Friday, April 13, 2018

Writers Corner #3: Foreshadowing An Article!

Greetings, everyone! This is Berserker88, ZNN’s pun-gent reporter and co-author of “Born to Be Wilde” and Nick Wilde: Ace Attorney, welcoming you back to the Writer’s Corner!

Today, we’re going to talk about foreshadowing, a literary device that authors use to hint towards future events in a story. Why would you want to do this, you may ask? You went through a lot of trouble setting up all of these shocking twists and turns. Why would you want to give your readers advance warning that they’re coming and potentially ruin the surprise?

Well, picture this scenario:
Nick and Judy are pinned down in an alleyway by enemy fire. Bad Guy X and his henchmammals are closing in. All hope seems lost for our intrepid duo, when suddenly, Finnick appears and runs down the lot of ‘em in his van. 
That certainly solves the conflict, and may even get a chuckle or two, but what if there was no foreshadowing for such an event? What if Finnick barely appeared in this story prior, you never saw his van anywhere, and for all you knew, he had no idea any of this was even happening? It’d feel like a bit of a rip-off, wouldn’t it? You want your readers to be surprised, but not to throw their hands up in frustration and ask, “How was I supposed to see that coming?” With proper foreshadowing, you never have to worry about hearing that.

Okay, you still might, but now you can point to the relevant passage, twirl your curly mustache, and reply, “That’s how.”

Foreshadowing might seem like a chore, but it can actually be a lot of fun. Take it from someone who gets an almost sadistic joy out of implementing it. (Don’t worry, that’s natural.) So let me put on my writer’s cap and then we’ll go into some different types of foreshadowing after the break!

Chekhov's Gun

"If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."
— Anton Chekhov

One of the most common forms of foreshadowing is the Chekhov’s Gun, a seemingly insignificant element of a story that later turns out to be important. Despite the name, a Chekhov’s Gun does not necessarily have to be an object. It could be a character, a place, even a line of dialogue, just as long as it follows the same principle.

In the above example, perhaps Nick and Judy spot Finnick’s van parked nearby as they enter the alleyway. Using the van as a Chekhov’s Gun, this already makes it seem a lot more reasonable for it to play a role in the following events. But what’s that, you say? That’s being a bit too obvious? If the van wasn’t going to be driven, it wouldn’t be parked there? Now you’re thinking like a Chekhov’s Gunner! If you want to make this a bit harder to see coming, you could instead have Finnick say earlier in the story that he’d be keeping an eye out for Nick in the future, or even more subtly, just have him mention that he got his van refurbished and is looking forward to taking it for a spin again.

Naturally, this all requires a good deal of planning. If you’re going to create a Chekhov’s Gun, you need to know ahead of time when and how it’s going to be fired or else it might not make sense in the long run. So that scene in the alleyway should be fresh in your mind long before you start thinking about where to place the Gun. You then need to consider how you’re going to hide it. You don’t want to make it too obvious, but you also don’t want it to be so subtle that no one picks up on it. It’s a delicate balance, and one that can be difficult to master, so it might be a good idea to start small with less important details until you have the right feel for it. Just keep in mind that a good Chekhov’s Gun flows seamlessly into the scene, but still stands out enough to remember it.

And if you don’t want to deal with any of that, throwing subtlety out the window is also an option. Let’s say Bad Guy X mentions having some kind of secret weapon. You don’t know what this weapon is, what it does, or even if it’s a literal weapon at all, but it’s clearly going to be bad news later down the road or it wouldn’t exist. The same applies to new locations or characters you want to hype up a little. Establish it just enough that it’s clear it’ll be important, then let the imagination take over until you get there. A Gun can be effective even when you’re pointing it right at someone’s face. Go figure.


"A man often meets his destiny on the very road he took to avoid it."
— French/Chinese/Tortoise proverb

Exactly what it says on the tin. A prophecy is a direct foretelling of future events, which will invariably dictate the actions of anyone who hears it. It can come from various sources: an old fortune teller, a royal seer, the local drunk, or some trippy dream sequence, but the result is the same. You have just been given a meta spoiler on how the rest of the story is going to play out.

