Indiana: THERE’S A BIG SNAKE IN THE PLANE, JOCK! Jock: Oh, that’s just my pet snake Reggie! Indiana: I HATE SNAKES, JOCK! I HATE ‘EM! Jock: Come on! Show a little backbone, will ya!
In the classic movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, after Indiana Jones’s death-defying encounters after he loots the golden idol, dodges poison darts, avoids the giant rolling stone ball, flees from angry locals and a nasty rival archaeologist, this exchange in the plane that provides his escape is welcome bit of comic relief. Indiana Jones, afraid of snakes? After all those heroics he’s upset at a harmless python giving him a cuddle? He has a weakness after all! How human!
Yes, it’s comic relief and it’s perfect timing after the breathlessness of the helter-skelter opening but it’s also a magnificent example of a very useful writing tool, that of Foreshadowing.
Foreshadowing is the art of dropping in something early in a story that turns out to be important later. Done well, it’s immensely satisfying for the reader/viewer, especially the ones who’ve been paying close attention and can feel rewarded for their efforts. And if they haven’t, it’s an ‘Oh, yeah!’ moment as the connection clicks. It’s a useful technique, and one well worth adding to your Writer’s Toolbox.
In Raiders of the Lost Ark the rewarding moment comes much, much later, when Indy and Salah have found the Well of Souls, the keeping place of the Ark of the Covenant. Once they uncover the way into the Well, Salah is puzzled by the way the floor far below is moving. Indy tosses in a burning torch and glumly says, ‘Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?’
Imagine if those lines were said without the earlier scene. Having to wade among deadly snakes is no picnic, but because it’s been established that Indy has a particular fear of snakes the ante has been upped. He has to face a special, personal, challenging – possibly disabling – fear and so the scene has even more tension than it would otherwise have had.
Indy could have peered into the Well of Souls and simply said. ‘I have a lifelong fear of snakes, Salah’ which would have served, but the cleverness of the foreshadowing technique is much more subtle, much more artful, much more adroit.
We see foreshadowing all the time in books, TV and movies, but it’s often heavy-handed. For no obvious reason, the camera lingers on that piece of jewellery, basically announcing that it’s going to be stolen later, and at the same time the soundtrack rises to draw your attention to it. A big neon sign – invisible to the characters but clear to the audience – may as well be blaring ‘Pay Attention to This!’
How does Raiders of the Lost Ark avoid this ham-fisted approach? The secret is that Indy’s fear of snakes is revealed in a scene that has its own integrity in the context of the narrative. There’s a reasonable rationale for him to state this fear in the context of the scene – he’s discovered a big snake crawling into his lap! At first, it looks like it’s another trap/challenge/danger he has to overcome in order to escape with his life, on top of the aforementioned crushing stone balls, poison darts, spiders, bottomless pits and so on, but that’s turned on its head by the revelation that it’s a pet and we laugh – and we remember.
Foreshadowing is a useful and potentially impressive writing technique, but like all writing tools it can be implemented well or it can be implemented poorly.
When the object/person/situation is first introduced to your narrative, give it a rationale in the context of the scene, a reason for it to appear above and beyond ‘It’s going to be important later on’. This way, the reader is likely to accept it as integral part of that moment in the story and not see it as an obvious ploy, shoehorned in just so it can play a part later in the story. When it does appear again, the reader will be both surprised and delighted.