Sunrises and sunsets are powerful and common symbols.
Photo by Tyrean Martinson, taken with her phone in Georgia 2019.
Foreshadowing and symbolism can connect stories with readers on an emotional level to create a fully satisfying payoff ending.For an example from a popular movie I hope everyone has seen (spoiler alert!), near the beginning of Disney’s The Lion King, King Mufasa says to Simba, “A king’s time as ruler rises and falls with the sun. One day, Simba, the sun will set on my time here and will rise with you as the new king.” This piece of dialogue, along with the scene setting on Pride Rock at sunrise, includes both foreshadowing and symbolism.
Although movie-goers were moved to tears by Mufasa’s death in this Disney movie when it first came out in theaters, we also knew in the back of our minds this was coming because of the important piece of foreshadowing dialogue with Mufasa and Simba. This is cemented by the setting of the sun as Simba finds his dead father. The sunset symbolizes an ending.
When Simba takes his place at Pride Rock, much later in the movie, the scene swiftly changes from a stormy atmosphere to a sunrise, symbolizing the beginning of his new reign. The music swells, and we finish the movie on a positive note.
For many viewers, this movie struck a deep chord, speaking directly to them through symbolism and foreshadowing, with a good follow-through in the payoff ending.
Foreshadowing can come in the form of dialogue as it does in Lion King, a dream or vision, or a small, but meaningful incident during the introduction of a story’s characters and their problems. It can help the reader or viewer see a little of the way ahead in the story, and hint at a bigger picture to come. Foreshadowing builds tension and excitement.
Symbols connect us to the story with a minimum of words. There are so many symbols, it would be hard to list them all, but try thinking of movies or stories with these: sunsets, sunrises, open doors, closed doors, keys, locks, shadows, lightning, storms, roots, caves, tunnels, mountains, valleys, and any of the four seasons (summer, winter, fall, and spring), just to name a few common symbols.
Seasons make for great symbols, even if they are commonly used.
Photo by Tyrean Martinson, with her phone camera.
When foreshadowing and symbols are tied closely to each other, they seem to magnify their connection to the reader.
However, a writer must always be aware of need for a payoff ending.
If a writer sets up foreshadowing and uses symbolism, the reader is going to expect a big payoff on these investments. A writer can create red herrings or false trails to give readers more possibilities to wonder over in the story, but a path of foreshadowing and symbols needs to land the reader in the payoff section of the conclusion. This is the reader’s reward for reading the book. It doesn’t have to come in a happily ever after like The Lion King. Shakespeare’s Hamlet was one of the sources for The Lion King, but while it includes foreshadowing and symbolism, it definitely does not have an HEA.
Payoff in the conclusion of a story does not necessarily mean happiness for the characters, it only means the foreshadowing and symbols line up with the ending events.
How do we create foreshadowing and symbols which lead to a big payoff?
Plot-bound writers can often plan these effectively in their writing.
Pantsters may need to read through their rough draft and find foreshadowing and symbolic elements they may have used without realizing it.
Plotters need to be aware of subconscious symbols as well, since these may show up randomly in our writing because the language of symbolism runs deep across many cultures.
Circle the specific nouns you’ve used the most in description throughout your novel. These may be the key to symbolism in your novel. If you need to, make a list of what these nouns could symbolize or look up a list of symbols on the internet.
Foreshadowing may take a little more work in revision, even for plotters. A writer may need to plant some foreshadowing dialogue in the first five pages of the novel. At first, this may feel awkward, but I suggest trying it, and then getting feedback from other writers.
For the payoff in the conclusion, a writer needs to use the most important symbol(s) again. Refer back to the foreshadowing with character dialogue, setting description, or another small-but-meaningful incident. Mufasa and Simba walk up Pride Rock at sunrise, Mufasa dies in a dark valley at sunset– opposite place and time of day, and Simba walks back up Pride Rock at sunrise when his reign begins. Foreshadowing and strong symbols find their bookend pairs in the payoff ending.
Foreshadowing and symbolism can work powerfully in individual books and across a series of books, but a writer must give the reader some kind of payoff in each book in a series.
This is important. No matter how beautifully written the symbols are, some kind of payoff needs to take place in each book. In a series, layers of foreshadowing and symbols may be used to give readers more and more to look forward to as each book presents a mini payoff leading up to the final payoff in the last book.
For an example of this, think of the symbol of the Death Star in the Star Wars universe – this weapon, technology leading up to the weapon, or technology based on the weapon are in nearly every Star Wars story. Death looms over the characters and must be dealt with in every movie.
Have you used foreshadowing, symbols, and the payoff ending? Can you think of more examples?