Guest Post: More on Foreshadowing

Okay, everyone liked the previous post on foreshadowing, and it certainly is an interesting topic. I agree, by the way, with Mary Catelli’s comment that this topic can perhaps be usefully divided into Setup vs Foreshadowing. I was conflating the two. If we wanted to do some sort of quick definition of each, then let’s say that setup is stuff the author builds into the world and the backstory in order to make the plot work, or also things that the author puts into the front part of the plot in order to make the back half of the story work out. Foreshadowing is more like the subtle hints and lines of dialogue that the reader half-notices, and that then fall suddenly and neatly into place when the reader arrives at an important downstream moment.

That’s pretty vague, and the two categories certainly blur into each other.

So let’s think of some stellar examples of foreshadowing and/or setup! And by “let’s do that,” I mean I’m going to offer you all a guest post that pulls out three examples, written up by commenter Elaine T. after the previous post spurred conversation in her household. The rest of this post is Elaine’s, with exceedingly trivial editing to improve clarity. I mean, I’m adding boldface and things like that; also links.

Forthwith, the guest post:

*** *** *** ***

The Teen and I like to discuss writing and we really got into the foreshadowing article.  Then the Teen went off and wrote up some thoughts, which I have now made comprehensible to others who weren’t part of our conversations.  We pulled together three examples of stellar foreshadowing that we don’t think were covered in the original article:  one novel from 1903, one manga from 2006-2015, and one video game from 1997.

The novel presents itself in the beginning as a mystery.  Upon rereading it, one sees even the first page is full of ominous foreshadowing.  Such lines as: “Once more the wisdom of my manhood and the experience of my years laid themselves at the girl’s feet.  It was seemingly their own doing; for the individual ‘I’ had no say in the matter, but only just obeyed imperative orders.”  A few paragraphs onward, we are presented with the following: “It seems there is never to be any perfect rest.  Even in Eden the snake rears its head amid the laden boughs of the Tree of Knowledge.”  In context it looks like a elaborate realization by the narrator that he’s actually waking up.  (It does date to 1903.)

These pages are the only examples in the book of “active foreshadowing,” which is to say:  foreshadowing by actually saying specific things. There are other fragments that might be called foreshadowing, but I believe they qualify as setup.   Every other true instance I discerned is where absences cast their shadows into the narrative.  People do not think of certain things, primarily under specific circumstances.  The alert reader will notice these and realize what started out like a mystery story is actually a horror novel of mental manipulation. 

There are repeated mentions of strong odors due to the Egyptian antiquities in the house.  The odors affects thinking.  The alert reader, or the re-reader can notice that once the smell is remarked upon certain thoughts leave the narrator’s mind; never to return. Similarly, thoughts along certain lines get derailed by natural-seeming interruptions, again, never to return. The author writes subtly enough that it’s easy for the casual reader to miss.  This is what I term the negative foreshadow; which works by absences, a ghost on the page, a shape made out of absence.  In this book what is going on and what the characters don’t think about shapes the entire story.

 It isn’t Checkov hanging guns on the wall, it’s places where guns should be, but no one notices if they are there or not.

The novel is Bram Stoker’s Jewel of Seven Stars, which has two endings, one hopeful, substituted from an early draft is our guess; one ambiguous, the author’s final word.  The ambiguous ending fits more naturally into everything that went before. (The book is also the likely inspiration for various “Mummy” movies.)

This manga series is the most twisty thing I’ve ever read, and I’ve read some twisty stories – we’ve counted sixteen plots all running concurrently through it.  We don’t find out about the existence of some of them for a while, but the shapes were there from the beginning.  Half of the foreshadowing is in the art, which is a problem for me, but not the Teen, who is an artist.

Very nearly every single scene and line of dialogue in this series foreshadows something; and that’s not always what readers expect, either.

Background information on the setting, as provided in chapter one: a century ago, the capitol of the country was massacred, before building, corpses and all, it vanished from the face of the earth.  Repercussions are still rippling through the present day.  Someone appears to be trying to restart it. Either reincarnation or possession is involved in returning the original players to the stage.  Among this sixteen-card shuffle, there exists a subplot; concealed so cleverly we didn’t really know it existed.  Then mid-series, it reared its face. It’s relatively easy to pull out and describe, the rest are so interwoven it would be far too confusing to try.  So:

One of the characters has been established to have a recurrent nightmare, and his descriptions of it are close to the ones used about the massacre that took place one hundred years ago: “Buildings on fire. People lying dead. And wherever I look, my sword was stained with blood.”

 Most readers assume he’s a reincarnation of the guy behind the massacre, or possessed by him.  One reader – the Teen – looked at the art used to lay out the massacre he dreamt of, compared it to the memory-echo we’d already had of that first massacre; and said ‘The hands in the frame are wearing modern gloves and cuffs. The architecture doesn’t match up either.’

 Something else was going on. It foreshadowed quite another card entirely, one needle in the convoluted haystack of plots.   I would call it ‘misdirection foreshadowing’ in that it seems to set up expectations of a particular reveal in a particular plot.  Instead it focuses the reader on that one plot, only to have the author turn over a card that relates it to an utterly different sequence.  To use a poor metaphor from Wonderland, when this card was flipped we found that we weren’t chasing the White Rabbit, instead we were in the garden of the Queen of Hearts: authorial sleight of hand.

It’s very well done.  And the whole tale is full of such misdirections, I wasn’t joking when I said it’s the most twisty story I’ve ever read. 

The manga is PandoraHearts by Jun Mochizuki, and it’s well worth reading. Most of it anyway. The ending was unsatisfactory. She tied up the structure, but forgot some of her own worldbuilding at the close. Ah, the curse of a pre-planned epilogue.

