So, I saw Wreck-it Ralph 2: Ralph Breaks the Internet recently. Yeah, I know it’s been out for a while, but I’m slow with these things. Honestly, I just don’t go to the movies very often. Unless it’s a film that everyone’s going to be talking about or that excites me personally, I usually just wait until it’s out on Netflix or Prime. That’s what I did for this one. The trailer really didn’t look very promising, which is kind of sad because I actually enjoyed the first Wreck-it Ralph a lot. It came out in 2012, the same year as the first Avengers movie, Django Unchained, Prometheus, Hunger Games, Les Miserables, Men in Black 3, Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2, Looper, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and The Dark Night Rises. Yeah, that was a big year for movies, and I spent a lot of money at theaters, including to see Wreck-it Ralph.
Why? I was so intrigued by the idea presented in Wreck-it Ralph‘s trailer and loved the creative and fantastical way that technology and the worlds within video games were presented. Obviously, none of it was intended to be realistic, but it did follow its own rules consistently throughout the movie. The basic premise of the story is a villain (Ralph) of an 80s-era 8-bit arcade game grows tired of the role he plays in the game Fix-it Felix, Jr. He feels unappreciated and resented as the villain, so he leaves his game with the goal of winning a medal and thereby earning the respect of a hero. Ralph finds this opportunity in Hero’s Duty, a sci-fi game fraught with alien monsters. Ralph unwittingly releases one of these monsters into yet another game, and must work together with various other game characters to stop it before it destroys the entire world of the arcade.
It’s a very simple premise, but I found most of the film fascinating and engaging. And from a writing perspective, there was a lot more to enjoy. The noteworthy use of one specific storytelling tool is what I want to focus on in this post, and is what really sets the first Wreck-it Ralph apart from its sequel. That tool is foreshadowing. The first film does it well; the sequel doesn’t. So, let’s get into it.
Foreshadowing is a literary device used by an author to set the stage for the story to unfold or hint at something soon to come. In Wreck-it Ralph, for example, we have the early mention of Turbo and what “going Turbo” means long before the Big Reveal; the beacon used to lure and destroy the Cy-bugs; Calhoun explaining what could happen if a Cy-bug escapes the game of Hero’s Duty; a very early-on PSA cautioning characters to stay safe outside their games because “if you die outside your game, you die for real;” Fix-it Felix’s ability to fix things, just to name a few. In fact, everything important to the plot was mentioned at some point beforehand in the movie. Writers need to understand this concept and be able to use it well, because it guides the audience/readers to a logical and satisfying conclusion of the story.
As a writer, you want to respect your readers as active participants in the story, not passive recipients. You don’t tell them, “X happened, then Y happened.” Instead, leave them hints; give them information along the way so that they can begin to piece the plot together themselves. Drop X in the story so that when it appears again during Y the audience immediately recognizes its importance to the story. I’m not saying give them everything or let them “see behind the curtain,” but give your readers some credit. A big key to the art of foreshadowing is knowing how much to reveal, and how much to withhold. Your reader might not know why X has just come into the story yet, but they will know it matters and begin guessing what part it will play in the plot later on.
You can’t talk about foreshadowing without talking about JK Rowling. The Harry Potter series contains so many masterful examples of foreshadowing done well, too many to discuss in one post, so I’ll just use one. In The Sorcerer’s Stone, the stone in question appears long before its importance becomes clear. We first see it when Hagrid fetches it from the vault in Gringotts bank during the first act of the story. We don’t know what it is or what it does, but we know that it’s important because it was locked in a vault and Hagrid was very secretive about it. When Hermione is giving some exposition about Nicolas Flamel and the Elixir of Life, she mentions the Sorcerer’s Stone, which will make the drinker of the elixir immortal. At this point, the reader does not yet have enough information to make a definite connection between the stone from the bank and the Sorcerer’s Stone, but when the characters eventually do and the plot kicks off, the reader feels satisfied, not cheated. For a story to piece together well, each piece should be introduced and be familiar to the reader before the plot demands their use.
In Wreck-it Ralph, everything important to the climax of the story had been foreshadowed earlier in the film. The danger of the Cy-bugs, the Diet Coke volcano, Turbo’s greed, Vanellope’s teleportation powers – all of it was introduced and addressed in advance so the final conflict feels like a recipe coming together, not a crapshoot. Vanellope’s powers, for instance, play heavily into the main conflict. They are introduced when she meets Ralph, then discussed by King Candy later on when he explains to Ralph what a glitch is and why Vanellope can’t participate in the race. Her powers are implied to be a problem when she practices racing on the makeshift track she and Ralph built, but then prove to be an advantage in the final race. The way her glitching powers can extend to things that she touches is demonstrated in the first act of the film when she touches Taffyta, and this becomes the way that King Candy is revealed as Turbo. The audience is not distracted during the final conflict trying to keep up with all of this information, because it was introduced along the way and digested; all they have to do is enjoy seeing it all unfold.
Now, let’s talk about the sequel.
Ralph Breaks the Internet had a lot of problems; I know most people will talk about how it was just a shameless attempt to grab cash with product placements like Facebook and YouTube, and that might be true, but I won’t get into that. I just want to talk about the film’s climax. The main conflict arises when Ralph is worried that Vanellope will abandon him for the game Slaughter Race, so he decides to release a virus that will slow down the cars so Vanellope will get bored of the game and come home. The idea of a virus being able to slow down a race was introduced exactly once before it became part of the final conflict. When? During the first five minutes of the film, when Ralph and Vanellope are goofing around in Tron. The virus was mentioned in passing by Vanellope, a very forgettable line dropped during the opening montage. When Ralph decides to use a virus to slow down Slaughter Race, maybe some audience members will remember that passing mention, but to most it will feel abrupt, out of left field. Not at all like a logical advancement of the plot. And Ralph doesn’t even use that “type” of virus in the end; when he goes shopping for viruses, he is given a creepy, monster-like insecurity virus that is said to scan, copy, and distribute insecurities, and he is told not to let it escape into the rest of the internet. This is obviously supposed to be bad, but the audience doesn’t know why and can’t guess what will happen if it does. All of this occurs in the last twenty minutes of the film, and the next scene begins the final conflict. The virus begins to wreak havoc, but the audience doesn’t have enough information to understand what is happening or predict how the rest of the plot will play out. This leads to a very unsatisfying resolution that feels disconnected from the previous events of the film.
Foreshadowing, done well, can draw your readers and audience in and encourage them to become active participants in the story. They will seize information and wonder how it will be used to pull the plot together. The final conflict, when it happens, will feel supported on a foundation of established facts, not tossed together like an afterthought. Treat your readers well; they deserve it.