But don’t worry, it never seems to be as simple as that. After all, if Nick opened a fortune cookie and read, “Judy dies in Chapter 10 from choking on a carrot,” there wouldn’t be much left to the imagination. You might as well just skip ahead and watch him try to keep Carrots away from carrots. No no no, if you want to do this the right way, that prophecy would be more like:

The fair bunny whose dreams have come true
Shall take her last breath, her will is now due
A flash of orange and then the calling of the doves
She will be struck down by that which she loves

And just like that, a prophecy about Judy choking on a carrot can now be read as her being destined to die by Nick’s paws. Guess which interpretation he’s going to jump to. The one that makes a more interesting story, of course. The only thing more certain than this type of prophecy being vague and confusing is that the one who hears it will never interpret it correctly.  Keep these two factors in mind when writing one. Double-meanings are often key here, as it must be deliberately worded so that the wrong conclusion is the one that makes the most sense. Use words that sound the same, or descriptions that can apply to more than one thing, and making it all spooky and cryptic usually helps too. Have fun with it.

The other type of prophecy you’ll see a lot of is the self-fulfilling variety. Take King Oedipus and his troubled childhood and you have a pretty good idea what that entails. This prophecy isn’t vague and confusing; it’s actually pretty straightforward. The conflict results from the listener’s attempts to avert something terrible and usually causing it in the process. So yes, you can still make something interesting out of “Judy chokes on a carrot”, but only if you’re willing to have Nick end up killing her after all. You monster.

If you’re a bit iffy about bringing mysticism into the world of Zootopia, do note that while the term “prophecy” usually has supernatural connotations, it doesn’t have to be. A more mundane version might involve Nick being arrested for whatever reason and having to satisfy certain conditions on his parole. His parole officer is no seer, but they still impact Nick’s actions and how he can live his life from this point forward. He breaks a condition and he’s going back to jail, no divine intervention necessary. And the classic definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy is more psychological than supernatural anyway. Technically speaking, anyone making a prediction or setting rules that must be followed can count so long as there is a payoff. Heck, even superstitions qualify, so Nick getting a bad horoscope or Judy seeing a black cat jaywalk across her path is fair game.


"I think I'll try extra hard to remember today's events and conversations, in case I someday want to recall them verbatim."
— Gordon Frohman, Concerned

Oftentimes, a person’s past can shape their future. In the world of fiction, this is more of an inevitability. A flashback, in its most literal form, involves flashing back to some moment from a character’s past, which is usually triggered by something going on in the present. This, in turn, gives the reader more information about the character and hints at how they’ll react to the current situation. In this fandom, that usually involves Nick and his multiple-choice past, but anyone will do so long as it fits into the story you’re trying to tell. You can even develop multiple characters at once like this if they’re connected in both the past and present. Wanna shake things up a bit? Give your character a flashback to a similar event in the past, then have the present one happen completely differently.

Inversely, a flashforward has you going from the present into the future. Since it’s a little odd for a character to remember something that hasn’t happened yet, unless they came from the prophecy section, this is usually written from a neutral perspective not tied to any specific character. To be honest, there’s no real reason for this to happen at all aside from the author wanting to build suspense, because the future is rarely a happy place. Maybe there’s been a bad breakup, an undercover investigation gone wrong, or just go whole hog and say the entire city has been reduced to an apocalyptic wasteland crawling with deadly mutants. Obviously, the readers are going to be a bit curious how we got from Point A to Point F’d, which you can slowly build up to throughout the present story. Alternatively, you can make that dark future the present story and show how it got there through flashbacks. Some maniacs will even jump all over the timeline, having the past foreshadow the future, the future foreshadow the past, and probably requiring a detailed flow chart just to keep track of it all.

It doesn’t have to be that extreme though. In fact, it doesn’t have to be very noticeable at all. Whether it’s explicitly stated or not, most fanfics are written from the perspective of not just the characters, but the author, who can freely add small flashforwards to the narration. Don’t know what I’m talking about? You’ve probably seen it all the time, something like, “If Nick knew what a terrible day this would be, he would’ve just stayed in bed,” or “Judy had no idea of the true horrors that awaited her babysitting that night.” Thus, a free jump into the future with very little effort. Just don’t overdo it, because that gets annoying fast.


