Foreshadowing

Also referred to as “planting and payoff,” foreshadowing is a highly effective plot device that helps make the story feel more plausible. It consists of an introduction early in the movie of something that will be extremely relevant as the plot unfolds. Without foreshadowing, the audience would refuse to accept a beat of the story, deeming it implausible.

James Bond movies contain classic examples of foreshadowing. The character Q, always present in the set-up of the movie, introduces gadgets, weapons, and cars to 007 (planting). In the first act, those gadgets aren’t much needed. But towards the end, Bond always uses them to fight villains (payoff). Without the proper foreshadowing in the beginning, the audience would feel cheated and confused.

As a general rule, the villain is the only character in the script that may be “lucky.” The heroes will suffer misfortune most of the time, thus if he or she has an object or a skill that is vitally important in killing the villain, planting it early on is required.

Spoiler Alert: The following contains story spoilers, used here to illustrate the technique (but the movies below are old classics, so maybe you have already seen all of them. If not, you should!).

 Foreshadowing an Object

The James Bond example mentioned above fits into this category. The cars, weapons, and gadgets are objects presented in Act I. Foreshadowing an object is required when the character in question is not likely to already have it. For instance, unless the character is a policeman or a criminal, introducing a gun beforehand is needed. In Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise (1991), the gun that inflicts a wound at the end of Act I is introduced much earlier, during the first ten minutes of the film.

revolver_thelma

In Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), the foreshadowing is more subtle but equally valid. Somewhere in Act II, Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) trips on a pressurized air tank, which he curses. In Act III, Brody shoves that same tank into the shark’s mouth and makes it explode.

Foreshadowing a Skill or Talent

In James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984), an early scene shows the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) talking into a police radio imitating a dead policeman’s voice, thus establishing this skill. Later in the film, the Terminator reproduces Sarah’s (Linda Hamilton) mother’s voice in order to discover Sarah’s location.

In Cinema Paradiso (1988), 9-yeard-old Toto’s (Salvatore Cascio) constant attention of how Alfredo (Philippe Noiret) threads the film and operates the projector gives him the experience he needs to operate the projector himself. When Alfredo suffers an accident, the young boy replaces him at the projection room.

In Milos Forman’s Amadeus (1984), a voice over narration by Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) early in the picture, coupled with other visual cues, foreshadows Mozart’s (Tom Hulce) proficiency of the craft: “This man had written his first concerto at the age of four! His first symphony at seven! A full-scale opera at 12!” When Mozart humiliates Salieri at the piano, the audience understands how.

Foreshadowing Behavior

Justifying someone’s action is necessary when their behavior would otherwise be considered contrived or fake amidst the circumstances established in the movie.

About halfway through Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), an expository flashback presents Captain Koons (Christopher Walken) talking to a young Butch (Chandler Lindauer) about a gold watch (that quickly turns into a minor MacGuffin to Butch’s character). Captain Koons explains to Butch that the gold watch first belonged to his great grandfather, and it has been with the men of the family since. Later, when Butch (Bruce Willis) learns that his girlfriend forgot the watch in their apartment, he decides to return home even though mob hit men are on the lookout for him. Had the gold watch’s history not being explained, Butch’s decision to go back would be unbelievable.

Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) introduces Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) as an ambitious and impatient stockbroker. After a negotiation with a wealthy businessman over the phone, Bud looks to a friend and says: “You know what my dream is? It’s to one day be on the other end of that phone.” This little line of dialogue explains much of Bud’s behavior throughout the movie, including his illegal activity.

Exposition & Backstory

I remember when I started writing screenplays in my teens, Exposition and Backstory were two concepts that used to really baffle me. The reason being because everyone always tells you that when writing a screenplay you have to  “always move the story forward, always move the story forward.”*

For the longest time, I didn’t understand how I could move the story forward and at the same time deliver backstory. In my mind, forward and backstory were two contradictory notions: how can you go forward and backward at the same time? I thought (erroneously)  that forward meant future-centric, that I should focus only on what was gonna happen in the next minute, or the next day, or the next week in the lives of the characters. I thought that talking about the character’s past was taboo. But that’s not true. Revealing the character’s past is an essential part of screenwriting. This makes the audience connect to characters in ways that wouldn’t be otherwise possible.

*Move The Story Forward

The gist of the always-move-the-story-forward adage is that the writer can never waste the audience’s time with pointless or irrelevant scenes or beats. In this sense, it’s totally possible to move the story forward while delivering backstory as long as the backstory is relevant to the scene or character.

