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Foreshadowing: Some Post-Midsommar Thoughts

Foreshadowing is one of those things you learn about in English class that really smart authors put in so they can tell the world how smart and clever they are. But what does it mean? What does it do? What is the purpose of foreshadowing?

I just saw Midsommar, a movie with a lot of foreshadowing. I will keep my opinions about the film to myself as they are not relevant to this discussion, but I want to talk about how the movie uses foreshadowing and how it demonstrates that there’s a good way and a bad way to do it.

In the beginning, the main character sleeps under a picture of a girl petting a bear.

Then at the cult, they pass by a bear in a cage. No one makes mention of it, no one explains what it’s doing there. One person says “So we just going to ignore the bear then?” and that’s it.

Two hours later at the end of the movie, a guy gets stuffed into the bear’s skin, put into a house, and then set on fire. WTF?

Here’s the problem. None of the foreshadowing has anything to what’s going on at the moment. They’re just there. They have no context. They have no relevance to the story. So their significance means nothing to the viewer.

First, why does it have to be a bear? Norway has plenty of large animals. They could have used a reindeer or a polar bear or a musk ox or a wolf. The camera lingers on the bear to show it’s important (but it lingers on just about everything in this movie). They could have used any animal, so why did it have to be a bear? What significance does a bear have?

Second, that painting has nothing to do with what actually happens to the bear in the end. People keep saying it’s foreshadowing, but no one’s petting any bears at any time. In the movie, the heroine essentially orders the bear (and the guy in it) to burn to death.

Third, we have no idea what the bear is going to be used for. There are no hints other than its existence. So the image goes in and out of the mind in a flash. In a good story, you remember A led to B led to C led to D and that’s how we got to the point you’re at now. It’s a chain. But here, you might as well have cut to a picture of a peacock. It might as well be “The Invisible Gorilla“. It doesn’t sit in your brain because it connects to nothing. It only matters if you can remember that it was there in the first place. “Oh, yeah, they passed by that bear in a cage before.”

“It seemed extraneous at the time.”

But so what? What does it mean? I could put foreshadowing like that in any story. The characters pass by a poster that says “SO-AND-SO IS GOING DIE” but it won’t mean anything to the reader because it’s been assigned no framework. No situation. Foreshadowing shouldn’t only work if it makes you read the book twice. You can’t just refer to something that’s going to happen at the end and call yourself a genius. WHY does she have a picture of a bear?

Examples of good foreshadowing: Edna’s digression about “no capes” in The Incredibles. It makes sense in the context of their conversation–Edna’s talking about certain costumes she won’t make because of experience. Syndrome, whose whole thing is being a false superhero, does not learn this lesson and dies because of it.

Early in Game of Thrones, Ned Stark comes upon a dire wolf impaled by a stag’s horn. This works because, in this universe, every house has an animal symbol. The symbol for Ned’s house is a dire wolf and the symbol for the Baratheon house is a stag. The dire wolf even has six pups, the same number of children Ned has. This prophecizes how Ned’s going to be killed by the house Baratheon (specifically Joffrey).

In Bioshock, there’s some real subtle foreshadowing that Atlas is Frank Fontaine and has been deceiving you this whole time. And it’s not just realizing that “Would You Kindly” is your trigger word. He accidentally says the wrong name of his children. He changes the story of how he and his wife met. His son and daughter have the same name as characters in a play in Fort Frolic (not to mention the booby-trapped submarine has no bodies). He’s supposed to be Irish but refers to American football. All this indicates that the twist is not random and the clues are all there.

In Zootopia, the beginning foreshadows the end, where Judy does the same hammy acting as in the play in the beginning. But the play’s primary purpose is to be expositional, not to act solely as a callback to something in the future. They could have done some other method to explain Zootopia’s world–narration or other rhetoric. But because of the play, it adds gravitas to the twist/fake-out.

In any heist story, if they tell you the plan before they execute it, you know something’s going to go wrong (because you need to know how it’s supposed to go right before you can know something’s deviated). If they don’t tell you, you know the plan is going to work. But in either case, tension is added as to whether or not all the pieces will fall into place, like knowing what Tetris block is coming down the pipe.

