The Gun (or Bezoar, or Rite-of-Passage) We Forgot to Plant
Done well, it can make a story more satisfying the way a good beer, cold glass of milk, or a perfectly paired wine can enhance a meal. Done poorly (or not at all) could lead to comments like “there was no suspense or tension” or “the climax is completely unbelievable” or “I call deus ex machina!”(deus ex machina aka: God from machine, aka never-before-mentioned item or character Divine-Interventioned your Main Character’s butt).
There’s a dramatic device called Chekhov’s Gun, named for his comment, “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” IE if there is a gun visible to the audience, there’s an expectation, a promise, that it will be fired.
That’s the heart of foreshadowing: making a promise and fulfilling it.
Now, that “gun” can be anything, and it can be as obvious as the bezoar that Harry Potter fortuitously learns about in Potion’s class (and later uses to save Ron’s life); or they can be as subtle as the color palettes in Breaking Bad, hinting at the changing family and sororal dynamics as they’re threatened by impending doom.
Putting in a foreshadowing element can set the tone for succeeding events, whether you want the audience to see the humor in macabre situations (Fight Club), alert the audience to clues (the color red in Sixth Sense), or fill the audience with a sense of foreboding (basically any time a young couple moves into a home that’s out of their price range and someone jokingly asks if someone died in the house).
The planted hints keep your readers engaged and invested, waiting for a resolution that hopefully surpasses their expectations.
If you’ve read a lot in your genre, you’re probably already foreshadowing unconsciously as you write your first draft. Within the first chapter, did you include a prophecy (Fantasy)? Did you put in a new/wonky/not-quite-working-well engine part (Sci-fi)? Did you put in a bad feeling/storm cloud/symbolic family heirloom (everything else)? That’s foreshadowing.
“In retrospect, that’s when things went crazy.”
Here’s the tricky part about foreshadowing.
Sometimes it’s so obvious, not only have you shown Chekhov’s Gun, you’re pistol-whipping the audience with it. In your story, does anyone say “What’s the worst that could happen?” Or do you send your Main Character out to face the baddie with no flashlight/weapon or ridiculously unprepared with a Too-Stupid-To-Live sidekick/Love Interest?
If writing in 3rd/1st Omni, how many times did you say something like “In retrospect, that’s when things went crazy” or “And that’s when I knew my life would never be the same”?
Conversely, foreshadowing can also fizzle out. The gun is too vague, or the length between showing it and firing it is too long. For example, at the end of the story, when you do get around to firing it, it seems to come out of nowhere.
“But I totally planted it in the last paragraph of chapter 1!”
That was forty-five chapters ago, Skippy. I call deus ex machina!
How do you get around both these problems?
Let’s put our serious pants on.
We’ll start with the fizzle and work our way up to pistol-whipping.
How to fix the fizzle: Why have one Chekhov’s gun when you can have a dozen different guns? And the bigger the gun, the stronger the impression.
Let’s call the overarching Promise of your story The Bazooka. You show a bazooka to someone, they’ll remember it. This is The Prophecy in Harry Potter. Paul Atreides’s Gom Jabbar in Dune. Ender whaling on Stilson in Ender’s Game.
But that’s not enough. In Dune, Paul gets a bunch of symbolic names: Usul, Muad’dib, Bene Gesserit Messiah. No one’s firing The Bazooka yet. These are smaller guns being planted. The sniper rifle (Usul). The Desert Eagle (Muad’dib). The flamethrower (Messiah).
Each gun has a specific purpose, an integrated storyline. But they all get fired at some point. Every time a gun is planted, that’s a promise to the reader. And every time a planted gun is discovered and fired, that’s you, making good on that promise. It’s the way to build the reader trust and satisfaction that forms a solid fanbase.
“I showed you the rifle, the pistol, and the flamethrower. Then I fired them. You gonna stick around for when I bring out The Bazooka again?” Hell yes.
And now, let’s take a look at your pistol-whipping problem. The guns (your Promises) are too obvious. They’re not even mounted on Chekhov’s wall at this point – actors are waving them around like it’s New Year’s Eve!
The issue is your foreshadowing elements might be relying too heavily on connotations — too many or too melodramatic. It’s the equivalent of asking someone, “Do you get it? Do you get it???” or “Still with me?” while explaining something. Or elbowing someone repeatedly while telling a joke, to make sure they’re still paying attention. Done too much and it becomes condescending.
Here’s a generic sentence for us to deconstruct:
George walked in, carrying a bunch of flowers.
George – Main Character
Walked in – neutral blocking
Carrying – neutral verb
A bunch – vague
Flowers – vague
Use connotations in reconstruction to foreshadow doom:
George strode in, bearing a knot of white lilies.
George strode in1, bearing2 a knot3 of white lilies4.
1. I can hear his heel strike ground, the howl of wind. The O in the middle makes me think Ominous. One doesn’t stride up a wedding aisle. One strides when one has something important and unpleasant to do.
2. This is one of my favorite words. To bear something means to carry it. But “bear” connotes that the thing being carried is a burden, something to be suffered, something to endure. “I cannot bear it!”
3. Putting “bunch” into three online thesauruses (thesauri?) spit out hundreds of possible synonyms. IE bouquet. But what does that connote? In other words, what do you think of when you hear that word? Wedding? Doesn’t exactly inspire doom. How about cluster? Say it out loud. Sounds almost… whimsical. How about knot? You hear the echo of its homophones, not (denial) and naught (emptiness)? And what does knot make you think of? A tangle. A puzzle. A problem.
4. Here I went beyond the thesaurus and dipped into symbolism. Obviously, lilies mean death.
George strode in, bearing a knot of white lilies.
Now, though, it’s almost too heavy. Let’s change only a few neutral words and modernize it:
George came in, bearing a bunch of wilted lilies.
Even more modern: George slumped in with a grip of crushed lilies.
Or change it to a happy event:
George sauntered in, carrying a bouquet of yellow roses. (I could have used camellias or birds of paradise as the symbolic flowers, but yellow roses are more accessible to a wider set of readers because they’re more well known to be associated with friendship/love. Had I used the others, the gun would have been *too* well-hidden.)
In those examples, we kept the action intact but foreshadowed different events by using words chosen for their connotations.
Next time you go through your WIP, Search and Destroy: vague narrative descriptions. Don’t waste a chance to build tension with foreshadowing.
Happy writing and revising! I prophesy great rewards from your endeavors.
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