I am working on a screenplay where the opening scene is that a woman has lost 20 years of relative age because of a "time machine" dynamic.

Then the play "flashes back" to a different time, where a 50-year old woman is flirting with a 30 year old man. And then one or more people comment that "if they were the same age..."

This is supposed to foreshadow the fact that the time machine dynamic will eventually make the two "age appropriate."

I've been told by any number of women that a romance in which the woman is 20 years older is implausible. But that the subsequent "equalization" of ages makes the story work.

So do I need to foreshadow the "convergence" of the two peoples' ages as described above? Or are readers/viewers smart enough to make the connection between the time machine, and the apparent age discrepancy without such help, meaning that I'm going too far? Is there any authoritative view on what is an appropriate amount of foreshadowing?

2 Answers 2


My first thought is that if you want a romance between a 50 year old woman and a 30 year old man, you can do it. You are writing about a time machine, that's far more unlikely than your romance!

They might have to deal with people saying she's a cougar probably paying for the younger man's attention. You can use it to enforce their love, both of them against the rest of the world, and so on.

Do you really want to foreshadow the fact their ages are going to be the same? If it's already clear in your story that there will be a time machine, the reader will understand where all of this is going far in advance. Do not push it.

If there is no evidence of a time machine before the travel, keep it a surprise solving all their age issues. This sounds like a happy end, don't spoil it.

I think the reader will understand, even if you have the play with the time machine travel before the flirt. And even if the reader doesn't understand, he will enjoy the discovery of the plot twist better than any announcement long before.

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  • I just realized my "knight" was a princess. Here' a lyric I once wrote: "In ancient stories, were wicked dragons/Brought to their endings, by dashing princes. In modern versions, the rules are altered,/So that princesses can slay dragons too."
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Regarding the intelligence of viewers, you’ve stumbled upon the great mystery of art. In short, no, they are not smart enough and yes, they are. Both answers are correct because there is no such thing as a “viewer.” There are only people who watch movies/read books, and each one brings unique levels of engagement, commitment, and interest to a story (not to mention other factors such as environment, multitasking, etc). As writers, we all hope for the Ideal Reader (see Nabokov’s opening essay at the beginning of Strong Opinions).

Regarding foreshadowing specifically, it's helpful to think about it in several different ways. Doing so will help you strategize as you build and edit your story.

  1. As obvious clues to an outcome. Think of Chekhov’s rifle over the mantelpiece. If there is a rifle on a mantelpiece, it will go off by the end of the play. This is foreshadowing for the observant/expectant viewer.
  2. As a pattern visible to a few people either during or after viewing. Think of Scorcese’s use of Xs behind characters who were slated to die by the end of his film The Departed.
  3. As easter eggs for the repeat viewers. Think of some of the details in Fincher’s Fight Club: the spliced-in bits of Tyler Durden into some scenes (implying Jack’s madness), and the payphone near the beginning that does not accept incoming calls. These are details that a viewer can decide have meaning or not (the former is open to interpretation, the latter is a specific clue).
  4. As strategic details that add texture and depth to a piece. Think of the Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige and the drowning death of Angier’s love as foreshadowing the death of his own copies. The foreshadowing adds emotional depth to the revelation at the end.

Ultimately, foreshadowing as a technique or strategy depends a lot on the audience’s attention to detail and their commitment to active thought during a viewing. I suspect that many people miss foreshadowing that isn’t obvious, so it isn’t necessarily a good clarification strategy. Rather than looking for ways to simply foreshadow something to assist the audience, think about how editing or color grading styles can affect perception and create a pattern that is easily interpreted (a good example is The English Patient; a complex example is Lynch's Lost Highway).

As a writer, you can add foreshadowing after completion of the script/story or as you go. Ultimately, though, foreshadowing relies a lot on consistent use of symbols as well as an observant, committed audience. That being said, it can create a lot of satisfaction for viewers who recognize the foreshadowing as it occurs or on a second viewing.

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