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.

MacGuffin

What is it and when to use?

The MacGuffin (also spelled McGuffin) has always been one of my favorite “techniques” in screenwriting, and I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe it’s because of its funny-sounding name, or maybe it’s because it screams Hitchcock as Hitchcock screams for it, or maybe it’s because it’s all-around awesome in its simplicity. But what is it?

Simply put, a MacGuffin is an object of interest around which the plot revolves. The term was made popular by director Alfred Hitchcock, who constantly used both the name and the technique.

In Hitchcock’s Words

“We call it the ‘MacGuffin.’ It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers.”

 A Valuable Object

In its most common appearance, the MacGuffin is an expensive object desired by many characters. This has been done to death. In this version, the MacGuffin can be a diamond, a relic, and a pricy artifact. In Pulp Fiction, it’s the suitcase loaded with you-don’t-know-what.

An Object of Interest

When the MacGuffin is not a valuable object, it is often an object of interest – something that both heroes and villains want to get ahold of.

 

As Seen at the Movies

In North by Northwest, the MacGuffin is the microfilm – a clandestine copy of confidential Government documents. The villains are spies trying to smuggle the microfilm out of the United States. Notice that the secret in the microfilm is not important. We know neither what the microfilm contains nor who copied the documents. What matters is that it exists and its value is clearly established.

A Character

In a more poetic understanding, a MacGuffin doesn’t always have to be a physical object. It could be a character.

As Seen at the Movies

In Good Will Hunting, the MacGuffin is Will Hunting (Matt Damon), a peculiar young man. He is a genius but also a bully. He doesn’t have much self-control, yet his intellect could make him a millionaire. He works as janitor at MIT.

The other characters all revolve around Will. A professor tries to become his mentor, but first he has to mollify Will. Will’s friends like his company, but Will’s best friend really wishes that he would use his gift to get a good job.

Good Will Hunting Matt Damon

 

Are MacGuffins absolutely necessary?

Well, no. Many movies work without one. But they do add interest and dynamism to the plot. Your screenplay will determine whether or not you need an object or another element to make the story whole.

Many young filmmakers focus on people too much and overlook how important objects can be. Objects, in general, and MacGuffins, in particular, allow the filmmaker to add variety to their shots, as in this shot from Psycho. psycho money

Also, if you don’t have a MacGuffin to drive your film, consider having it to drive some scenes. This can add dramatic tension to a sequence. In the animation The Secret of NIMH (1982), excitement is added to an otherwise simple chase, as Mrs. Brisby (a mouse) has to elude Dragon (a cat) while also not losing an envelope that contains her pneumonic son’s medicine. Instead of simply running, Mrs. Brisby now has to make sure that she won’t lose the medicine. This is good storytelling.