Script Insights Article: 4 Ways to Foreshadow Conflict

To foreshadow conflict means to indicate or hint at the difficulties that will arise later in the story. Foreshadowing creates suspense and tension; the audience knows something’s going to happen – they just don’t know what or when. A story’s conflict is best foreshadowed in the first act, in the second and third acts, techniques for creating rising conflict are used to drive the story forward.

Here are four ways to foreshadow conflict in your script:

    All scripts are driven by conflict. Setting up a story that is rife for discord and problems, with characters that must engage in struggles with one another or themselves in order to reach a final resolution, is the first step in foreshadowing conflict.

    In the first act of the film Aliens, an inexperienced Lieutenant, a sleazy corporate guy, a creepy “synthetic person”, a group of young gung-ho marines, and a psychologically-scarred woman who survived a previous alien attack are thrown together on a mission to find why contact has been lost with a settlement on a remote planet – you just know something bad is going to happen.
    When characters react negatively to a situation – showing fear, stress, anxiety – it heightens the tension for the audience. In Aliens, Ripley’s response to being asked to become part of the group going out to check on the settlement (where she previously encountered the deadly alien) is immediate and emotional, “You want me to go back out there? Forget it!” We also see Ripley having recurring nightmares about the aliens.

    Show the audience the problems, difficulties and troubles that lie ahead for the characters – doing so causes the audience to worry about what will happen to them. This is an especially effective technique when the protagonist is unaware of the obstacles but the audience knows what’s coming up (in Superman, the audience knows that Lex Luther has obtained kryptonite to use against the protagonist, but the hero is unaware of the trouble in store for him.)

    In Aliens, screenwriter James Cameron provides plenty of foreshadowing using this technique:
  • During the insurance investigation, Ripley tells the story of what happened to her and the crew of the Nostromo
Look, I can see where this is going.
I’m telling you those things exist.
Kane, the guy that went in, said he saw
thousands of eggs in that ship. Thousands
Just one of those things managed to kill my entire crew.

  • Ripley retells the story to the Marine crew to prepare them for what they may encounter
  • While patrolling the med lab on LV-426, the crew discovers two living alien specimens in containers
  • The crew finds a young survivor, Newt, who tells Ripley her family is dead and provides this foreshadowing dialogue:
Newt, these people are soldiers. They’re here to protect you.
It won’t make any difference
    When you show a dangerous item or an ominous situation – a gun, a knife, a walking trail alongside a steep cliff with no guard rail, a car that continually breaks down, a door that sticks shut – the reader will remember it and anticipate the conflict to come.

    At the same time, if you use this device you need to pay it off. Paraphrasing playwright Anton Chekov: If you show a gun in Act I, you need to fire it in Act II. Props need to be set up effectively – not just for foreshadowing purposes but also for clarity and flow. If a character suddenly draws a gun to shoot her philandering husband in Act III, and the reader never saw or heard about the weapon until page 110, the reader’s going to be distracted wondering, “Where did that come from?”

    In Aliens, the audience is shown numerous dangerous props:

  • Ripley learns how to use the loader prior to departing for LV-426
  • Hicks gives Ripley a deadly weapon and shows her how to use it
  • Ripley gives Newt a tracking device to wear at all times