The Purposes of Exposition

Though exposition comes in a variety of colors and shapes (more on this below), their goal in most scenes is one these:

  • Teach the audience about a character and his or her world: is the story world quaint and peaceful or scary and violent? Did all the relatives of the main characters die of old age or were they shot during a bank hold-up? Think Batman. How did Bruce’s parents die?
  • Allow the audience to connect with a character by learning more about his or her traumas and pains: dissatisfaction is something that everyone feels sooner or later. Whether we are unhappy with our careers, love life,  level of education, what have you, everyone is unhappy with an aspect of their lives. Remember Luke Skywalker in the beginning of Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)? The adventurer in Luke has his hands tied due to his obligations in the farm, although he really wants to travel and explore. Many of us have been in Luke’s shoes at some point in our lives. So here we are watching this sci-fi about intergalactic wars, and we understand exactly what the main character is feeling. That’s a connection.
  • Inform the audience of a specific fear or skill a character possess: this is a kind of foreshadowing that reveals a trait that will be relevant as the story unfolds:  Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes, Romeo and Juliet discuss death, Ripley can operate a powerloader, etc.

Exposition Through Dialogue

The most common way to give exposition is with conversations. Lines of  dialogue can offer important information about a character’s background.

Early in Little Miss Sunshine (2006), the family comes together in the exposition-packed dinner scene. That scene offers great backstory and explanation on the behavior of many characters: Dwayne (Paul Dano) doesn’t speak because he’s made a vow of silence as an attempt to show his devotion towards becoming a test pilot. Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a motivational speaker and a life coach, who’s been trying get a book published. Uncle Frank (Steve Carell), by far the person that gives the most exciting speech while explaining to Oliver (Abigail Breslin) why he tried to commit suicide, traces back to a ruined academic career and a devastating break-up with the man of his dreams, also revealing his sexual preference.

In L.A. Confidential (1997), a conversation between Sergeant Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) and Lieutenant Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) reveals the reason why Exley became a cop: his dad was shot six times by a criminal who thought he was above the law. To the question “Why’d you become a cop?”, asked by Exley after his poignant discourse, Vincennes simply replies, “I don’t remember.” This dialogue separates both men, as their motivations to become cop were different, implying their different, perhaps even conflicting senses of justice.

In an early scene from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) gets ups from his bed, approaches the window, looks through the blinds, and utters: “Saigon… Shit.” A two-word line is enough to present the location of the movie and Willard’s overall satisfaction about being there.

Exposition Through Mise-En-Scene

A less used but equally acceptable method is exposition through the creative use of décor and props. Any object that bares information on a character can be considered expository. A certificate on the wall may indicate that so-and-so is a lawyer or a doctor. Photographs can denote past involvement by a group of people.

In one scene from Danish short film The Charming Man (Der Er En Yndig Mand, 2002), Lars Hansen (Martin Buch) is shown applying for a job. While filling out an application form, he checks the “single” box, thus establishing his relationship status.

 

As Seen at the Movies:
High Noon (1952)

High noon mise-en-scene

Notice the grime and dust on the wall, where the flag was. This careful construct of the set implies that the judge has been there in that office for a long time. But now that Frank Miller is coming, the judge is leaving. It may indeed be just a detail, but the grime and dust communicate something. Moreover, the judge’s action indicate that the situation is serious and potentially dangerous. Thus, he is running away.

This is visual storytelling. The judge could have said something like “I’ve been in this town for a long time… Now I must leave.” But instead, this information is suggested through the elaborate mise-en-scène and his actions. This allows the dialogue to be more powerful by not being redundant.

 

Exposition Through Text

The most obvious type of exposition is through the use of text or title cards. This incarnation is purely expository and rarely dramatic.

A famous example is the static title card followed the crawling text in the intro to George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977). The title card first introduces the time and space:

The subsequent crawling text establishes organizations (the evil Galactic Empire) and characters (Princess Leia). For a movie this complex, these title cards are a welcomed device.

A simpler version of text exposition is “once upon a time” or “three months later.”

Texts are also preferred when exposition on a more formal matter is necessary. Quentin Tarantino makes good use of it in the beginning of Pulp Fiction(1994), when a title card defines the word “pulp.”

Exposition Through Narration

Narration is one of the most emotional ways to give exposition. Narrators can be either an omniscient, disembodied person that sees all, or they can be characters that exist in the world of the movie, sometimes narrating their own story, sometimes narrating others’ stories.

