First up let’s give the shortest version of the answer possible: foreshadowing is when you introduce a story element early in your story, before it plays a large and pivotal role later in your story. 

This stops the audience feeling like they have been cheated by the author when something that is ‘too convenient’ or ‘contrived’ shows up to resolve the plot. 

The ultimate example would be a murder mystery when the murderer turns out to be a character who shows up in the final scene who has not been introduced before. 

Or if someone we haven’t seen before shows up at the last minute to save the world. 

This leaves the audience feeling cheated!

Has someone said that your story suffers from Deus Ex Machina? Have you heard these terms and wondered what they meant? 

Deus Ex Machina is a phrase that was actually in use as a criticism of story structure as far back as Aristotle’s Poetics in 335 BC. Aristotle is regarded as the first literary critic, and his ideas and theories are probably the most widely discussed and debated of all story structure theorists.  

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poetics_(Aristotle)#:~:text=Aristotle’s%20Poetics%20(Greek%3A,to%20focus%20on%20literary%20theory.

First let’s take a look at what the big man had to say:

As in the structure of the plot, so too in the portraiture of character, the poet should always aim either at the necessary or the probable. Thus a person of a given character should speak or act in a given way, by the rule either of necessity or of probability; just as this event should follow that by necessary or probable sequence. It is therefore evident that the unravelling of the plot, no less than the complication, must arise out of the plot itself, it must not be brought about by the ‘Deus ex Machina’—as in the Medea, or in the Return of the Greeks in the Iliad. The ‘Deus ex Machina’ should be employed only for events external to the drama,—for antecedent or subsequent events, which lie beyond the range of human knowledge, and which require to be reported or foretold; for to the gods we ascribe the power of seeing all things. Within the action there must be nothing irrational. If the irrational cannot be excluded, it should be outside the scope of the tragedy. Such is the irrational element in the Oedipus of Sophocles.

The translation I’m working from can be found here: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1974/1974-h/1974-h.htm

There’s a lot going on in that quote, so let’s break it down a bit. 

Aristotle says that plot needs to arise from what is necessary and probable. 

Necessary means that things should happen which contribute to driving the plot forward. Don’t have too many events which do not contribute to the central objective of your protagonist. For more information on central objective check out this article.

Probable means that the audience has to feel that the events that are occurring must feel as though it is likely the event could actually happen in your story world. Ask yourself, would this event actually be likely to occur in this world? 

Aristotle goes on to say that the events of the plot must arise out of the plot, and not be imposed upon it from the outside. Let’s break that down and provide some examples.

First we need to understand what ‘Deus Ex Machina’ actually means. It’s a latin term that means ‘God in or from the Machine.’ It refers to a practice in theatre where a character is lowered onto the stage by a crane (or machine), and this character resolves the plot at the end.

An example would be an angel flying in who says ‘Don’t worry mortals, I will solve this dispute for you.’ Audiences feel cheated by this.

Check out the wiki page on this for lots of good info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deus_ex_machina

So to return to what Aristotle was crapping on about: the plot must arise from itself, and not arise from things that are imposed on the plot from the outside, like a God flying in on a machine. 

So, if we actually really want the plot to be resolved by a God who flys in on a machine, how do we make this event arise out of the plot, so that Aristotle is happy and he can stop bugging us? It’s been over 2000 years already, jees. 

An example of Deus Ex Machina that involves a literal God flying in to save the day is when the Eagles show up at the end of Lord of Lord of the Rings to save Sam and Frodo from Mordor, once the ring has been destroyed. 

Lots of people have trouble with this moment. Why didn’t the eagles just drop the ring in the lava themselves? There are counter arguments, like the Nazgûl were dominating the airspace until the destruction of the ring, but still it is a problematic moment. 

Foreshadowing is how you solve the problem of Deus Ex Machina. 

So if we want a God to fly in in the last scene, we have to establish in the plot that Gods can fly in at any moment. We should make the God a significant character, and the other characters should establish that a God flying in at any moment is a serious possibility, and they should form their plans with that consideration in mind. 

In our Lord of the Rings example, to foreshadow the arrival of the Eagles at Mount Doom, this possibility should have been discussed more thoroughly early in the text, and the Hobbits should have been aware of their arrival as a possibility, so it didn’t surprise us.

In other words, the should have seemed ‘necessary and probable’ as Aristotle says. 

Let’s talk about an example in a domestic drama so we can see how this doesn’t just apply to Gods and epics.

Take a character in a realist drama like ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’. Will Smith plays a dad who is poor, and has financial responsibilities to his son. He’s determined to try to get a job that pays enough to provide a good life for his boy. 

If Will worked hard towards this goal for the entire film, and in the final moments a rich aunt of his died and left him enough money to provide for his son, this would feel unsatisfying. Ideally, the resolution to the central problem of trying to find money will arise from the circumstances of the tale. 

If you are set on having a bunch of money show up from a wealthy relative, then you need to foreshadow this possibility. This means introducing the character of the wealthy aunt, and making the central character aware of the possibility of the money arriving from this source.

Look at Great Expectations by Dickens as an example of how to do the surprise wealthy relative well! 

I hope this was helpful, and that the events of your plot arise from the plot itself and that you foreshadow and properly integrate all the important elements of your story before they play their most pivotal role!


Ol Adams

Letter Review is currently edited by Ol Adams, who is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing, casual academic, and guest lecturer at the University of New South Wales. Ol Adams has had short stories published in leading literary journals such as Overland, Southerly, Seizure, and TEXT. Ol has had novels long listed for major awards such as the KYDUMA, has received government funding to produce plays from Create NSW and screenplays from Screen NSW, and has performed / produced professional work at major theatrical venues such as the Sydney Opera House.