picture that might help keep the emphasis where I want it.

  3. J.M Barlow says:

    I feel like outlining helps a LOT here. I put notes down all the time “foreshadow this” or “this is foreshadowing ___________”. But there is a lot that goes in without even realizing it.

    My WIP has 8 volumes, and the foreshadowing goes far beyond a volume-by-volume basis.

    My hope is that certain things I didn’t even intend to foreshadowing don’t get mistaken as foreshadowing. I get that all the time when I watch things “Oh, this is going to happen” only to see that it was a minor detail that didn’t end up meaning anything. I don’t know if this is just a result of everybody paying attention to different details, or what.

    I suppose beta-readers help a whole lot in this regard, as well.

    …I wonder how beta-readers for graphic novels works…

    • Agreed, Beta readers are a key here. I don’t think there’s any way I could personally identify all the unfulfilled foreshadowing in my story without a few extra eyes and brains on the job.

      I suppose beta-reading a graphic novel could be a similar process to a text-only one. Are there forums for people who make graphic novels, I bet those would be a good place to start. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree. The Dreamlander sequel I’m working on right now has turned out to have one of the most complex plot mysteries of anything I’ve done so far. Paying strict attention to the foreshadowing plant and payoff has been very important. I’ve used a color-coding system in my outline to try to identify the plants and their payoffs to make sure everything has an appropriate mate.

      • Jeffrey Barlow says:

        This is part of the reason I needed to put my trilogy aside. I feel as though I need more experience before tackling the beast for reasons such as this.

        So then I took on a graphic novel project and turned it into a beast in its own right. But it still has nothing on that trilogy. I think…

      • Jeffrey Barlow says:

        This is part of the reason I needed to put my trilogy aside. I feel as though I need more experience before tackling the beast for reasons such as this.

        So then I took on a graphic novel project and turned it into a beast in its own right. But it still has nothing on that trilogy. I think…

    • Agree on the outlining, or at the least, note taking.

      If I think of some subplot or topic that will play out over time, I look to work out the logic from start to finish up front, then writing down some kind of notes so that’s it’s out of my head and into words that I can refer to as I’m working on the main story threads.

      I also find myself making pairs of events. Either I write something “now” and then conceive of a bookend event than can contrast to it later, or first I’ll think of the later event then come up with something earlier that will foreshadow it. Sometimes I’ll focus on how they’re similar, other times how it’s different, or juxtapose a character’s role. Something that will give you a clue as to how the characters will act later on, or when it does happen later the reader will recall the precedent.

  4. A bang on bullseye with this one … 😀

  5. Big takeaway here: no lumpy muumuu stories.

    The great thing for me is looking back and discovering a something in previous accidental foreshadowing I can play off of to create an interesting scene. On the reverse, the hard thing is writing something previously unplanned and then realizing I’ve got to figure out a way to naturally foreshadow it.

    One thing I find annoying is when an author clearly went back and added something in that doesn’t much fit the rest of the story in order to foreshadow an event. One example that comes to mind is the extra life coin the protag finds in Ready Player One, it just seemed too convenient of a loophole for the MC.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. Having to shoehorn foreshadowing into already written scenes is hard. It always feels forced to me–which is why I like to try to plan as much of it ahead of time as possible.

  6. This usually manifests for me in the form of smaller questions sprinkled throughout that I don’t eventually answer. Now I know that even small questions left unattended can irk the reader later.

    (BTW, I just got my WriteMind journal in the mail and I LOVE it. So beautiful and so useful! Great recommendation.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Woohoo! Great to hear you’re enjoying the WriteMind Planner. I’m just nuts about mine. Can’t wait to start a new outline, so I can order another one. 😉

  7. Great post! I ran into this issue when I submitted a story about guns to the NYC Midnight short story challenge. An astute reviewer reminded me about the Chekov quote and suggested that my gun had better go off later in the story! I took his advice and the story was much the better for it. (the story appears at the top of the page linked below)

    As always, thanks for the great advice and insights.

  8. Max Woldhek says:

    “Goes through first draft of second book.” I’ve only skimmed through a third of the draft, and I’ve already found an early confrontation/rivalry that’s never brought up again AND a childhood friend who shows up a few times but otherwise has nothing to do with the greater plot. “Cracks knuckles.” I’m going to start with outlining the second draft tomorrow (more like a full rewrite, since I wrote the first draft before I read any of your books), so this was one timely article. Thanks! 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The good news (if you write like me) is that trimming all that will help trim your word count too!

  9. So glad you put Chekhov’s gun in there, ’cause I was thinking about that right away. Ha! Ha!

    The Unfulfilled: Certainly something to look for in editing. All those promises. Sometimes they are false leads by the writer. Maybe.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Interestingly enough, purposeful misdirection is foreshadowing in itself. It’s trickier than straight-up foreshadowing, but sometimes more powerful for it.

  10. Worst of all is the “Vindow Viper” scenario. It’s one of things I absolutely hated about Dan Brown’s Inferno.

    Of course, that was more than just misplaced foreshadowing—it was an outright lie to the reader. And that is the cardinal sin.

  11. What about scenes that are foreshadowed in Book 1, and doesn’t get resolved until Book 2?

    • JS Devivre says:

      GREAT question, Joseph!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s fine, although it’s often a good idea to sort of dole the foreshadowing out in a couple scenes in the early book, just to sort of tell readers “I *am* foreshadowing this and I *will* get to it.”