"He went back until he was ninety to see a hat? Why didn't he just go back to the store and buy a new one?"
Mother's eyes hardened. "The story isn't about the hat, Jimmy."
"Sure, it is. The hat, the hat, that's all you talked about. Every other word was 'hat.'"
— The Man in the Ceiling by Jules Feiffer

Possibly the most abstract form of foreshadowing, but more common than you might think. When you think of the term “symbolism”, what comes to mind is probably some complex metaphor about how one thing represents something else, perhaps with some overblown religious imagery thrown in for the Heaven of it. But it’s not always as complicated as that. Let’s take colors, for example. You probably know some of the common associations:

  • Red is aggressive and passionate. Potentially evil.
  • Blue is peace, tranquillity, and security.
  • Yellow is happiness and optimism, but also cowardice and betrayal. Bit of a wild card.
  • Green is natural, healthy, good luck, and jealous of the other colors.
  • Purple is royalty and wisdom, sometimes with a supernatural touch.
  • White is reverence, purity, and can mean either marriage or death depending on which side of the world you live in. There’s a joke in there I’m going to avoid.
  • Black is the unknown, mystery, power. Also potentially evil.

Just with some of these associations in mind, you can design characters or locations to be symbolically colorful, even more so if you want to mix and match. For foreshadowing purposes, you can use this to imply certain traits about them, especially if those traits are contrary to outside appearances. Case in point: if a guy in a black suit and red trims shows up at the ZPD, he’s probably trouble no matter how nice he may seem. Or stick him in a white suit just to confuse the issue further. Eye color is usually the most important indicator, window to the soul and all, so that’s a good place to start.

Colorblind or just otherwise don’t want to mess with them? Another good trick is to use weather to set the mood. Let’s start with Nick and Judy waking up on a bright, sunny morning for another day of making the world a better place. So far, so good. While on the job, the sky gets a bit cloudy. Uh oh, now there’s trouble afoot! So they go to investigate, maybe chase down a perp or two, when suddenly rain starts to fall. Unless this turns into a comedic moment where they both try to seek shelter, the likely outcome is that something very bad is about to happen. Once a thunderstorm kicks in, all bets are off. You don’t get the thunderstorm unless someone has died or there’s about to be an epic showdown where neither adversary is willing to take a rain check. But don’t dress too heavily, because as soon as the conflict is resolved, things will inexplicably get bright and sunny again. As a Floridian, I understand this all too well.

Because this is Zootopia we’re talking about, I would be remiss not to mention all of the animal symbolism available to you. There’s a wide variety of species out there and they each have a number of myths, idioms, and imagery related to them. This extends beyond just stereotypes, and really should if you want to stay in the spirit of the movie, but you’d be surprised how much of this stuff you can find on just foxes and rabbits! From totems to the zodiac, you can easily structure entire characters off of models like this, and those who pick up on it may be able to make a few guesses about what this character is like below the surface. The downside is that, unlike human characters, you can’t really get away with giving one species the symbolism of another unless there’s an established connection between them. A hyena symbolising the characteristics of an elephant would just be plain bizarre.

Red Herring

"The chief difference between the exceptionally knotty problem facing the detective of fiction and that facing the real detective is that in the former there is usually a paucity of clues, and in the latter altogether too many."
— Dashiell Hammett

Here it is. I’ve saved the best for last. The foreshadowing that isn’t. A red herring is, simply put, a false clue. It’s only purpose in the narrative is to confuse and mislead the reader into barking up the wrong tree. This might seem like a pointless addition, but keep in mind that readers today tend to be very genre savvy. If you’re writing in a big plot twist or reveal, there’s a good chance your audience has already seen one exactly like it somewhere else. This isn’t to discourage you from doing it, you just have to be a bit more cunning these days. With a red herring or two, you can turn that genre savviness against them and get the last laugh anyway. There’s a reason one of my main writing philosophies is, “Con the reader.”

So what does a red herring look like? Anything. You can use any one of these previous forms of foreshadowing as a red herring just by making it a bit more fishy. Since you’re trying to fool the reader into chasing this false lead, a red herring should be a bit less subtle than the actual foreshadowing while still keeping up appearances. As an example, let’s take all of the previous examples and paint the town red!

Nick and Judy spot Finnick’s van as they enter the alleyway, but it’s just scenery. Finnick never shows up, nor is the van used in any way.

Nick sees Judy choking on a carrot and rushes to the rescue, striking her down, but in the process saving her life. She took her last breath before she started choking, then just kept taking more afterwards.