The third, the video game.  The scene I’m discussing here is a flashback, a flashback so famous that it redefined for games how flashbacks worked, what information they provided and more.  Its fame amongst the community of players is well deserved.  It bombards the audience with a series of half-truths, inconsistencies, and otherwise nigh indiscernible flaws.  Unlike the first example here, this absolutely required the visual medium and animation. The flashback is about the visit of some very important people to a rather small, isolated town.

Example One, visual and animation: the character it centers on, when remarking to narrator “this is your hometown?” looks to the right, when he should have looked to the left. The person he is speaking to appears from the left moments later. This is a small thing, the whole game has them scattered throughout.

Dialogue alone conveys nothing odd.  If the player is alert to some discrepancies, it is easily waved off as a minor programming error.  There are more graphical things along the same lines.

 Interestingly, the character of the narrator seems to have changed a lot between the flashback we’re in and his mannerisms now.  He was much more excitable in the past.  Player thinks, well, time has passed, he must have mellowed.

 There are a couple remarks from the people in this hometown about the narrator/player character that are… odd. Such as the photographer who shows up and asks for pictures with the visitors.  Narrator wants to be in it.  Photographer says “I don’t take pictures of nobodies.”  Pause.  Then “hey, you grew up nice!”  Obviously recognizing the hometown boy at last.

But he was part of the group of very important people.  Why was he dismissed as a nobody?    Other moments are equally confused, or confusing.  Some can be put down as due to painful memories: last conversation with his mother before her death, and it’s not relevant to anything in the game plot. Just characterization.

Or so we think.

As far as we know, when we see it, the sequence in question details the downfall of the man who is now the Villain.  There’s some overt foreshadowing about him and his fall:  He says he’s never had a hometown; this place seems familiar; monsters who were once men had been created here. After spending seven-to-ten days digging through documents like a man possessed; he goes on a rampage, razing it to the ground.  Mid-Flashback, the narrator reacts oddly, considering this is his hometown. Instead of reacting personally, he reacts “this is horrible’. 

The most subtle bit in the whole sequence is that the villain is an unstoppable warrior who can effortlessly dispatch any foe.  Not Superman, maybe Captain America, incredibly tough, fast, and smart (not Superman, since he can be wounded).  Our narrator/player character is supposed to among those closest to being his equal. Yet, the alert player (the Teen) can spot that the narrator’s abilities shown in this flashback demonstrate only the capability of a normal human. 

What this foreshadow here is concealing is that the narrator was not actually directly experiencing about half of the events of the flashback.  He somehow wound up with the memories of another participant in it all:  The memories of the guy on the left at the beginning of the flashback.  When this is figured out within the game it is a huge reveal.  It’s also a unique use of amnesia, but this isn’t the place to expand on that.

The game cleverly uses its own progression curve – how things grow – to misdirect the player.  From apparent programming glitches to dialogue, to the way the game conveys capabilities to the players it both tricks the players and tells them the truth.

*** *** *** ***

End of the guest post; it’s me again.

These are very interesting examples, none of which I’m familiar with. I’m trying to visualize how the game would work. It’s hard because I’m not at all familiar with video games. This is no doubt as famous as you say, but nevertheless, for the sake of completion, what game is this?

How about the rest of you: other examples of particularly clever or successful foreshadowing and/or setup?

It’s probably too obvious, but: the movie The Sixth Sense offers the single best example of brilliant foreshadowing that I can think of.

And The Scholomance Trilogy may offer the second best example.

What about you all? Have you read (or played) the examples above?

Please Feel Free to Share:


6 thoughts on “Guest Post: More on Foreshadowing”

  1. The game is Final Fantasy V, right? I’ve only played the recent (partial) remake, which doesn’t contain the flashback discussed here, but I had a lot of friends obsessed with the original version of the game back in 2005!

    As for excellent foreshadowing in other media, I’m just going to whisper “Tasmakat”…

  2. I didn’t name the game??? Sorry, it was there in most of the drafts.
    I’m half tempted to see if anyone guesses, but I also dislike being on that end of guessing games; Final Fantasy VII. The Nibelheim flashback is the famous one.

  3. Brandon Sanderson is extremely good at foreshadowing – the original Mistborn trilogy has several examples of things that seemed obvious in retrospect but are surprising twists when you’re reading them for the first time. I don’t know how to describe them further without spoilers.

    It’s also true for his other work, but I just reread the Mistborn trilogy so it’s most fresh on my mind.

  4. There was a book by Elizabeth Boyer I read around college (The Thrall and the Dragon’s Heart, I think), where one of the characters was secretly in disguise–he’d been a legendary hero years before but fallen on hard times, or something (it’s been a while).

    I don’t remember the hero’s name, anymore, but I DO clearly remember a scene where they’re all sitting around the campfire as they’re deciding to go in a different direction and someone says, but “But, HERO, what about him?” and the hero-in-disguise jumps and then shrugs it off … it’s not until later when you know that he IS aforesaid hero that that scene makes sense–he thought they’d been speaking his NAME. It’s such a perfectly innocent bit of foreshadowing. There’s no way to know it means anything until you’ve gotten past the part that it foreshadows.

    Which, really, is perfect foreshadowing. You should never see that it’s coming, unless it’s doing the “if only I knew then that it would be the last time” kind of thing which is an actual plot point … because I consider plot hints to be different than little teasers you don’t know are teasers.

    (Good grief, I’m chatty today! Sorry)

  5. Chatty is good, Deb! And I do particularly love seeing everything fall into place when you never even knew there were things at all. Then click-click-click as everything drops into an elegant climax.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top