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What is foreshadowing in film?

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What is foreshadowing in film? Film writers use foreshadowing to hint at future events in the plot. Foreshadowing in film can captivate your audience and pique their curiosity. When done right, foreshadowing in film can leave viewers shocked that didn’t see something coming all along. However, foreshadowing is nuanced as if it’s too obvious or too subtle, your viewers may not appreciate it.

Knowing how to use foreshadowing is an important skill for filmmakers, creators, and writers of video scripts. If you want to learn how to use foreshadowing, this blog is a great place to start. Now that we understand what foreshadowing is, let’s explore:  

  • Why is foreshadowing important?

  • When to apply foreshadowing?

  • Different types of foreshadowing

  • How to use foreshadowing

Why is it important to understand foreshadowing?

There’s no obligation to use foreshadowing in film, but lots of great films become memorable because of it. That’s why foreshadowing is a really effective tool to engage your audience. It can make them curious about what’s to come or build suspense. Keener audiences might be able to guess what’s to come, but it isn’t definitive or blatant. It can also create harmony at the end of a film by wrapping things up neatly.

Poor uses of foreshadowing include making the event too obvious. This can leave your audience feeling uninterested in the rest of the movie.

Similarly, if film writers are too subtle with foreshadowing, the audience doesn’t pick up on the foreshadowing at all, and it adds little to the film although it takes up a lot of effort during production and video editing. 

The opposite of foreshadowing is to have a dramatic surprise twist. Think M. Night Shyamalan movies. Though many of his films are well-received, if not done right, the dramatic reveal can actually feel lackluster for audiences. 

Types of foreshadowing

There are many different execution techniques of foreshadowing, however, they all fall under two main types of foreshadowing—direct and indirect.

Direct foreshadowing

As the name suggests, direct foreshadowing is explicit. By this we mean, the foreshadowing is apparent to the audience. The suggestion of what’s to come has been stated directly.

Popular ways to do this include dialogue, narration, or even a prophecy.

A great example of this is in Fight Club. At the start of the movie the narrator states, “when you’re suffering from insomnia, nothing’s really real”.

So the audience is aware the entire way through the movie that the events that follow may not be true or believable. Though the audience may be surprised on the first watch-through, one of the reasons the movie works so well is because we knew all along. Relive the scene here:

Indirect foreshadowing

If direct foreshadowing is explicit, then indirect foreshadowing is implicit. The foreshadowing is hinted at, but not stated directly. They are merely subtle clues of what will unfold.

So many examples of indirect foreshadowing are completely missed. For example, in The Departed an X frequently appears behind characters. It’s not obvious and it’s always in the background scenery, like on a wall.

But these X marks are used to foreshadow the next character to die.

There are many different techniques within both direct and indirect foreshadowing. Let’s take a look at some popular techniques, with an example from different movies.

How to use foreshadowing (with examples!)

Each of these examples utilizes a different facet of film writing or video editing. They range from the very obvious to the very subtle, but all of them create a great effect for the audience. 

In the title

So many movies use foreshadowing in the title. For example, “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King”. This hints at what’s to come, without telling the audience explicitly.

Cormac McCarthy also used this technique in No Country For Old Men. It alludes to the fact that Tommy Lee Jones's character is not cut out for the crimes he will encounter. 

In the action

Christopher Nolan provides us with an outstanding example of foreshadowing in the action in The Prestige

One scene early on in the movie revolves around a magic trick with a bird in a cage. Alfred kills the bird by crushing it then brings it back to life.

It’s revealed that he achieves this by having two birds. The first bird is crushed and replaced with the next. 

On watching the movie for the first time, it’s an intriguing and brutal scene, but the audience doesn't think much of it. Only at the end of the film when it’s revealed Robert has been creating clones of himself and drowning them to pull off his big magic trick is the foreshadowing revealed.  Relive the scene here:

In the narration

We gave a pretty good example of this with Fight Club already. So we’ll head to Westeros for our next example. In Game of Thrones, Littlefinger has a monologue where he says people die at their dinner tables, in their beds, and squatting over chamber pots.

Throughout the rest of that season, Joffrey dies at the dinner table, Tyrion’s lover is strangled to death in her bed and Tywin is shot while on the toilet. It’s a great example of effective direct foreshadowing that keeps the audience guessing. 

Through objects

Writers also use symbolic objects to foreshadow events. Nolan again has a great example of this in The Dark Knight.

Harvey Dent flips a coin to make his decisions. It’s revealed later that it isn’t random luck as the coin itself is a two-headed coin. This object foreshadows Harvey Dent’s change into the villain Two-Face later in the movie. 

Want to learn more about film production?

Foreshadowing is a very powerful tool for filmmakers when done well. Whether it's direct or indirect foreshadowing, it can engage and enthrall audiences and leave a lasting impression. 

Want to improve your video production skills? Explore Clipchamp’s glossary of video editing terms.

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