Have you ever watched a movie with a plot twist that blew your mind and then watched that movie again and noticed signs leading to the twist? You’re not alone. So, what is foreshadowing? Is it just simply dropping clues or is it something more? Implementing foreshadowing techniques into your story can create anticipation that will have your audience captivated until the end of your story. As we analyze these examples, we will take a look at the events and plot twists that define foreshadowing in these films so this a SPOILER ALERT.
First, let’s define foreshadowing
Foreshadowing can be incredibly effective at captivating an audience if done correctly. A little too on the nose and the audience might become disengaged. A little too subtle and they might miss the it completely.
Before we examine examples of foreshadowing in movies, it's important to first be able to define foreshadowing and its function. What is foreshadowing in the first place and how can it help you tell your story?
What is foreshadowing?
Foreshadowing is a literary device that is utilized to give a hint or indication of a future event in the story. It can be a very effective tool for developing curiosity, suspense, and even narrative harmony at the end of a film or novel. Writers often utilize foreshadowing earlier in their story to set up a later event. “Indicate” and “foretell'' are both foreshadow synonyms.
Although you can define foreshadowing in types based on how subtle or direct it is, the primary effect is to capture an audience's attention.
What is foreshadowing used for in storytelling?
- Creating suspense
- Dramatic build up
- Developing anticipation
What is foreshadowing?
Two ways to define foreshadowing
Now that you understand the foreshadowing literary definition, you may be thinking of some examples from filmmaking books or movies that immediately come to mind. All of those examples fall under one of two ways to define foreshadowing:
- Direct Foreshadowing
- Indirect Foreshadowing
The direct foreshadowing definition states that an element of a story explicitly suggests an impending event. This can be executed through dialogue, a narrator, or a stated prophecy within the story.
An example of direct foreshadowing can be found in Hamlet. When Marcellus sees the ghost of Hamlet’s father he says, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” This openly implies that there is something wrong going on in the Danish political hierarchy which is exactly what follows throughout the story.
Shakespeare most notably utilizes this technique in Romeo and Juliet when in the prologue he writes “A pair of star-crossed lovers…Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.”
Shakespeare’s foreshadowing in Romeo and Juliet is extremely direct as it establishes the suspense of this doomed romance.
The indirect foreshadowing definition states that a story element hints at upcoming events by leaving subtle clues of what’s to come throughout the story. These hints are less on the nose and are only fully understood when the event they foreshadow occurs.
A great example of this can be found in Star Wars: Episode II when Obi-Wan Kenobi says to Anakin Skywalker, “Why do I get the feeling you will be the death of me?” Although it's a joke at the time, we later see this line become prophecy with Obi-Wan's death at the hands of Anakin.
While there may be two ways to define foreshadowing, both can be effective at achieving the same thing if done correctly. Capturing the audience's attention is at the heart of any use of this technique.
Why is foreshadowing important?
Every story completely relies on the attention of the audience. The audience’s attention can be captured by keeping them in a state of anticipation. This means not spoon-feeding the audience information all the time, but rather leaving clues to keep them guessing and interested in what’s to come.
Writers use these clues to create suspense or dramatic build up for a reveal or plot twist. Without the set up, a story's big reveal can be much less impactful. This video dives into the idea that plot twists are more impactful only if it is foreshadowed.
The opposite of foreshadowing (by leaving your audience in the dark to make your plot twist more shocking) is not nearly as effective. Now that you understand the importance of it, you might be wondering “What is foreshadowing in movies?”
After all, movies have more opportunities than literature to foreshadow events because it is such a visual medium. The foreshadowing definition remains the same, however, the techniques and implementation is different from literature. Let’s examine how filmmakers approach foreshadowing in movies and take a look at six examples and techniques that can help you implement them into your next film.
Six foreshadowing techniques in film
Although there are two main types of the foreshadowing literary definition, filmmakers have found ways to utilize nearly every tool to foreshadow the events of a story — from a film’s title to a character’s wardrobe. Analyzing and breaking down some of these examples will help you find opportunities for this within your story that you may not have seen before.
Try to think of some films that have blown your mind with unforgettable plot twists. Odds are you can re-watch those films and find clues that the filmmaker left throughout the film that foreshadowed the twist. Without these clues, the plot twist would not have been as effective or memorable. Take a look at these six examples that each utilize a different facet of filmmaking. SPOILER ALERT!