In The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Red (Morgan Freeman) describes how he sees Andy (Tim Robbins) – a technique that allows for a better scrutiny of Andy’s persona. If Andy were talking about himself, the narration would come out as awkward and maybe self-important. But Red offers a third-person view that matches what the audience sees. Also, since Red had been in prison longer, he can share knowledge about life behind bars and predict what Andy is going through:

RED: “The first night’s the toughest, no doubt about it. They march you in naked as the day you were born, skin burning and half blind from that delousing shit they throw on you, and when they put you in that cell… and those bars slam home… that’s when you know it’s for real. A whole life blown away in the blink of an eye. Nothing left but all the time in the world to think about it.”

Note that the voice-over allows for a more poetic tone of the descriptions (“naked as the day you’re born” and “those bars slam home”). Writing narration is extra hard because it allows the characters to be more colorful than they would in a dialogue. The writer must never be redundant to the point where he shows and says the same thing. Crafty narration enhances picture and elaborates the story.

In Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960), C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) opens the movie with a humorous narration about the population of New York, narrowing it down to the company for which he works and, finally, himself, disclosing his work hours and even salary.

Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) brings a twist to the norm. The main character, Ada (Holly Hunter) is mute, but she’s also the narrator:

ADA: “The voice you hear is not my speaking voice – but my mind’s voice. I have not spoken since I was six years old. No one knows why. Not even me.”

In all the films above, the narrators are also characters in the movie, thus having influence on the plot. The other type of the narrator is the omniscient or disembodied narrator, who’s not part of the filmic world, but that “knows all.”

Network (1976) opens with a lengthy exposition by a disembodied narrator. The 2-minute narration condenses more than six years of a character’s live. Observe how much information and backstory is revealed in so little time:

NARRATOR: “This story is about Howard Beale, who was the news anchorman on UBS TV. In his time, Howard Beale had been a mandarin of television, the grand old man of news, with a HUT rating of 16 and a 28 audience share.

In 1969, however, his fortunes began to decline. He fell to a 22 share. The following year, his wife died, and he was left a childless widower with an 8 rating and a 12 share. He became morose and isolated, began to drink heavily, and on September 22, 1975, he was fired, effective in two weeks.

The news was broken to him by Max Schumacher, who was the president of the news division at UBS. The two old friends got properly pissed.”

 

Exposition Through Flashback

Another alternative is exposition through flashback, a technique that should be used mainly to replace major story moments that cannot be reduced to a simple conversation.

Casablanca (1942), for instance, has a lengthy flashback that shows how Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) met, plus the romance they lived in Paris. There’s no way an exposition so long would be accomplished with such mastery through dialogue – flashback was indeed necessary.

Another possibility for flashback is when a character thinks something so intimate that he or she doesn’t talk about it. In The Silence of the Lambs (1991), a couple of flashbacks show Clarice’s (Jodie Foster) memories with her dad.

A Word of Caution

Quite often, we talk about “show, don’t tell” which is one of the most enduring notions in filmmaking and screenwriting. But I wanted to warn you that you shouldn’t use that concept to justify flashbacks. What I mean is that, although you may think that flashbacks (showing) should replace dialogue (telling) this is not always the case because flashbacks are sometimes a detraction to the flow of a scene or sequence. Remember, move the story forward.

So when should you resort to flashbacks? Like everything else in filmmaking, there are no fast-and-hard rules. My advice is avoid flashbacks when you can and use them sparingly. For instance, if you can reveal backstory through dialogue, then maybe dialogue is enough. However, if you think that you can dramatize it better in a flashback, then flashback could be the way to go. Decision, decision, decisions. Isn’t storytelling awesome?

 

Exposition Through Music

Another great way to reveal backstory is through music. This approach, however, may not be called upon by the writer, unless music is an essential part of the plot. More often than not (as we see occasionally in Disney movies) the director or composer will select key moments of the plot to augment through music. From Snow White to Frozen, Disney has always amazed everyone in this department.  But here’s one of my favorite non-Disney example.

During the initial credits of High Noon (1952), the Academy Award winning-song Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling plays and introduces the plot:

Do not forsake me O my darlin’
On this our wedding day.
Do not forsake me O my darlin’
Wait, wait along.

The noonday train will bring Frank Miller.
If I’m a man I must be brave
And I must face that deadly killer
Or lie a coward, a craven coward,
Or lie a coward in my grave.

Remarkably, before any of the characters utter a single word, the second stanza from the song already establishes the premise: A deadly killer is coming in the noonday train, and the main character must kill him or die.

Some Thoughts…

By its very nature, expositions are about the past. And thus that means that they could slow down the progression of the story. Therefore, screenwriters must be aware of when to use them, and the effect each of them has in the story.

Film Trivia

During principal photography of The Silence of the Lambs, director Jonathan Demme and his crew were ready to fly to Montana to shoot on location the flashback of a young Clarice attempting to runaway, when, after shooting the dialogue between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), in which Starling mentions the runaway attempt, Demme realized there was no point in cutting to another location when the exposition worked so well through the actors’ acting and dialogue, so he canceled the flight. In this case, less was more.

