Deus ex machina is a plot device in which your protagonist, placed in a hopeless situation, is suddenly, dramatically and inexplicably rescued by some outside force (see my last two blogs).
OK, now that we’re up to speed let’s tackle foreshadowing. Webster’s Dictionary defines foreshadow as “to give a suggestion of (something that has not yet happened)”. In writing foreshadowing is some information or action early along that hints at a big scene or the climax of your story.
Foreshadowing not only avoids deus ex machina, it increases the tension in your novel. Your reader’s anxiety level rises as she anticipates a slam-bang ending.
Examples of foreshadowing:
- A gun. An old saying in novel writing states that if you show a gun you have to use it. The hero is shown a gun early on and later near the climax she has to wield the gun to free herself from a life threatening situation. I use this device in my novel The Peril Protocol. It doesn’t always have to be a literal gun. This could be any device that can aid the hero in a perilous situation.
- Protagonist’s special abilities. If your hero is a crack marksman it's a cinch that his skill will be tested in a life–or-death climatic scene.
- Clues in a police procedural. The detective follows clue after clue, bringing her closer to the answer, until she catches the bad guy. Characters in books by Ed McBain and Joseph Wambaugh pursue this form. A red herring is a subset of this (see below).
- A clue to the ending at the opening. In Shakespear’s Romeo and Juliet the Chorus speaks these words at the very opening of the play: “From forth the fatal loins of these two foes, a pair of star-crossed lovers take their life. Whose misadventures, piteous overthrows, do with their death, bury their parents' strife.” And we all know what happens to Romeo and Juliet at the end.
- A symbol. In the movie A Bridge too Far, a story of the famous doomed World War II Operation Market Garden in which British and Americans paratroopers dropped into Holland to take a series of bridges in order to strike into Germany. In an early scene a British military doctor receives permission to house a few wounded soldiers in the home of a Dutch civilian. As the stretcher bearers step into the living room with a wounded soldier we see a drop of blood stain the pristine white carpet. By the end of the movie there are hundreds of wounded and dying men all over the house rendering it unlivable. That single drop of blood presages the horror awaiting that home and family.
- A red herring. A red herring is usually seen in a mystery or police procedural novel. It’s a piece of information initially assumed to be true and thus pointing to one character as the perpetrator. It leads the reader in one direction. But, by the end the hero has deduced the flaw in the red herring clue and has found the real culprit. If done right the reader will have an enjoyable “I should have seen it” moment.
- The book’s title. I bet you can guess what might happen in these novels: J.R.R. Tolkien’ Return of the King, Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, and Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.
Use foreshadowing in your writing to avoid those awkward deus ex machina moments and to ramp up the suspense for your reader. They’ll keep reading and, more importantly, they’ll look forward to your next book.