When writing a story, especially at the climax of said story, if anyone or anything is going to rescue your characters from a dire situation, extreme jeopardy, near death, etc., that event CANNOT be coincidence. It MUST be foreshadowed. Sometimes you write foreshadowing in with purpose. Sometimes it seems to occur serendipitously — which is great fun, trust me! When you are casting around for a plot element, or a character to behave in a certain way, and you realize you’ve already laid that groundwork. That’s a RUSH.
You’ve probably heard the term “foreshadowing” before, but I’m going to define it for those who may not be familiar with it. In stories, “foreshadowing” is when you place a bit of information, or a bit of character interaction, or a short scene into a story early on, because what happens or is established in that scene will become vitally important — later in the book. the playwright Anton Chekov once said something like: “If you specify that a gun is hanging on the wall of your set, before the end of the second act, it must be fired.” Think about this for a moment. We’ve all seen innumerable instances of foreshadowing in books, short stories, television, films, or plays. For example, the other night Michael and I were watching “The Event” and one of the first things we saw in the episode was a scene in President Martinez’s conference room. As the muckety-mucks and generals were gathering around the table, a secretary handed the Prez a cup of coffee. We watched his hands take it, then tear open a yellow packet that was obviously made to resemble Splenda, and empty it into his coffee. Michael and I looked at each other and nodded. “Someone’s gonna poison the Prez,” I said. “Yep,” said Michael.
And sure enough, at the end of the episode, the VP did exactly that — substitute a poisoned packet of sweetener for the one the secretary had waiting beside Martinez’s coffee cup.
That was foreshadowing. Admittedly, as is typical of television, it was clumsy, hit the viewer over the head foreshadowing. Most television viewers aren’t writers, or aren’t professional ones, anyhow, so tv writers often can’t or don’t attempt the subtlety of a good prose writer.
Sometimes foreshadowing will happen without even being planned. When I wrote my first novel, back in 1978, I was looking for a character tag for the leader of an archeological expedition. I decided, on a whim, to make Dr. Vargas an amateur violinist, and to give her a Stradivarius. I didn’t reason this out. I just did it. I showed a scene where the members of her archeology team gave an impromptu concert after dinner one evening when hosting Kirk, Spock and McCoy on a mission to the planet where they had their dig. Kirk asked about the violin and Dr. Vargas proudly told him it was a genuine Stradivarius.
Every time I went through that story, I would think, “I should cut that. It doesn’t ‘go’ anywhere.” But then, for some reason I didn’t understand, I left it in. And then I realized I had to completely rewrite the end of the story to make it much more dynamic. I had to have Kirk poised to blast the Guardian of Forever into rubble, because Romulans had attacked the archeologist’s camp and killed everyone there. But Spock and his son, Zar, were still away on a reconnaisance mission. Time was running out. Kirk knew he couldn’t risk all of human history by having the Romulans take over the Guardian of Forever. He had to destroy it before risking that happening. He had set himself a deadline for Spock and Zar’s return. The chrono was running. He beamed down himself, hoping to see some sign of the two approaching the beamdown coordinates. But he saw nothing, as the clock ran out. Kirk was going to have to beam back up and start blasting. But then, just as he contacted Scotty, ready to beam up, he saw something in the rubble of the camp. It was Dr. Vargas’s Stradivarius. Nobody is going to deliberately blast such a treasure; Kirk walked over and picked it up, finding it miraculously unharmed. And when he looked back up, maybe 2 minutes after his deadline had passed, Spock and Zar came into view.
And the story went on.
All the while I’d been writing, I think subconsciously I knew that violin would come in handy for some plot related reason. So that’s why I never cut it. Serendipitiously, it was there when the story needed it, all ready and waiting and FORESHADOWED.
But if you’re going to have some kind of last minute reprieve or rescue, you must have the foreshadowing in place long before its needed. Readers will roll their eyes in disgust if the cavalry just happens to arrive in the nick of time to save your protagonists. You don’t have to spell it out specifically, or god forbid hit the reader over the head with your exact plan for the denouement before it happens (like the writers of “The Event”), but you MUST let the reader know that the protagonist (or sidekick, or someone) has put wheels in motion that will result in rescue/salvation, etc.
You can even have a minor character, someone who is only marginally involved with the story, trigger a rescue, as long as that character is introduced earlier. For example, you might establish a nosy neighbor who bugs the protagonist(s) half to death with his or her constant surveillance, then have the police/fire dept. burst in before your trussed-up protagonists can be roasted in a house fire because nosy neighbor saw the smoke and called in the alarm. But you have to foreshadow nosy neighbor’s tendency to snoop on your protagonists earlier in the book, probably in more than one place.
Just be aware that as writers, writing something into a story that will benefit the protagonist(s) and having it be coincidence is a no-no. It simply won’t be believed. You, the writer, must FORESHADOW.
As Jack Sparrow would say, “Savvy?” Questions or comments?