The main purpose of exposition is to transform characters into 3-dimentional creatures by allowing the audience to understand them and therefore participate in their emotions. However, sometimes exposition can be used to foreshadow or justify someone’s skills or behavior.

In Thelma & Louise (1991), Louise (Susan Sarandon) shows great fear towards going to Texas, a place that brings undisclosed bad memories to her. It is later implied (but never revealed) that Louise was raped in Texas, which explains why she shot the man that was seconds away from raping Thelma during the first plot point. In this case, a later exposition validates an earlier act that would otherwise be considered arbitrary and implausible.

The Three-Act Structure

steve spielberg quote

The 3-act structure is an old principle widely adhered to in storytelling today. It can be found in plays, poetry, novels, comic books, short stories, video games, and the movies. It was present in the novels of Conan Doyle, the plays of Shakespeare, the fables of Aesop, the poetry of Aristotle, and the films of Hitchcock. It’s older than Greek dramaturgy. Hollywood and Broadway use it well. It’s irrefutable and bullet-proof, so to speak.

Though quite simple, the 3-act structure has proven to be a valuable weapon in the arsenal of any screenwriter. Yes, there are alternatives to telling a story. But the 3-act structure is a highly accepted and greatly successful method.

In a nutshell, the 3 acts are labeled as:

Act I: Setup

Act II: Confrontation

Act III: Resolution

Some people like to call them beginning, middle, and end, which is not inaccurate. The point of the acts is to make sure that the story evolves and the stakes get higher.

3 act structure

All acts have their own sets of guidelines and rules that make the foundation of story development. The next sections will go over the differences of one act and the other, plus the obvious and the obscure dos and don’ts of the craft.

Spoiler Alert: The following sections contain story spoilers, used here to illustrate the concept at hand.

Act I: The Setup

The first act is where all the major characters of the story are introduced, plus the world where they live in, and the conflict that will move the story forward. In Act I, the writer has the freedom to create any setting and reality that he so wishes. It’s in the first pages of the script that he defines the reasoning and logic of the story. This early in the script, anything is possible.

The story may happen in the distant future or long time ago in a galaxy far far away. It may take place in downtown New York or in an African jungle. The first act also establishes genre. It may be a drama about a widow that struggles to re-encounter love, or a suspense about a young trainee summoned out of the FBI academy in a special assignment to interview a dangerous psychopath.

The writer may even distort reality or create his own. Toy Story (1995) opens with a young boy, Andy, playing with his toys. As soon as Andy exits the bedroom, leaving the place unsupervised, his toys promptly gain life. Yet we don’t frown or disapprove of it. At the movie’s very beginning, the audience has their mind open for practically anything. As the movie progresses, the viewer unconsciously forms a frame for the story, and their suspension of disbelief narrows, limiting what they will accept as plausible and congruent.

Ideally, your main character can never be lucky further down in the script. But while the story is introduced, this gimmick is acceptable if done right. In Three Days of the Condor (1975), CIA employee Joseph Turner (Robert Redford) survives a massacre that kills all of his colleagues while he steps out of the office to get lunch. In Dances With Wolves (1991), Lieutenant John J. Dunbar (Kevin Costner), learning that he must have his injured leg amputated, decides to commit suicide. He steals a cavalry horse and runs it into the infantry of the Confederate army. In doing so, he incites his fellow Union soldiers to rally, which leads to an unexpected victory. His plan to die fails, but he becomes a hero.

Act I must also present a strong hook – an exciting scene early in the script that grabs the audience’s interest and hooks them. Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) starts with an action-packed, attention-grabbing sequence that introduces Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) performing acrobatic stunts while penetrating a cave and lost temples to find a valuable artifact.

Part of that hook is the inciting incident that takes place somewhere in the beginning of Act I. This inciting incident often provokes a change in the protagonist’s routine – something new they experience that could either challenge or encourage them. In The Silence of the Lambs (1991), FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) meets with Dr. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). The confrontation of both parties is nerve-wracking.

Act I ends with the first plot point of the movie. In Thelma & Louise (1991), Plot Point I happens when Louise shoots dead a man who was on the verge of raping Thelma. This action completely changes the course of the story . Thelma and Louise were up until now just trying to have some off-time away from their tedious lives. But when Thelma kills that guy, they become criminals. Quickly, the police are brought into the picture.

