Foreshadowing: how a sore thumb can prepare you for a brutal beating

I have a soft spot for hypnotists, as anyone who’s read My Memories of a Future Life will readily believe. Required viewing in our house is the illusionist Derren Brown – and part of the fun is how he puts a show together as a story.

In the first show of his latest series, The Experiments, he tested whether a nice ordinary bloke could be conditioned to assassinate a celebrity – and then, like the man convicted of shooting Robert Kennedy, have no memory of doing the deed*.

It’s a lot to believe, for both volunteer and viewer. There were the obligatory demonstrations. We saw the lucky chap develop super-marksmanship under hypnosis. He was put in a trance and did things he couldn’t remember.

But he could have been faking, of course. So before any of these demonstrations were done, the audience had to be primed to believe they could be true.

With some nifty foreshadowing.

Foreshadowing, sometimes known as prefigurement, is a way of suggesting developments that may happen later in a story so that the reader is more ready to accept them.

1 Foreshadowing amnesia

Derren mentioned moments of amnesia we all naturally have – driving a familiar route and not remembering the journey, or if you locked the front door. Hey presto, amnesia is something that could happen to us all.

This is what a writer might do if a story pivoted on an event the reader might find hard to believe if confronted with it cold.

Imagine a story that revolves around mistaken identity. Before you see the actual mistake, the ground is prepared obliquely. So a man meeting his wife off the train might hug the wrong woman, fooled by her coat. Or two characters might talk about a situation where a friend got in the wrong car. You think the scene’s about something else – perhaps their friendship – but it plants the seed that mistaken identity could happen to anyone. So when later it does, it’s easier to swallow.

2 Foreshadowing the killer trance

The assassin in Derren’s experiment was activated when he saw polka dots. This was demonstrated in action a few times. But before all that, we were primed too.

While Derren was describing what witnesses saw when Kennedy was shot, he mentioned a woman in a polka-dot dress. It seemed like one of those details to make the story more vivid, as insignificant as what time it was or whether canapes were served. Until he introduced his visual trigger later in the show – polka dots. On a handkerchief. As a surprise picture on the inside of a restaurant menu.

Now we remembered they were associated with something sinister. And in the climax, they appeared on a dress…

And the sore thumb?

In Clint Eastwood’s film Unforgiven, a blacksmith remarks that if you whack your thumb in cold weather it hurts a lot more. Not long afterwards, on an icy cold day, Little Bill gets in a fight with English Bob. But this is more than Little Bill playing football with English Bob, we’re primed to feel the pain of the blows. Unforgiven is a world where everything is a struggle, where people are fragile. And a sore thumb tells us a kicking is really nasty.

*Derren Brown’s show was testing one theory of the assassination. The true circumstances are of course more complex than summarised by him or here in this post. This isn’t a post about that, it’s about storytelling. To check out more thorough examinations of the assassination, see this piece.

Skilled storytellers don’t leave your reaction to chance. More often than you think, they’re planting clues to finely control the way you feel.

As always, give me examples you’ve noticed! Or used in your own fiction

Starts November 14: How to write a novel – in-depth webinar series with Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn, starting November.  Find more details and sign up here.

Nail Your Novel – my short book about how to write a long one – is available from Amazon.

My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.

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  1. #1 by Wen Baragrey on November 14, 2011 - 3:22 am

    Oh, what an awesome post 😀 Derren Brown (I’m a big fan!) is just the perfect example of great foreshadowing! This is the best post I’ve ever read on the subject. I often thing of the plants and payoff part of it, but you forget the benefits of setting the mood and the more subtle ways of manipulating how your reader is reacting to the story. Brilliant post! Just what I needed 😀

  2. #3 by Terry Odell on November 14, 2011 - 4:51 pm

    I love when foreshadowing works. As a matter of fact, I did an on-line workshop on the topic for Savvy Authors. If you want to see my handout, it’s here:


    • #4 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on November 15, 2011 - 2:18 pm

      Hi Terry – yes it’s so satisfying. Thanks for your link – I’m sure it will be helpful.

  3. #5 by Linda Adams on November 15, 2011 - 11:31 am

    Sometimes it’s tough — I’m not detail oriented, and tend to miss more subtle clues. So I have to be careful my foreshadowing is not too obvious — or not TOO subtle. So I usually repeat it in different ways. One bit of foreshadowing I did in my contemporary fantasy was that the character swims out to a small nearby island (about .7 km away from his house) as part of his morning exercise routine. He later gets into a fight and laments the next day about being sore and not being able to swim out to the island. This is an a fairly obvious thread in building both the setting and the character’s competence and skills. But it’s also foreshadowing how this place will be important later in the story.

    • #6 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on November 15, 2011 - 2:20 pm

      Linda, I think even if we think we don’t notice them, our less conscious mind does. Of course, that then means it’s all the harder to spot that it’s something we need to do!

  4. #7 by Laura Pauling on November 15, 2011 - 12:41 pm

    I love it even more when as a reader, I don’t see the clues until the end. Often, I can pick out the clues, even if I’m not sure what they mean. Great storytelling is hard to beat!

  5. #9 by Jeffrey Russell on November 15, 2011 - 3:26 pm

    My WIP is less about events happening and more about how the two main characters change during the story, so that at the end their separate, individual conflicts are forced by the events around them to merge into one goal, which they then share. When I started writing it I didn’t think I’d need to use much foreshadowing. Boy was I wrong! Planting the seeds early for the changes the characters will have to make later has been a treat for me as the writer. A line of dialog here; a little exposition there; what a difference!

    • #10 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on November 16, 2011 - 6:36 pm

      It’s amazing how much you need to use it – even when you think the reader will twig without it. Probably because it’s meant to be more subliminal than overt.

    • #11 by Victoria on November 18, 2011 - 10:42 pm

      Jeffrey is humbly not mentioning the fact that I recently used a line of his to explicate wonderful exposition on my online writing lab:

      “Being impressed and being amazed are two different things, generally speaking.”

  6. #12 by Deb Atwood on November 16, 2011 - 5:34 am

    What an interesting post. When I think of foreshadowing, I often turn to Of Mice and Men. The title hits you on the head with its allusion to the lovely Robert Burns’ poem and the “best laid schemes” warning. Then the mercy killing of the crippled dog to presage Lennie’s demise.
    I also love how Louisa’s fall in Austen’s Persuasion foreshadows her fall from grace.
    Good stuff, that foreshadowing.

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