Foreshadowing Examples in Coen Brothers Films
1. Place foreshadowing in the title
Sometimes, the title of a film itself can suggest a plot point of a film. It is important to be vague enough so that it entices curiosity in an audience before watching and only makes sense after the end credits. The Coen Brothers do this perfectly in their 2007 film No Country For Old Men.
What does foreshadowing mean in the title No Country for Old Men? The title was created by author and screenwriter Cormac McCarthy to allude to the fact that Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is not cut out for this new generation of crime he is encountering.
The title of the film foreshadows that he cannot stop Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) in time to save Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin). The final scene of the film has been the subject of much debate mainly because it is a description of Ed Tom Bell’s dream after he fails to save Llewelyn and retires as a sheriff.
When juxtaposed to the title, Ed Tom Bell’s dream can be interpreted as the path that he thought would lead him to succeed as a sheriff. Little did he know, following the lessons of his father would do him no good in a new generation of crime, a world in which he cannot keep up.
Foreshadowing Examples in Superhero Movies
2. Include foreshadowing in dialogue
“You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” What is foreshadowing in dialogue? The answer depends not only on what is said, but also who says it. The first half of The Dark Knight builds up Harvey Dent as this unmasked hero that Gotham needs.
He is very much a symbol of justice as we enter this scene. The implications of Harvey saying this quote is not clear until he later becomes Two-Face.
The quote is memorable, yet its impact resonates more the moment Harvey Dent becomes evil. The line is a brilliant use of indirect foreshadowing because it does not directly allude to the fact that Harvey Dent becomes a villain, yet it clearly foreshadows it in retrospect.
Foreshadowing Examples in Thrillers
3. Present foreshadowing in narration
“When you’re suffering from insomnia, nothing’s really real.” Fight Club has one of the most notorious plot twists in recent cinema.
If you’ve ever given it a second or even third watch, you may notice the subtle clues sprinkled throughout the film that foreshadow Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) not being real.
One of the biggest red flags is The Narrator (Edward Norton) acknowledging that nothing is certain when you’re suffering from insomnia. Notice in this clip what happens when he says this.
Did you catch that? That flash, if paused on, foreshadows the plot twist of the entire film. It is Tyler before the Narrator even forms a relationship with him. Blink and you'd miss it during the first watch, but once you see it again, it is a mind-blowing moment of foreshadowing.
Foreshadowing Examples in Scorsese Films
4. Add symbols for foreshadowing
If you’ve ever seen The Departed, you know that the film is full of twists and turns that kill off nearly all of the main characters, but did you know that director Martin Scorsese left very clear clues as to which characters were going to die? Scorsese borrows from the playbook of Scarface (1932) and places an “X” within the frame of a character that dies throughout the film.
Some X’s are more direct while others are more subtle. Nonetheless, the X is always there. This use of symbolism becomes even more apparent with a second watch of the film because they usually appear in the moments leading up to a death.
Foreshadowing Examples in Crime Dramas
5. Use characters as foreshadowing
This classic “whodunit” film leaves the audience curious and engaged until the very last minute. How? The Usual Suspects brilliantly balances subtle, indirect foreshadowing throughout the movie with a rapid-fire direct foreshadowing scene that puts everything together. The result is a plot twist that still ranks among the best more than twenty years later.
This incredible closing scene has been duplicated and parodied for years after its release largely due to its effective method of bringing all the clues together to end a story.
Foreshadowing Examples in Christopher Nolan Films
6. Use foreshadowing through action
As a film bursting perfectly exemplifying the foreshadowing literary definition, Christopher Nolan's The Prestige is a great example of incorporating just enough to keep an audience engaged and just short of giving away its huge plot twist.
One of the scenes that really blows your mind upon a second watch is when Alfred performs his bird cage trick in which he kills a bird and brings it back to life.
This video breaks down the scene and how Nolan manages to leave clues to the film's plot twist in plain sight.
It can often be difficult to foreshadow through action, but Christopher Nolan takes advantage of the unique quality that magicians have in showing rather than telling and utilizes it to create a scene that only gets better with a second watch.
Foreshadowing is one of the most effective tools filmmakers have at creating curiosity in an audience and thus capturing their attention. However, it is important to understand how much and what type your story calls for.
Too much could create a predictable story that the audience disengages from. Too little and it might become boring or confusing and also disengage them. Try finding moments in your story to engage some of these foreshadowing techniques and see what works for you.
How to use subtext
Just as with foreshadowing, engaging the audience requires subtlety. People are often more captivated by a story if they are required to put things together themselves rather than being spoon fed information. A great way to do this in dialogue is by incorporating subtext. Subtext can make dialogue more natural as well as more engaging.