  12. JS Devivre says:

    Would love to know how this relates to red herrings as well as assumptions made by the protagonist than end up being incorrect.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Red herrings are essentially foreshadowing by way of misdirection. They’re simply a more sophisticated and ironic “plant” that still needs to be paid off, if only by proving them wrong.

      As for incorrect assumptions, if the author *intended* readers to have those assumptions, then that again falls under the heading of misdirection. If not, then either it was poor misdirection that wasn’t handled well–or the reader just missed the point. :p

  13. Thanks for bringing this to my attention 🙂 I realize I am guilty of all of them. Foreshadowing is my biggest weakness as a writer.

    I think I’ll have to read this post over a couple of more times and try some writing exercises in foreshadowing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Foreshadowing is really an exercise in conscious storytelling. This doesn’t mean all the foreshadowing will be conscious in the first draft, but to really make it work, we have to be aware of it at least after the fact.

  14. Catherine H. says:

    Okay, so I haven’t seen Red River, but this doesn’t seem like foreshadowing to me. It seems like a character made an assumption and it turned out to be wrong. That’s human nature. We’re not always right about everything and we assume a lot of things on a daily basis. Again, I haven’t seen the movie so I could be wrong, but that’s what I’m getting from your description of what happens.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      When characters make assumptions in stories, that’s foreshadowing. 😉 Unlike in life, there are no casual pieces in a story. Everything means something–whether it’s direct foreshadowing or skillful misdirection.

      • What if it was meant to be an ironic misdirection foreshadow? (I haven’t seen Red River, either. I’m just playing devil’s advocate here because I’m like that – and also because I’m curious about the difference between ironic misdirection and unfulfilled foreshadowing, and how you keep one from turning into the other.)

      • Catherine H. says:

        Yeah, you’ve got a point there. 🙂

  15. Hannah Killian says:

    So, could a gun shown in Act 1 be fired in a flashback (that pops up in Act 2) instead?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, as long as it’s clear in the plant in the First Act that it’s triggering memories for the character (even if you don’t spell them out).

  16. Ms. Albina says:

    Do you foreshadow all of the scenes? I may do that also. Do you think all stories or novels need a flashback? Some of my characters do have back stories.

  17. Kate Johnston says:

    I love playing with foreshadowing, but it can be really hard to execute well! I have a gun in Act 1 and it shows up again around the third plot point–is that too late for its appearance?

    I also had a question about Red River–I’ve never seen it–but would it be possible that the director *thought* he was foreshadowing because as you say, the two characters may not have “tangled” but they did end up becoming friends/allies. Could the director have thought that would fulfill the foreshadowning expectation–these two characters did meet again, just not in a shootout?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Nope, Third Plot Point is definitely not too late. That’s when most of your major foreshadowing will need to be fulfilled.

      As for Red River, I’ve read that the secondary character in question here initially had a larger role in the script. My take is that this bit of foreshadowing probably *was* fulfilled in the original, but as the character’s screentime got minimized, the foreshadowing payoff went with it.

      Red River is a phenomenal bit of storytelling–right up to the end, which throws over its originally intended dark ending for a deus ex machina happy ending. So my example isn’t the only instance of a few hiccups in the seamless presentation of its narrative from beginning to end.

      • Kate Johnston says:

        Your explanation regarding the secondary character and his minimized screen time makes sense. Just goes to show us how important it is to make sure the edits we make don’t unduly disrupt other story beats, plotlines, character reveals, and foreshadowing attempts! 🙂

      • I think the Red River ended the way it did because of the studio-mandated happy ending requirement in Hollywood movies back in the day. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is another example of that.
        And thanks for this super helpful post! Storytelling is a craft and like any other craft there are a lot of elements to keep track of if we want the end product to be of good quality.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I agree. The ending is as dreadful as the rest of the movie is fantastic–and it’s all because they copped to easy and happy.

  18. Definitely a storyteller (or maybe an architect), though I didn’t think of it until you mentioned it. I love crafting the structure, twists, and awesome elements of a story and then spend months frustrated because I can’t make it as awesome on the page as it is in my head :/

    In a Chekov’s Gun situation, can you just tone down the amount of foreshadowing, or do you feel it is better to remove that element entirely? I suppose the best option is to MAKE it relevant, but that can make things a little contrived at times.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s all about foreshadowing. There will be many objects and people who appear in the story without ever being “paid off” later on. As long as the tone and construction of a scene isn’t leading readers (consciously or unconsciously) to suspect foreshadowing, you’re fine.

  19. I have a question like Joseph’s about foreshadowing in Book 1 and resolving in Book 2, or 3. I initially wrote the story straight through, then was told that each book in a trilogy must be a stand-alone and must be resolved. Then I read that you need to leave just enough to make the reader want Book 2. This makes sense, but it’s conflicting, especially with my big resolution occurring in Book Two – to me, it makes more sense to the story. Any thoughts on this?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good question. The distinction is that the overarching story continues from book to book, leaving loose ends to hook readers along. But each individual book within the series also features a cohesive structural story, asking a particular conflict question. That story and that conflict is what must be resolved by the book’s end.

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