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Posted, Feb. 22, 2005
Updated, Feb. 28, 2005


QuickLink: A77891

Writing Tool #45: Foreshadow
Plant important clues early in the story.

By Roy Peter Clark (more by author)
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

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Foreshadow climactic events.

Not long ago, I saw two movies that reminded me of the power of foreshadowing. In each case, clues planted early in the narrative offered what a dictionary definition would describe as "vague advance indications" of important future events.

"The Bird Cage" opens inside a cabaret in Miami. On the stage, a chorus line of female impersonators dances and lip synchs to the disco hit "We Are Family," performed by Sister Sledge. Two hours later, in the story's climactic scene, a conservative United States Senator (played by Gene Hackman) escapes from the club and avoids media scrutiny by dressing in drag, donning a blonde wig, and dancing off the stage to the same song.

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In "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," several terrible events are reversed at the end when Hermione reveals to Harry her ability to travel back in time by means of a charm she wears around her neck, a time turner. On first viewing, the plot twist comes as a surprise. Upon watching the film a second time, I noticed how often the director makes reference to time, especially in visual images of huge pendulums and giant clockworks.

For novels and movies, it may require several readings or viewings to fully appreciate the associations pre-figured by foreshadowing. The technique becomes more transparent in works of shorter length. Consider this narrative poem, "Uncle Jim," by Peter Meinke:

What the children remember about Uncle Jim
is that on the train to Reno to get divorced
so he could marry again
he met another woman and woke up in California.
It took him seven years to untangle that dream
but a man who could sing like Uncle Jim
was bound to get in scrapes now and then:
he expected it and we expected it.

Mother said, It's because he was the middle child,
And Father said, Yeah, where there's trouble
Jim's in the middle.

When he lost his voice he lost all of it
To the surgeon's knife and refused the voice box
They wanted to insert. In fact he refused
Almost everything. Look, they said,
It's up to you. How many years
Do you want to live? And Uncle Jim
Held up one finger.
The middle one.

This is a poem with a punch line, set up by the foreshadowing in the middle stanza. Jim's the middle child, always in the middle of trouble, so why not flash that middle finger at the end?

Foreshadowing in film? Yes. In narrative poetry? Yes. In journalism? Let's see.

In 1980 a huge oil tanker collided with a tall bridge near my hometown, destroying more than 1,000 feet of the span, sending a bus and several cars to the bottom of Tampa Bay, killing more than 30 people. The great Gene Miller of the Miami Herald was in town on another assignment and managed to find the driver of a car that skidded to a stop only 24 inches from the jagged edge. Here is his memorable lead, a sidebar to the main story:

Richard Hornbuckle, auto dealer, golfer, Baptist, came within two feet Friday of driving his yellow Buick Skylark off the Sunshine Skyway Bridge into Tampa Bay.

That simple sentence takes only 25 words, but each one advances the story. First, Miller takes advantage of the protagonist's unusual name -- Hornbuckle -- with its auto-imagery. This will turn out to be the story of an auto dealer driving a used car with good brakes. And Miller, a master of detail, gets good mileage out of 'yellow Buick Skylark.' 'Yellow' goes with 'Sunshine,' and 'Skylark' goes with 'Skyway.' He's playing with words.

But the real fun comes with those three nouns in apposition to the subject, for each one foreshadows a thread of narrative down in the story. 'Auto-dealer' sets up a description of Horbuckle's work schedule and how he came to be at that spot on that day.  'Golfer' prepares us for the crazy moment when-- during his escape from the vehicle -- Hornbuckle turns back to retrieve his golf clubs from the trunk. (That man really loves his golf.) And 'Baptist' makes way for a wry quote in which the reluctant believer turned survivor swears that he'll be in church the next morning. Auto dealer. Golfer. Baptist.

In dramatic literature, this technique is sometimes referred to as Chekov's Gun. In a letter he penned in 1889, Russian playwright Anton Chekov wrote: "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it."


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Workbench:

1. Do you ever violate the principle of Chekov's Gun? Do you place elements high in your story that never come into play again?

2. Until now, you may not have noticed the technique of foreshadowing in movies, fiction and dramatic literature. Now that you have a name for it, begin to look more carefully for examples.

3. Foreshadowing can work not only in narrative forms, but in persuasive writing. A good column or essay usually has a point, which is often revealed at the end. What details can you place up high to foreshadow your conclusion?

4. In journalism, literary effects must be reported, not invented. On your next reporting assignment, see if you can begin to recognize potential endings while you are in the field. That way, you may also be able to gather details that help foreshadow your ending.  


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