Even comedies can make it work. Each of the movies in The Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End) contain hints or predictions of what’s going to happen. But they’re not random, they come from within the context of the scene. There is a scene early on where one character, usually Nick, gives a monologue about their perfect plan or remembers a fun adventure or something like that. Everything that they say happens at some point in that order. (e.g. in Shaun of the Dead, Shaun comes up with a plan for hiding from the zombies. “Bloody Mary–first thing.”–the first zombie Shaun and Ed encounter is Mary, the checkout girl, “A ‘bite’ at the King’s Head” — his stepfather is bitten in the head, etc.) Hot Fuzz has things like Ed and Shaun doing all the cool cop stuff Ed talks about earlier. And, in The World’s End, each pub represents the events that happen there in that scene. But in all three of these, the foreshadowing isn’t just plopped in. It’s contextualized within the story. Like easter eggs.

Foreshadowing is bad when it doesn’t get fulfilled or doesn’t have a place in the context it shows up. Like Event Horizon–they walk along a corridor and someone points out the explosives to blow up the corridor. It comes out of nowhere so it becomes pretty obvious that they’re going to be used by the end. In every James Bond movie, the gadgets that Q demonstrates will be used by James Bond some time later. It couldn’t be any clumsier than if a stagehand had walked out on stage in the middle of a play and hung a gun up on the backdrop.

In Spider-Man 3, Harry Osborn says about Peter and Mary Jane “They’re my best friends. I’d die for them.” Well, that came out of left field. No one was talking about having to die for anybody, why’d you bring that up? Sure hope that doesn’t mean anything later.

In Signs, it feels smart, but it also feels random. The kid gets germaphobic and leaves glasses of water all over the house so that it can be used against the alien later on. But why is she germaphobic? Why doesn’t she throw the water down the drain as any normal person would do? Because the twist demands that it’s left there. He got asthma so that his lungs would close to prevent him from breathing in the alien’s poisonous gas. What about the other 99% of the time he has to suffer?

And anyone who coughs (terminally ill) or throws up (pregnant). Such lazy cliches.

And here’s a mixed example. In Ghostbusters, there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of a bag of marshmallows in the scene where Dana’s eggs cook on the counter. Is this foreshadowing? No, because the marshmallows are just sitting there–they’re not linked to Ray or a mascot or city destruction or anything. They’re there to establish that Stay-Puft is a brand in this universe. But there’s no indication that they are going to become a giant Michelin Man.

Conclusion

What is the point of foreshadowing? Why add it to your story? What purpose does it serve? How does it help?

It adds suspense. The whole point of any story is to answer “will they or won’t they achieve their goal”. And foreshadowing adds to the suspense before that answer is delivered. Otherwise, every story could be three sentences long.

Or they can just be fun Easter Eggs like in the Cornetto trilogy. Things that add value to a second watch, like a New Game +.

Foreshadowing is also meant to highlight critical components so that the reader can cobble together a complete, reasonable, and logical story. Is there anything logical about Midsommar? Is there any reason why they keep hanging around like morons after two old people die before their eyes.

But in all cases, foreshadowing is more than making a promise to the reader — “there will be a bear later on” — it has to have meaning in the moment. There’s a time and place for foreshadowing and it’s not in every story. Can you imagine The Thing if there was any hint of foreshadowing as to who was real and who wasn’t? That would give away the surprise and ruin the experience. Oppositely, would The Sixth Sense be as impactful if there weren’t those scenes of Bruce Willis (not) interacting with his wife?

Foreshadowing is at its best when it provides clues as to what’s going to happen while disguised as something else. That’s not Midsommar. Foreshadowing is like borrowing from a bank so you can have a bigger payday later on. You’re borrowing from the future of the story to give the end more impact. Midsommar borrows but does squanders what it takes. Its foreshadowing just sits there like a dead fish, unearned.

Eric Juneau is a software engineer and novelist on his lunch breaks. In 2016, his first novel, Merm-8, was published by eTreasures. He lives in, was born in, and refuses to leave, Minnesota. You can find him talking about movies, video games, and Disney princesses at http://www.ericjuneaubooks.com where he details his journey to become a capital A Author.

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