The plot in my story revolves around a certain ability of the MC that is normally not available, unless the circumstances are just right. Therefore, it is not mentioned in the story as a solution to the MC's problem, as the ability is considered to be something from a legend and not really an option. I want to avoid to just throw the existence of said ability into the climax of the story as a deus ex machina. However, it also makes no sense to talk about it extensively beforehand due to above reasons. I'm also afraid that talking too much about it will give away the climax to the reader.

How do I foreshadow the existence of this ability effectively without telling too much or too little? Will an anecdote or a story 'from legend' be what I'm looking for? When do I talk about it?


5 Answers 5


You needn't reveal that the character has the ability, but you need to reveal the fact that the ability exists. Otherwise, indeed, this is a Deus ex Machina.

How you reveal the existence of the ability is up to you. Maybe someone recounts a legend. Maybe it's part of a history lesson. Maybe it is even specifically mentioned to "no longer exist" or maybe you even explain why it's extremely rare and couldn't possibly happen within the story. You could mention the thing once in passing, or you can mention it multiple times as part of your worldbuilding.

Look at some examples: in Game of Thrones, G.R.R. Martin says multiple times that dragons no longer exist, and the eggs Daenerys holds have long turned to stone. By the end of the book, the dragons hatch. In Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel, the Raven King is subject of old legend. Then he shows up.

  • 2
    Other example that comes to mind: the "Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique" from Kill Bill vol. 2. It's mentioned a couple of times as something mysterious the old master never teaches anybody, yet in the finale the Bride uses it, obviously having learned it during her studies. This example also shows the inherent friction - the more you foreshadow, the less of a Deus ex Machina the reveal is, but the more you ensure a genre-savvy reader will pick up that this is indeed going to be part of the resolution.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 12:34
  • I don't know whether anybody cares about this after all this time, but could you maybe put a spoiler warning there?
    – DLCom
    Commented Oct 15, 2020 at 18:54

One approach to doing this is to not foreshadow the thing itself, but rather mentioning something similar to it. So if there's legendary powers in the story, one solution would be to mention not the exact power your character is going to have but rather a different power in a different context.

Another idea would be the following: If the special ability of your main character activates under certain circumstances, let them get into similar circumstances and nearly, but not fully activate the power. Maybe they got a tickling sensation when being presented with a certain situation, maybe they felt a rush of power, something like this.

Another (though very limited approach) is to include things like legends as part of religion. Let the character take part in a religious ceremony where the ability is mentioned by the priest, buried below tons of other mystical things that don't actually come into life later. As priests often talk about things that seem fantastical at first glance, you can hide an ability without making it too obvious to the reader.


As Galastel says, you have to talk about it.

I do that with legends; and make sure my hero believes those legends maybe were real, but probably exaggerated, and certainly the descriptions have probably been embellished a bit.

Like believing a religious icon from the past maybe had some miraculous powers, but raising somebody from the dead was exaggerated. Maybe the ancient folk thought somebody was dead but they weren't, so the icon cured him and brought him around, but didn't reverse an actual death.

Or maybe the hero believes absolutely, but also believes it is a one-time thing, anybody claiming to have the power or have seen the power is either a fraud or a sucker.

I tend to include both believers and skeptics, fewer believers and the mainstream skeptics, with logical reasons for being a skeptic and just "belief" for the believers, they don't have any logical justifications.

But then of course in the moment of truth the hero gets slapped upside the head with their ability. I like that surprise and the emotional conflict it causes.


If the resolution of your MC conflict is dependent on this unusual power, then if even if you cite some legend early in the story about Paul Bunyan possessing this power and how he used to solve a different problem I think your audience will still find it convenient that your MC suddenly has this power too.

If the application of this power requires special circumstances, does the effectiveness or forcefulness of this special power depend on how close to special the circumstances are? By this can you establish a trivial circumstance where the MC is able to use this power to no great effect — because the circumstances were exactly right but only moderately right — then the Tale of Genji from ancient and mythical times illustrates how this power can be tremendous under exactly the right circumstances.

This by the way is kind of the same as L. Watt Evans ‘With a Single Spell’ a poorly trained wizard that only knows one spell enters a magic competition and uses his one and only stupid spell that — lights a candle — to tremendous effect.


I'm forcefully reminded of Stardust in which the rather complex details of Una's contract to Madame Semele are made plain and the expectation is that unless she outlives the witch she's stuck with her. As it turns out the contract is not quite as ironclad as it appears, which comes as a surprise to spite the pieces being there almost from the beginning.

You can do something similar in this case, the character has an ability, maybe they've even used it before, but the expectation is that it was an impossible coincidence and they can't repeat their one-time feat, until they can and do. To keep the reader off balance the circumstances around the initial incident should be reported in such a way that the reader thinks the requirements are either more complex than they really are or different because they focus on details that aren't actually important to the use of the ability but were a focus of the characters involved. Purely as an example an ability may only work at a full moon, however the only time it's ever been demonstrated to work is when a full moon marked the spring equinox, people have forgotten it works at the full moon and believe you can only do X at the spring equinox and it usually doesn't work, since the equinox and the full moon more often than not don't coincide.

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