A couple of months ago, I took my children to see the new Lego Ninjago movie at the cinema. For those people unfamiliar with the movie (like, perhaps, most people who don’t have a child under the age of 12), the plot revolves around five trainee-ninja teenagers who must learn the ways of Spinjitsu and defeat the evil Lord Garmadon. The movie opens with our heroes foiling Lord Garmadon’s attack against the city of Ninjago by piloting giant elemental-themed mechs.
There’s action and adventure and ninjas—the trifecta for my sons—and all was going well. Then, just as they easily win the battle, one of the heroes exclaims, “As long as we have these mechs, we’re unstoppable!”
It was at that moment that my ten-year-old son leaned over to me and said, “That means they’re going to lose their mechs, and have to beat Garmadon without them.”
What I said was, “Let’s keep watching and see.”
What I thought was, “Yep. We may as well leave now. We already know how the story will play out. That’s the most heavy-handed foreshadowing I’ve ever seen.”
[SPOILER ALERT: The heroes lose their mechs, and have to beat Garmadon without them.]
Later that night, I was watching some particularly good stand-up comedy. As the set drew to a close, and I was laughing much more loudly than I probably should have been while my children were asleep in the next room, I found myself thinking about the art of the callback. That, in turn, led me to wonder about the relationship between foreshadowing and call-backs.
Are they related?
One sets up future events, and the other references past events, sure. But does that mean they’re linked?
This is the third time I’ve tried to write on this topic. Each of the last two months, I got about 500 words into an article, and then realised that I had no idea what I was talking about. Or, rather, that I couldn’t get my thoughts to line themselves up in any kind of coherent order.
I’m still not sure I’ve got it all worked out in my head, but I’d love to hear what other people have to say on the topic. Consider this a conversation-starter, rather than any kind of definitive statement on the topic.
Foreshadowing as a literary or narrative technique is defined as dialogue, action, or an event that:
- sets the stage  for a story to unfold and gives the reader a hint of something that’s going to happen without revealing the story or spoiling the suspense.
- prepares your readers  on a sub-conscious level for what’s coming, without allowing them to guess the ins and outs of the plot twist.
- creates suspense , builds anticipation, or hints at what will come later.
In other words, it’s when we hint at future events—preferably in a more subtle way than happened in my example above!
Foreshadowing, then, is primarily related to plot. We can use mood, descriptions, dialogue, etc as our means of foreshadowing, but the purpose is to build anticipation—or pose questions—about plot events. When foreshadowing is done well, we don’t even notice it until the future event happens, and we think, “Oh! Of course! I knew that was going to happen!”
Foreshadowing starts what I like to call a Line of Eventuality. Once something has been foreshadowed, it must come to pass; the line must be completed. No matter what direction the plot heads in after the foreshadowing has been done, it must eventually return to the foreshadowed event.
When we think of callbacks, we generally think of comedy; stand-up comedy routines, or sitcoms, or sketch comedy, or whatever. But, as with most comedy techniques, they can be used in other types of writing as well, to great effect.
A callback is described  as either a relevant reference to an event that takes place earlier in the narrative, or a way to tie the loose ends of a later, seemingly unrelated, joke into a previous joke. A callback, when used well, reminds the audience of a previous reference and not only elicits extra laughter from the new joke, but also increases the humour-value of the original.
And that, of course, is what callbacks are really all about—they remind the audience of a previous emotional reaction, and draw those past emotions into the present at a heightened level.
In order to be successful, a callback has to do three things:
- Immediately bring to mind a previous scene, event, or piece of dialogue.
- Recall the emotions from that previous moment—whether they be laughter, grief, excitement, fear, whatever.
- Reinforce the same emotion in the current scene.
A callback, then, isn’t a plot event, but an emotional one—a way to heighten emotional buy-in between present and past stories or scenes.
Foreshadowing vs Callbacks
Which leads me back to where I started. Are foreshadowing and callbacks merely description of the same technique from opposite sides?
If we look at it from start to finish, we see foreshadowing of a later event, but if we look at it from finish to start, we see a callback to a previous scene?
The more I think about it, the more I think the answer to that is no. But, the two techniques often overlap in interesting and unexpected ways.
Consider, if you will, what happens the moment you’re watching a Star Wars movie and you notice Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber sitting on a shelf. That simple image may be both foreshadowing and a callback.
- It’s foreshadowing the fact that Luke is going to make an appearance in the movie–if not now, then soon.
- It’s a callback to previous Star Wars movies, where Luke was the hero.
Seeing that lightsaber both sets the stage and increases anticipation for a future scene, and summons up all the emotional resonance of previous scenes (movies) where Luke has engendered an emotional response.
It can work on the other side of the Line of Eventuality, as well. Perhaps the event that was foreshadowed includes a callback to the original foreshadowing, and summons forth the emotional resonance of that scene.
But it’s also very possible that both foreshadowing and callbacks operate independently at different points in the story.
What does this mean for us?
Possibly nothing. It’s entirely possible that I’m over-thinking something that everyone else takes for granted.
But it occurs to me that while we, as writers, spend a lot of time making sure we include appropriate foreshadowing–that we use it to increase tension and create believable reasons for character to behave in certain ways–we don’t often think about the way we use callbacks.
We use them. Without a doubt.
But do we use them consciously? And do we use them in the best possible way?
I have no idea. But I’d love to know what you think.
Have you ever thought about callbacks in your writing? Do you think callbacks and foreshadowing are related?
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