That bad future where Zooptopia is destroyed and overrun was just a dedicated LARP. What the present story has actually been building up to is WildeSavage.

The guy in the black suit is perfectly innocent, there’s a thunderstorm when Judy gets promoted to detective, and that hyena just identifies as an elephant. Who are we to judge?

Of course, red herrings themselves have become commonplace, especially in mysteries, and so readers may well expect to see at least one lurking around. General rule of thumb: whoever is most likely to be the culprit isn’t the culprit. This is why I personally recommended having at least two herrings in cases like these. One is the standard “most likely suspect” who is thus the least likely and gets ignored by the more savvy readers. The other is a more significant character who seems friendly, helpful, and is probably connected to the case in some way. They may even be a potential love interest. If that sounds suspicious to you, then you know why I’m suggesting this. Such an archetype is very frequently the perp, making them the perfect red herring. The actual culprit is some innocuous secondary character with seemingly no connection to the case at all.

Do be warned that red herrings, by nature, will make your readers want to punch you. Whether that’s a love tap or a black eye depends on how well you pull it off. There can be a fine line between a red herring and a cop-out, so if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, acts like a duck, but is actually a fish, you better have a good reason why. If you’re going to trick your reader into making one conclusion over another, make sure it isn’t the more interesting one.

Now, as per tradition, this would normally be the part where I point to my own works for examples of foreshadowing. I’m not going to do that because A: I don’t want to spoil anything, and B: I can’t really elaborate on any examples without doing so. Instead, let’s look to a story you’re already quite familiar with. It’s time to delve into...

Foreshadowing in “Zootopia”

Oh yes, our favorite tale of a fox and bunny happens to be absolutely brimming with foreshadowing! There’s so dang much of it that it would take several more pages to cover it all, so let’s focus on the most significant bits as we go through our checklist.

Chekhov’s Gun:

  • The bulbs Judy stops Duke from stealing early in the movie turn out to be much more important than you, or Chief Bogo, would expect. Bonus points for him cutting her off in the middle of her explanation about them. Duke himself is also an example by extension.
  • Judy’s carrot pen is a recurring example. It seems to be fired not too far into the movie when she uses it to “recruit” Nick to her side, but this Gun has another bullet and gets fired off again in the climax. Her fox repellent is a more tragic example. She really should’ve kept that one holstered.
  • Nick’s fondness for blueberries also plays a big role in the climax, especially when they’re mentioned again shortly beforehand. He both cradles them and wraps Judy’s leg wound with his old scout kerchief, also making it clear that he’s serious about upholding his scout values even twenty years later.
  • That random shrew that Judy saves from death by donut turns out to be Mr. Big’s daughter, Fru Fru, which comes in very handy when they’re both about to be iced by him.
  • Doug Ramses appears very early on as the jerk who almost runs over Nick in his van, then later as a fake reporter at the press conference. His phone number also tellingly appears on a sticky note in Bellwether’s office. Bellwether herself takes a number of actions that seem like coincidence at first, but all lead Judy towards finding the missing mammals. And have you seen how many times other sheep pop up around important events? The conspiracy is real!


  • Nick gives Judy a long, breaking speech predicting that she’ll find Zootopia isn’t as free and accepting as she was led to believe, give up on her career, and flee back to Bunnyburrow in shame to become a carrot farmer. The details are different, but this is more or less exactly what happens following the press conference.
  • Finnick mockingly tells Nick that he’s a cop now and to have fun working with the fuzz, even pinning the fake badge to his chest for good measure. Nick of course does become a cop in the end and does have a good deal of fun in the process. He has likely never let Finnick live that down.
  • Chief Bogo gives Judy 48 hours to solve the Missing Mammal Case or she must resign from the ZPD. The entire rest of the movie is thus dedicated to solving the case and it pretty much guarantees that something major will happen in those 48 hours.


  • Judy’s flashback to her childhood in the prologue foreshadows both her determination to fulfill her dream despite many, many obstacles, and her hidden prejudices on predators that come pouring out during the press conference.
  • Nick’s flashback to his childhood likewise foreshadows that not all prey animals can be trusted and that, deep down, he still wants to uphold the values he swore by back then.


