Wednesday, December 11, 2013

What Doctor Who Taught Me About Writing

A few weeks ago, I saw the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary show. Twice, actually. Once on television and then again with my daughter at the movies. I enjoyed both viewings, but after the second, I began thinking about how the movie worked. Especially in its use of foreshadowing.

Foreshadowing is when the writer gives the reader (or viewer) some sort of clue or hint about something that will occur later in the story. There are many reasons to foreshadow, one of which is to deepen the story, but foreshadowing can also be an important tool for the writer. It allows the writer to deliver necessary information to the reader without revealing the importance of that information too soon in the story.


For example, about halfway through the Doctor Who movie, when the Doctors needed to escape the Tower of London—yes, I said Doctors. The eleventh and tenth Doctors were both in the show, along with the “war” Doctor from 400 years in the past. (Hey come on, they’re Timelords.  They're allowed to do that kind of stuff.) Anyway, when they needed to escape from the Tower, they came up with a plan to program a horrendously complicated subroutine into the war doctor’s sonic screwdriver so that 400 years later, the current doctor’s sonic screwdriver would have the completed calculations for their escape. Turns out they never got around to using those calculations, since Clara showed up to rescue them at that point, but no matter—the scene had already served its real purpose. The idea of using sonic screwdrivers in this way had been planted into our minds, so when the same technique was used to solve the big problem later during the final climatic scene, no time was wasted having to explain the concept, so the scene moved along quickly.

 The use of foreshadowing to prepare the reader for solutions the MC will use later on is common. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, for example, Rowling needed a time traveling device to solve a story problem she’d created, so she invented a pendant capable of carrying Harry back in time. Of course, having this item suddenly appear right when Harry needed it would have seemed contrived, so Rowling introduced the pendant to us early and gave it its own subplot. Then when Harry needed the pendant to solve the big problem at the end, its presence seemed perfectly natural. 


In the Doctor Who movie, a similar technique was used when the Doctor was shown (at the beginning of the movie) a special 3D painting described as Timelord art. Turns out that painting (and the concept behind its technology) was necessary to solve two big problems later on in the story, but for the audience to accept its use as a legitimate solution, we needed to be introduced to the concept of Timelord art early on. And simply sticking the painting into the same room as the Doctor wasn’t enough. There had to be a reason for its existence or the viewers would have been suspicious. So the writers came up with a subplot for the painting (which I won’t go into here), giving a valid reason for its existence and preparing us for its use in the final scene. And everything was done so smoothly, it never occurred to me that the painting had been a plant from the start—a fact I was able to appreciate during my second viewing.

If writing has done anything for me, it’s made me better at spotting foreshadowing during movies. Much to the annoyance of my wife.

What about you? Do you spot foreshadowing in movies more easily these days?


  1. I've always been good at spotting endings or key things leading up to endings, but I'm even better at it now. Now if I were just better at placing those in my own writing...

    1. I know exactly what you mean. When I critique someone else's story, it's far easier for me to see ways to make their story better than it is to do the same for my stories. Thank goodness for critique partners!

  2. I love foreshadowing when it's done well. But sometimes I'll catch what seems to be a clear foreshadow and then it get's tossed aside and never mentioned again. I hate unresolved foreshadows, lol!

  3. I couldn't resist reading the spoilers. Like Alex, I've always been good at guessing. Not sure I could plant that kind of foreshadowing though. Now I have to think whether I need it. Hmm.

  4. I love guessing and trying to spot foreshadowing but I'm like Alex, I don't know how to use this tool in my own writing. Something else to work on and learn I guess.
    Have a great weekend, Ken. :)