Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Writers' Wednesday - Foreshadowing & Pay-off

This Wednesday Fiona Harper is going to tell us about the one little trick she likes pulling out of her writers’ toolbox when a plot gets tricky, characters are being predictable or the pace is slowing when it should be zipping along – foreshadowing and pay-off.

Foreshadowing is often used in movies and mentioned frequently in screen-writing books, but I think it can also be one of the novelist’s best friends. Foreshadowing, or set-up, is a piece of information that has a ‘pay-off’ later in the story, and can come in many forms – dialogue, action, internal monologue, description.

Think about it. In a murder mystery on TV, there’s always what appears to be a random shot of a character doing something slightly out of place, a weapon, or we hear a piece of seemingly innocent dialogue. Later in the story, we suddenly realise that this tiny clue (that we maybe almost missed) was vital to discovering who the villain was. That’s foreshadowing and pay-off. But you don’t have to have a dead body in your book to use it…

Foreshadowing and plot

If there’s one thing readers can’t stand in a plot, it’s coincidences that stretch their credibility too far. You can save yourself some grief by doing something as simple as planting a reason early in the story for your heroine to be attending the same party as the hero a few scenes or chapters on. Then, when she turns up, it may be a surprise to both of them, but readers aren’t thinking: ‘My, wasn’t that convenient?’

Foreshadowing can also be used to create powerful turning points in your plot. Here’s an example from the Pierce Brosnan movie, ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’.

Catherine Banning is an insurance investigator who is convinced that wealthy businessman Thomas Crown was far from an innocent bystander when a $100 million Monet was stolen from a museum. She’s prepared to use any tactics to get close to her man and one night gatecrashes a party he’s attending with the intent of seducing him to get the information she needs to catch him. The next morning – after a wild night together – he presents her with a glass of green sludgey stuff for breakfast (the kind of drink that’s supposed to be good for you, but tastes foul).

So what? we think. It’s just a nasty-looking breakfast. Shudder and move on. Or we would, if the vile green drink hadn’t been set up earlier in the movie. When Catherine first appears and starts irritating the police officers working on the case, we see her downing one of these ‘healthy’ cocktails for breakfast as the detectives look on and grimace. She has it every day and it’s not the sort of thing you’d just find lurking in the back of your fridge, you’d have to know where to go and buy it.

So, when Thomas Crown’s butler brings Catherine her drink, her moment of triumph evaporates. With that one action, Thomas has let her know that he wasn’t playing her game – she was playing his. He knew she would be there for breakfast even before she did. Suddenly, he’s the one in charge again.

And there’s no need to slow the pace with lengthy explanations of why this is significant. All Catherine says in the end is: “Damn. I hate being a foregone conclusion.” They both know – and the audience know – what has just happened.

Foreshadowing and motivation

Now, I must admit, I don’t actually plan this when I’m writing, but I do keep my eyes peeled for words or actions that could have a good pay-off later in the story. Sometimes I use them; sometimes I don’t.

In my upcoming November release, ‘Christmas Wishes, Mistletoe Kisses’, my heroine, ex-WAG Louise, is watching a movie on TV that was filmed in the grounds of the grand old house she has just bought:

There was a scene halfway through the film, just as the lovers were starting to act on their feelings for each other that had been filmed on the balcony of the boathouse. A picnic was set out on a little table with a red and white checked cloth. The sun was shining and shy, heated glances were flying between hero and heroine.

Louise sighed. That was what love should be like, she mused as she covered her mouth with a hand to stifle a yawn—overly bright and colourful, the sun always shining. The zing of electricity in the air. And the way he looked at her—as if he could see right through her and into her soul. As if he wanted to drown in her. That was what love should be like.

What a pity it was only like that in corny old movies, she thought, as the hero pulled the heroine into the shadowy interior of the boathouse and wrapped her in his arms.

Later that night, Louise dreams of her boathouse – and her hunky gardener, Ben, and this is where the crush she has on him starts to go completely out of control. She dreams of the red and white tablecloth, the summer sun high in the sky…

Slowly, he tipped her head until she was looking him in the eyes.

‘You don’t have to hide from me.’

Oh, she would have given anything to believe that was true. Tears sprung to her eyes and clung to her lashes. Even in the bright sunshine, she could see his pupils growing, become darker and darker. But it wasn’t just desire she could see there. Deep in the blackness were the answers to all the questions she’d ever wanted to ask.