Act II: Confrontation

The second act is by far the longest, encompassing half of the movie and taking place between the first and third acts. For some screenwriters, Act II is the hardest one to squeeze out. This happens because after the initial boost of a new story, the writer is left without plot elements to introduce. The story, its characters and conflict are all established. At this point, the writer has created a solid frame for his narrative. Yet he’s still roughly sixty pages away from the ending.

With so many blank pages remaining, the writer faces the challenge of keeping the story moving forward and not boring the audience. One device to accomplish this feat is the creation of subplot. The subplot is a minor story layered under the main narrative. It often adds a three-dimensionality aspect to the characters by allowing them to engage in a behavior that is not necessarily connected to the main plot, but still relevant in the overall narrative and often linked to a central theme.

In Peter Weir’s Witness (1985), the main storyline follows Philadelphia policeman John Book (Harrison Ford), as he investigates the assassination of a fellow police officer. His only witness is an Amish boy (Lukas Haas), who saw the murder happen at a train station restroom in the big city. When Officer Book discovers that someone from his own precinct ordered the killing, his life is in danger, and, after being shot, he runs away to the Amish countryside of Lancaster. During the second act of Witness, John Book and Amish widow Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis) engage in a brief courtship that fails to evolve into an affair. Also during Act II, Book befriends many members of the Amish community – an event that foreshadows the resolution in Act III, when the community comes to Book’s rescue .

As epitomized in Witness, the second act may be a moment in which the hero leaves his comfort zone, which fuels the writer with another set of possibilities. In The Lion King (1994), after Mufasa dies, Simba runs away. Timon and Pumbaa save him from the desert, and Simba has to live in the Jungle, eating bugs and beetles! During Act II in Toy Story, while Andy’s mom’s fills up her vehicle, Woody leaps out of the car in order to rescue Buzz. But before Woody can convince Buzz to climb back in the car, Andy and his mom take off, leaving Buzz and Woody stranded in the gas station. Before the movie’s resolution, the two toys find themselves into an even worse setting – Sid’s creepy bedroom.

In the second act, the stakes escalate. If the hero is “on the fence” or confused about what he should do, then something must happen by the midpoint of the script to make his goal clear. In Thelma & Louise, the two protagonists realize that, with the police on their tail, they cannot return home and live a normal life. They have to keep driving towards Mexico.

A pivotal element of this escalation inherent to Act II is Plot Point II, which catapults the story into the third and final act. Much like Plot Point I, Plot Point II also affects the main character by changing the direction he’s headed. The difference is that the stakes are much higher. This is often a moment of crisis, in which all hope seems lost.

       

Act III: Resolution

The last act, Act III presents the final confrontation of the movie, followed by the denouement. This act is usually the shortest in length because quickly after the second turning point of the script, the main character is face to face with the villain or just about. Showdown ensues and then conclusion.

In The Silence of the Lambs, the third act kicks off when Agent Starling enters the house of Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), the criminal who she’s been trying to find. This moment is tension-packed because little does Starling know the identity of the man that’s welcoming her. When Starling finally finds out, she’s inside the serial killer’s domain and unable to call for back-up.

As illustrated by The Silence of the Lambs, Act III contains a moment often labeled as mandatory – the confrontation between hero and villain, the clash between good and evil, a duel. In the moment that Clarice Starling walks into Buffalo Bill’s house, the writer fulfills a promise made by him in the first act, when he set up those two opposing forces.

The spectators are smart, so don’t underestimate them. Whenever the writer establishes a prince, a princess, and a dragon, the audience will urge for a confrontation in which the prince slays the dragon to rescue the princess (like in Sleeping Beauty). You can always tweak the formula (like in Enchanted), but if the dragon is not dead by the end of the film, your audience will walk out dissatisfied, even if they can’t pinpoint the reason.

The third act is also when the writer ties up any loose ends and offers a resolution to the subplots. In Witness, the third act takes off when the corrupt cops find John Book hidden in the Amish community. The mandatory confrontation between the opposing forces takes place, and then Book and Rachel meet. Both have to make a choice. Either Book stays to be with Rachel or Rachel leaves to be with Book.

In the final moments of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, the audience learns what “rosebud” means – a questions asked in the first act.

The resolution can also give extra information for a more elaborate character arc. In Titanic (1997), after revealing what happened to the Heart of the Ocean, we cut to Old Rose’ bedroom. The movement of the camera shows her nightstand with photos of adventures she did when young – promises kept to Jack.

Although I consider the three acts to be an essential element to many films, there are many professionals out there who disagree. I share some of my reservations about the three-act structure on this post:
In it I mention a few pitfalls that writers make and how to avoid them, so if you are serious about being a screenwriter, I highly recommend you give it a read.