Storytelling Techniques from Babylon 5: Foreshadowing

This is part of a series about storytelling techniques for epic fantasy. I’m drawing my examples from the 1990s sci-fi TV show Babylon 5. If you’ve never seen it, that shouldn’t affect the validity or usefulness of my storytelling tips. If you do want to see the show, you can probably find it on Netflix or the DVDs on eBay.

The plot of Babylon 5 was told over five television seasons and a few TV movies. Never mind the ‘90s hair and CGI that’s outdated by today’s standards. The story itself was a sprawling epic fantasy with a space-opera setting, a story that spanned thousands of years and dozens of characters. J. Michael Straczynski was the mastermind behind this dramatic tale of humans and aliens, ancient prophecies and futuristic empires, villains and heroes.

Foreshadowing can be used in any sort of story—not just epic fantasy or sci-fi. Foreshadowing means to show or suggest something in advance, to leave hints and clues for something coming later. Here are three aspects of foreshadowing that are used in Babylon 5, and that can be used in a saga or series that you may be writing, too.

1.       Foreshadowing can be subtle and easily forgotten.

In a long saga or a series, foreshadowing can be taken to an extreme—something mentioned on page three may not prove important for another 800 pages. While this can be exciting for the reader, if they catch or remember that detail, the foreshadowing can easily be lost if too much time passes.

In the first season of Babylon 5, a Centauri seeress comes to the station. She gives several prophecies, including a prediction that the space station will be destroyed in fire. When the station doesn’t blow up immediately, everyone relaxes and scoffs at her prediction. The character never appears again, her prediction is not mentioned again, and the whole thing is quickly forgotten by the audience and the characters.

Until the final episode of the series. The story of the last episode takes place twenty years later, and Babylon 5 is destroyed in fire—but not in the way that everyone expected years before when the moment was foreshadowed.

2.       Foreshadowing can be emphasized by repetition.

An example of repetitive foreshadowing is the telepathic character Lyta Alexander. Periodically during the course of the series, references are made to the fact that Lyta is a P5 telepath, meaning she ranks with just average strength and skill. This emphasis on her “average” ranking foreshadows the ending of the series, when Lyta has changed into a telepath stronger than a P12 (the highest ranking of strength and skill).

It’s important to note with this repetition technique, it still must be subtle. Characters comment on Lyta’s “average” P5 ranking only a handful of times—both before and after her powers start to change and increase. This is just enough to remind the audience that Lyta is either a) normal at the time, or b) ceasing to be normal. It serves to get the audience’s curiosity up about Lyta without making her the focal point of every episode and without beating the audience senseless with obvious clues.

3.       Foreshadowing is not the same thing as prophecy.

Destinies, prophecies, visions, and time-travel are often staples of sci-fi and fantasy. And while these story elements can be used with foreshadowing, it is not the same thing always. My first example did involve a character giving a prophetic vision; however, it served as effective foreshadowing because neither the character nor the vision appeared to be important at the time.

If the main plot of your epic fantasy is about an old wizard who tells a vision to the young farm boy and says that the gods have chosen him to be king and it’s his destiny, that’s not foreshadowing. In that example, prophecy and destiny are the plot, not a clue or hint leading to one specific element of the plot.

In Babylon 5, the storyline involving the Babylon 4 space station relied heavily on not only time-travel, but prophecy and destiny, as well. Both Captain Sheridan and Delenn are told by the alien Zathras that they have great destinies, and Commander Sinclair’s great destiny (which had been foreshadowed earlier in the series) is revealed. But that storyline is not foreshadowing, because destiny, prophecy, and time-travel is the plot.

Foreshadowing can sometimes be tricky, especially in a long tale. Hopefully these guidelines can help you if you’re wanting to utilize the technique. Read some of your favorite stories over again, paying attention to the little details that turn up later.

What are some other good stories that use foreshadowing without it being either too subtle or too obvious?

“The future is all around us, waiting, in moments of transition, to be born in moments of revelation. No one knows the shape of that future, or where it will take us; we know only that it is always born in pain.”
-G’Kar, “Z’Ha’Dum”