  • The play at the beginning of the movie is almost an exact re-enactment of what happens in the climax. Judy is attacked by a “vicious predator” and pinned down, followed by, you guessed it, “Blood, blood, blood, and….death!” Thankfully, Judy’s acting skills improved a bit in that time.
  • The scar Judy receives from Gideon is symbolic of the mental scar she carries of that incident, and towards predators in general. Like that scar, it is hidden from sight and doesn’t fully emerge until the press conference.
  • Dawn Bellwether is an almost literal wolf in sheep’s clothing. On top of that, an actual wolf becomes a fully literal example while going undercover.
  • Judy’s nose twitches whenever she is shown to be afraid, much like real rabbits. Animals that have gone savage are shown to have slitted eyes, symbolizing their more feral state. The lack of both of these traits during Nick’s “attack” on Judy is a clear sign that it’s all an act.

Red Herring:

  • Both Otterton and Manchas have quite the fixation on “Night Howlers”. After seeing the latter get abducted by wolves, Judy makes the fairly reasonable assumption that the curious phrase is referring to them. This is enforced by how they sneak past the wolves at Cliffside, but is ultimately a coincidence and the real Night Howlers are plants that had already been dismissed as unimportant.
  • Nick and Judy’s investigation into the missing mammals leads them to Mr. Big, a feared crime lord with a history of disappearing those who upset him. He’s not the culprit. They later find the missing mammals at Cliffside being imprisoned by Mayor Lionheart, a friendly if somewhat egotistical public figure. He’s also not the culprit. The actual culprit is Dawn Bellwether, an innocuous secondary character with seemingly no connection to the case at all. See how that works?

Alrighty then! Now that we’ve covered different types of foreshadowing, how to implement them, and examined both hypothetical and canonical examples, you are ready to show the fruits of your training and mystify/con your readers for years to come. But first, there is one last thing I would like to bring up.

Do you remember those random quotes peppered throughout each section? Well, they weren’t random at all! Each and every one of them comes from a website known as Tv Tropes. You may know it as the crack of the Internet, and I’m not talking about butts. Not only is this site extremely addictive, it is a very good source of everything you could ever want to know about tropes, including all of these forms of foreshadowing and more. Incidentally, it’s also how I ended up a member of ZNN, so I might as well return the favor.

You see?! You thought I was just being fancy, but those quotes had a purpose all along! It was all a part of my grand design! Mwahahahahahahaha!

*ahem* That’s all folks.


  1. One of my favorite Foreshadowing devices is what I call the Mistletoe method.

    This is taken not from the use of mistletoe at Christmastime but from the old Norse legend of the death of Balder.

    What happened was, Balder's mother extracted a promise from every living thing never to harm her son. But when she came to the little mistletoe plant, she didn't bother. 'Feh, that tiny little thing couldn't possibly hurt Balder.' Enter Loki, who tracked down the mistletoe plant, now grown much larger, used it to fashion a dart, and... You can guess the rest.

    Basically the Mistletoe method can be summed up by the following phrase, "Judy felt her nose twitching in curiosity, but then decided not to pursue the matter; it wasn't all that important." (And of course, later on it turns out to be VERY important.)

    I like this method because it heightens the suspense. You've not only foreshadowed what's to come, but now your reader is saying, "No Judy, don't ignore that; it IS important!"

    What's even more fun is to combine Mistletoe with a Red Herring. Yes, the thing Judy ignored turns out to be important later on, but not for the reason you THOUGHT it was.

  2. Heh heh, that sounds like a fun one. May you use it to great potential! ;)

  3. Great article! Very informative, and I loved all the jokes peppered throughout.

    Speaking of, that's my all-time favourite technique for foreshadowing, as both a reader and an author: foreshadowing smuggled in via comedy. Not only do you inject a bit more humour, and not /only/ are you being efficient by doing two things at once, but presenting foreshadowing as a joke disguises it. The audience will be less suspicious of Finnick's van being pointed out to them if Nick wisecracks about the paintjob as they pass it.

    Off the top of my head, maybe the best movie for this is My Cousin Vinny (a comedy shown in law classes for its surprisingly accurate courtroom procedure). Various facts are established in early, humourous discussions, before tying back into the story later on - and it's so satisfying when they are, since you remember them perfectly, but never expected them to return. It's a superb approach, and one I always love!

    1. As someone who is a big fan of both foreshadowing and comedy, I am very inclined to agree. Love that movie. XD