A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how writers are kind of like serial killers and in light of recent developments in pop culture, I wanted to revisit the topic. In my previous post (you can read it here), I drew the comparison that writers who kill their characters have an M.O. of how they murder. Their M.O. turns into a pattern, and thus, they’re kind of like serial killers. But really, in literary terms, this “pattern” is actually just foreshadowing. It’s a critical part of storytelling and is often one of the hardest aspects to grasp when creating a story. I’ve read and watched a lot of fiction where creators have confused foreshadowing for foreboding.
Foreshadowing is when someone alludes to future events. Foreboding is very similar to foreshadowing; it too alludes to future events, but with the obvious predicate that the future will be bleak, negative, and just generally bad. Foreshadowing is the covert, while foreboding is the overt. Don’t be mistaken though, though they’re similar, using foreboding instead of foreshadowing is like using a nail when a screw was needed. The difference might be seldom noticed, but when comparing strengths, screws last longer and hold faster.
Before I go on, I should say there are spoilers for Season 5 of The Walking Dead and Battle Royale. I digress…
In fiction, this strength is revealed in the story’s ability to maintain its audience’s suspension of disbelief and leave a lasting impression. Foreshadowing isn’t only meant to allude, it’s also meant to make an audience feel uneasy and unsafe when considering what may happen to their favourite characters. Audiences crave unsafe fiction. It creates great tension, which is the fundamental building block for all stories. Unsafe fiction is dependent on the mystery of what may happen to characters; so if foreboding is used instead of foreshadowing, the mystery is broken and tension is relieved because it’s known something inherently bad is about to happen.
I bring this up in light of a conversation I had with Billy about how characters should die in fiction. With recent deaths in popular fiction,
Billy was arguing that not all characters will die like a hero, despite what we might feel for them, and I completely agreed. However, saying that, there’s a lot to consider around the death of a character.
In serial fiction, a pitfall for many writers is, once s/he has decided to kill a character, s/he will give that character more time in the spotlight. With AMC’s The Walking Dead for example, for no particular reason, they give a character who’s about to die more screen time and they’re M.O. starts to be applied. However, they’re M.O. is often rooted in foreboding rather than foreshadowing.
They often get a character to sign their death certificate many times over before offing the person. Things like mentioning the past, being too hopeful for the future, or questioning the protagonist’s decisions are some of the death certificates a character can sign to ensure their demise. These are well known indications that bad things are to come for the character; hence, why they’re considered foreboding rather than foreshadowing. It’s heavy handed, and it automatically pulls the audience out of the moment because they start to realize that something nefarious is coming down the pipeline.
However, this isn’t the worst way a writer or a group of writers can kill a character. The worst way to kill a character is forgoing any foreboding or foreshadowing, all in order to incite shock in a loose attempt to maintain mystery. Typically, this comes when writers change core aspects of a character or create a situation of convenience.
[Spoiler here to a previous season of The Walking Dead]
When they killed Tyreese, he isn’t the badass we once knew, but he’s no pushover either. In his death episode, he forgets to clear a house before listlessly reminiscing over some vacant thought as he stares at a picture of Noah’s little brothers. As a result, one of the zombified brothers come around a corner and chomps on the arm of an unaware Tyreese. I really hated this death. They essentially rolled two of the worst ways to kill a character into one scene.
Tyreese is a veteran survivor of the zombie apocalypse and is, therefore, well aware of the dangers of an unclear house. To kill him in such a way changes core aspects of his character. He has survived because he understands these dangers and the writers decided to override his learned knowledge in order to establish a situation of convenience. Greg Nicotero, one of the executive producers of the show and the episode’s director, said in an interview that Tyreese was reminiscing about a world once lost, but that’s certainly not what comes across in the scene.
There are many pictures that catch Tyreese’s attention, but the one we’re shown most is where one brother is looking pensive and possibly anger, and the other is quite happy. By focusing on that photo instead of one of the many others that showed both brothers looking happy, it implies that Tyreese wasn’t remembering a better time, but rather something entirely different, which again, doesn’t make sense for him to be doing in that time and place.
It’s unfortunate that Nicotero didn’t change that part of the episode because otherwise, the establishing shots of the episode did a decent job of foreshadowing a death. It made you feel unsafe as the title sequence rolled. Unfortunately, the mystery does break a little because the show’s M.O. initiates after the title sequence. All those feelings of unease disappear.
Now I understand why this show is still very popular, and I’m not saying it’s bad, but the main cast deaths really frustrate me. I’m not expecting hero’s deaths for any of the characters or that any of their deaths mean something for the story, it isn’t that kind of show, but I at least expect their deaths to make sense and be set up well.
On the other hand, take the hit Japanese novel Battle Royale, written by Koshun Takami. If you’ve never read it and you’re okay with violence used to tell a great story, do yourself a favour and pick it up. The foreshadowing isn’t a model all stories can use by any means, but Takami uses the story’s sensationalism to create an interesting form of foreshadowing.
[Spoilers for if you haven’t read/watched Battle Royale]
He basically tells you in the first fifty pages of the book that the entire class of kids, sans a winner, is going to die. Because the story is about kids and a protagonist who is fighting against the system rather than his fellow classmates, we maintain hope that most of the kids are going to survive and escape. Even after the administrator of the game kills two kids before the game even starts, we still maintain hope. It’s only when about half the class is killed that hope starts to waiver, yet hope never completely fails either. Personally, I had a character I was rooting for the entire time and even when it looked bleak for him I still held out hope. When the character died, I threw the book across the room.
Now, there’s no doubt in my mind that the trick of foreshadowing so much death by blatantly stating it can only exist in a text with very sensational content–I mean ‘sensational’ as something beyond our norm, not that killing kids is great. However, in this context, it fits in perfectly. It makes readers feel unsafe for characters they may start to really enjoy. The mystery is maintained throughout, and the only detractor to the suspension of disbelief is just how awful the government is treating kids.
Like many other stories that create unsafe fiction by using the threat of death, Battle Royale doesn’t really have any character die like a hero. It doesn’t even try to attach greater meanings to a death. For all intents and purposes, the killing is senseless, and considering the message Takami was aiming for at the time, it leaves a pretty lasting impression on a reader. As a result, the book–and the movie–Battle Royale have become cult classics.
Well, it’s the same reason we love shows like The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, or American Horror Story (sidebar: check out Scott’s ideas for season 6 of AHS, it’s pretty damn good). Audiences love unsafe fiction. Not all fiction has to make us feel unsafe to maintain tension in a story, but it definitely is tied to some of our favourite fiction. Hell, take Lord the Rings, when Tolkien kills Boromir we’re left with the fear that someone else in the Fellowship could be next.
Anyways, this seems like a good place to end for now. I’ll most likely revisit this topic again in the future, but my computer is currently electrocuting me as I type, so I’m done for now.