Yes, the eyes said. Yes, you are good enough. Yes, you deserve to be loved like this.

One tear escaped, pulled by gravity, and raced away down her cheek. She couldn’t move, not even to swipe it away. It carried on running as he continued to stare at her, his expression full of texture and depth, until it trailed down her neck.

A question flickered across her face—she felt it as surely as the salty river air.

Do you?

He didn’t move a muscle, except to stroke the skin of her temple with the edge of his thumb. The eyes held the answer once again. Yes.

Something inside her, something that had been clenched tight and hard for years, unfurled. And Ben Oliver stepped back into the cool darkness of the boathouse, pulling her with him and repeated his answer over and over again with his lips on hers.

The plan was to use this dream to explain why Louise’s resolve weakens where Ben is concerned. Not only can she not stop thinking about kissing him, but in her dream there was the hint that Ben might just be the man who could love her for who she really is – something Louise wants more than air to breathe with.

But the big pay-off comes at the end of the story. Louise is a damaged heroine, and she wasn’t ready to accept Ben’s love when he offered it. But, months later, she’s finally ready, and he finds her in the boathouse. There’s lots of little pay-offs in this scene – a hint at their first meeting, a reminder of how Ben proposed the first time, a few snatches of dialogue that echo earlier meetings, and the dream…

But I’m not going to give the game away here! Too many spoilers!

Foreshadowing and romantic moments

Of course, foreshadowing can also be useful to add the ‘ahh’ factor to those romantic moments in your story. Think for a moment about ‘Sleepless in Seattle’.

In the opening scenes, Annie asks her mother how she knew her father was the one for her. Annie’s mother describes taking his hand for the first time and just knowing, because it was magic. Later that night, as Annie is driving and listening to the radio, she hears Sam from Seattle describing the moment he first took his wife’s hand. Sam says that when he took her hand, it felt like ‘coming home’, and there’s a pay-off here as Annie’s ears prick up and she and Sam both say ‘magic’ at the same time.

That is the moment when the seed is planted in Annie’s head that this could be the man for her. It is when the obsession starts, when the romance begins. And we wouldn’t feel as if fate had called her out of her safe little life if there hadn’t been that moment of foreshadowing and pay-off.

Foreshadowing and endings

Again, the big pay-off comes at the end of the movie, when Annie and Sam finally meet on the top of the Empire State Building. He holds out his hand and she slides her fingers into his. The pay-off is just a pause that lasts a split-second. There are no fireworks or flashing lights to let the audience know that Sam and Annie have found their soul-mate. No dialogue is necessary to ram the point home. As they hold hands, in the back of our heads, we hear two phrases: ‘coming home’ and ‘magic’. We know they’ve just found their happy ending from that one small gesture. Now, that’s good foreshadowing and pay-off.

Using foreshadowing and pay-off gives us a sense of completion, a sense of satisfaction. And that’s why I think it’s so good for endings, because we all want to read romances that finish with a sense of everything being right with the world, even if things looked shaky there for a while. We all want to close the book and sigh a little sigh.

So, be on the look out as you write for those little phrases, those tell-tale actions that can be built upon to give a pay-off that will hit readers between the eyes!

Fiona’s next release, Christmas Wishes, Mistletoe Kisses, is out in the UK and North America in November, and Australia and New Zealand in December.

Three wishes for Christmas…

It’s taken all of Louise Thornton’s courage to start again with her young son. This will be a different life, one away from the paparazzi – and her cheating celebrity husband!

Louise is determined to make this Christmas perfect for her son. But it’s not until she meets meltingly attractive landscape architect Ben Oliver that she starts to sparkle again.

Single dad Ben puts his daughter first. But when he catches Louise under the mistletoe, Ben realises only he can make Louise’s wishes come true…


  1. Hi Fiona

    I loved this post. And I'm definitely going to buy a copy of Christmas Wishes now. But can I just say, and it makes me feel like a total idiot. I completely missed that moment in The Thomas Crown Affair, I never got that bit - probably paying far too much attention to Pierce's naked butt!


  2. Excellent post and very useful, thank you.

    Christmas Wishes sounds wonderful, I shall definately be buying a copy. Love the cover picture too.