There’s something satisfying about the number three. In stories, this underlying foundation of three forms the basis for foreshadowing. First, you introduce something, often in a seemingly harmless and trivial way. Second, you remind them of what you showed them earlier so they won’t forget. Third, you payoff that idea in a way that represents a major turning point in your story.
In “Still Alice,” there’s a three part foreshadowing that works like this:
- The hero, suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, records a video instructing herself in the future to find a bottle of pills and swallow it to commit suicide. She hides this video in a folder called Butterfly.
- While talking with her daughter, the hero tells her that she once learned that a butterfly lived only a short life, but it lived a wonderful life. This subtle link to a butterfly reminds us of the video she recorded for herself earlier.
- Finally, the hero accidentally sees her video instructing her to swallow the bottle of pills, but just when she’s about to take it, she’s interrupted and drops all the pills, then forgets what she was going to do so she doesn’t commit suicide.
If you introduce something and then immediately pay it off, it appears to come too soon to make an emotional impact. Now look at “Star Wars” where there’s another three part foreshadowing like this:
- Obi-wan shows Luke a light saber.
- While in a bar looking for a pilot, Obi-wan rescues Luke from two strangers by using the light saber to kill them.
- The third time we see the light saber is when Obi-wan fights Darth Vader.
If we had never seen the light saber at all until the fight with Darth Vader would seem forced and unnatural. If we had just seen the light saber once when Obi-wan first shows Luke how it works and then saw the light saber duel, we wouldn’t quite understand how the light saber works. Only by introducing the light saber, then reminding us of its power by showing Obi-wan kill two people in a bar, can we fully appreciate the light saber duel at the end.
Every important plot point in your story needs to be set up, subtly shown again to remind us, and then paid off. Think of every great movie with a crucial plot point and you\’ll likely find it was set up much earlier, popped up again to remind us of its existence, and then finally paid off when the story needs it.
Think of an important plot point in your story and make sure you set it up earlier and remind us of its existence somewhere in between. By following this three-part setup, reminder, and payoff pattern, you can make your plot points feel natural and expected so your story seems to flow effortlessly towards its seemingly inevitable conclusion.