Avoid Deus ex Machina with Foreshadowing

By: Terry Odell

When you write, you’re likely to be throwing a lot of obstacles in the paths of your characters. You’ll be giving them skills to solve their problems. Whether or not your readers will believe what they’re reading depends, to a great deal, on proper foreshadowing. Without proper foreshadowing, what you’ve got is a deus ex machina. A magical event that appears, implausibly, out of nowhere.

Prepare the Reader

Johnny Carson said, “If they buy the premise, they’ll buy the bit.” So, you have to sell the premise early on. You can’t stop to explain a skill set at the height of the action. You have to show the character using those skills (or fears) early on, in a ‘normal’ setting.

Think about Raiders of the Lost Ark. If the movie had opened with Indy in the classroom, would viewers have “bought” that he was really capable of everything he’d have to do in the movie? No, but by showing him in the field in a life-and-death situation first, we’ll accept that he’s a lot more than a mild mannered college professor.

And, you have to be a bit of a magician. Think sleight-of-hand, although in this case, it’s more like “sleight-of-words.” No waving red flags. If readers stop to say, “Oh, that’s going to be important; I’d better remember it,” you’ve pulled them out of the story.

Hide Your Clues

Show the skill or event early on, in a different context. These Setup Scenes can occur throughout the book, and will foreshadow things to come.

An example from my book, When Danger Calls. Ryan, the hero, is in the midst of emotional turmoil. He’d confronted his father about removing all traces of Ryan’s mother after she died, as if his father didn’t care. Now, in this scene, his father hands him a box of mementos from his childhood:

Ryan leafed through the snapshots while he waited for the earth to start revolving again. He knew which one he wanted as soon as he saw it. He remembered the day it had been taken, right after he’d won third prize at the fair with Dynamite, his pony. He’d been so sure he’d get the blue ribbon and hadn’t wanted to pose for the family picture his grandfather insisted on taking. He was eight, Josh was eleven, and Lindy was barely out of toddlerhood, holding a wand of cotton candy. He saw the look in his mother’s eyes, as she looked at him, not the ribbon, not the camera. So proud, she’d made him feel like he’d won first prize after all.

The reader sees this as a scene showing Ryan’s emotional history and relationship with his mother. But later, when Ryan is stuck with a couple of kids, and he braids their dolls’ hair, readers should accept it. Here’s that bit:

“Mr. Ryan knows how to braid hair,” Molly said. She twirled around, revealing her now-braided ponytail, neatly adorned with a blue ribbon. “He did our ponytails, and our Barbies’, too.”

Frankie peered above their heads where Ryan stood behind them, his face marked by a grin more sheepish than Cheshire.

“He gave mine two braids,” Susie said, handing her doll to Frankie.

Frankie made a show of scrutinizing all four coiffures. “Everyone looks beautiful.” To Ryan, she said, “Where did you pick that up?”

He shrugged.

Molly chimed in. “On real horses. He used to braid their hair. For shows.”

Frankie smiled at Ryan, then got up and hugged the girls. “Well, that makes sense. Horses have real ponytails, don’t they?” She flipped their braids. “How about I fix you some sandwiches, and then Ryan and I need to talk.”

Stopping for Ryan to go back and explain about how he learned the skill would stop the action, even in a ‘quiet’ scene like this one.

The above example should show how even a “mundane” scene can be helped with subtle foreshadowing. When you’re writing, ask yourself if the details in the scene you’re writing are going to show up again, regardless of their significance. If the answer is “no” then you probably don’t need the details. Readers don’t want to waste time remembering things that won’t show up again.

In Lee Child’s Gone Tomorrow, I’m impressed by how he uses every detail. When a fellow passenger rambles on about the different kinds of subway cars in New York, it’s not idle conversation. That tidbit shows up front and center later on. And even the little things, that might not be plot points, such as the origin of the use of “Hello” to answer the phone will appear, letting the reader know that the character was paying attention, too.

Is your character going to have to survive in the wilderness? We need to know he was always going camping as a child. Do you need to show a scene of him camping? Absolutely not. A mention of it in a discussion with another character, preferably mixed in with a lot of other stuff sets the stage but doesn’t shout.

Don’t Wait Until the End

Maybe you’re trying to reveal a clue that will be important later on. This is especially true in mysteries, where it’s unfair to spring things on the readers at the conclusion when you’re wrapping things up. But maybe your character is packing or unpacking a suitcase or purse. Your clue can be one of many objects you show the readers. And even better if the unpacking is done while you’re showing something else about the character. Perhaps your main plot point is that he is angry or upset, and he’s being haphazard about the way he takes things out or throws them in. Or maybe another character is watching, noticing his emotional state more than the actual objects.

As for fears – we know Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes at the very beginning of the movie. So we can fear along with him when he looks into that snake pit later. (And because of that opening scene, we know to expect something with snakes, which adds to the tension.)

Keep it Believable

So, let’s say the hero and heroine are hiding and the villains are closing in. The hero is injured. He hands the heroine his gun and asks her if she can shoot. She says, “Of course. I’m a crack shot,” and proceeds to blow the villains away (or worse, has never handled a gun before, but still takes out the bad guys, never missing a shot). Not only that, but she is an expert in first aid and manages to do what’s necessary to save the hero’s life. Plus, she’s an expert trapper and can snare whatever creatures are out there. Or, maybe she has no trouble catching fish. And she can create a gourmet meal out of what she catches. All without disturbing her manicure or coiffure.

She’s the heroine who can fill in for a missing musician, be it a rock band or a symphony orchestra. And she can sing like the proverbial angel.

(I’d like to say I’m exaggerating, but not by much.)

Believable? Not if this is the first time you’ve seen these traits. But what if, earlier in the book, the heroine is dusting off her shooting trophies, thinking about how she misses those days. Or she’s cleaning up after a fishing trip. Or she’s doing a solo in her church choir. Maybe she has to move her rock climbing gear out of her closet to make room for her cookbooks. You don’t want to dump an entire scene whose only purpose is to show a skill she’ll need later. Keep it subtle, but get it in there.

When you’re writing, it’s important to know what skills your characters need to possess. You might not know when you start the book, but if you’re writing a scene where one of these skills will move the story forward, and there’s no other logical way to deal with the plot, then you owe it to your readers to back up and layer in the requisite foreshadowing.

Before James Bond pulls off his miracles, we’ve seen Q show him the gadgets that will save his life. We know MacGyver has a strong background in science, so he’s got the theory and knowledge to pull off his escapes.

So when you give your characters jobs, hobbies, or put them in precarious situations, don’t forget to look at all the skills they need. Can they visualize what an empty space could look like? I can’t—that’s not in my skill set. Are they able to look at a blueprint and know exactly how many bricks to order, or gallons of paint it’ll take to cover the walls? Know those ‘sub-skills’ and work them into scenes. Those basic real-life skills your characters have can be used to foreshadow the kinds of things they’ll be called upon to do later in the book.


Terry Odell

Terry Odell is the author of over thirty novels, novellas, and short stories. She writes both mysteries and romantic suspense, but calls them all “Mysteries With Relationships.” Terry’s books have won awards including the Silver Falchion, the International Digital Awards, and the HOLT Medallion. A Los Angeles native, she moved to Florida for far too long, and is now enjoying life in the Colorado Rockies. Find her at https://terryodell.com Twitter: @authorterryo Facebook: AuthorTerryOdell

Avoid Deux ex Machina with foreshadowing