How to Write a Powerful Foil Scene
Writing a foil scene is all about contrast.
You see, when readers are presented with a scene they’ve “seen before,” they’re instantly transported to an earlier point in your novel. Everything that’s changed throughout your story becomes clearer than ever, and the journeys your characters have gone on rise to the forefront of your readers’ minds. This is the value of a foil scene, and it’s why they’re such an important tool to add to your writing arsenal.
Fortunately, from mirroring key settings to repeating important lines of dialog, there are many ways to create a powerful foil scene. So, in this article, let me introduce you to all the ways you can use foil scenes—as well as how to create a foil scene of your own!
What is a Foil Scene?
Depending on who you are, you may recognize the term foil scene from its sister, the foil character. Of course, you might also have no idea what I’m talking about…
So, let me start this article with a definition:
Foil scenes are scenes that strike a direct contrast to earlier events in your novel, “foiling” them by mirroring their key traits in new ways.
Typically, these foil scenes are designed to highlight important moments of growth for your characters, create catharsis for your readers, and/or reinforce a major moment in your plot, simply by repeating important elements of your story in new and meaningful ways.
For example, say your protagonist starts their story by moving to a small town. They’re unhappy and isolated, and this becomes clear when they attempt to go grocery shopping. They have the sinking suspicion that people are staring at them, and they’re miserable throughout the whole experience.
Fortunately, this isn’t the end of your protagonist’s journey. Throughout your novel they earn the trust of their new neighbors, and soon they’re a beloved member of the town. So, to close out your novel, you tie things off with another grocery scene—except this time, your protagonist waltzes in, says hello to the store’s clerk, and exchanges warm pleasantries with an older lady who lives down the street. Their life is different now, and nothing makes that clearer than their experience at the store.
Best of all, what you’ve just created is a foil scene!
These types of scenes are super valuable, because they essentially pull double duty. When written well, foil scenes move your plot forward just like any other scene, but they also create the sense that your story has come full-circle. Breadcrumbs you scattered earlier are brought to fruition in these scenes, and the result is that they’re deeply impactful.
Does Your Novel Need a Foil Scene?
Of course, not every novel needs a foil scene, which leaves us with a question:
When does a foil scene fit your novel?
Well, the answer will depend on your story, but it’ll also depend on why you want to write a foil scene in the first place. You see, foil scenes are an excellent tool, but they also need to be used with purpose. For instance, perhaps you want to shine the spotlight on just how much your protagonist has grown throughout your story—kind of like our grocery store example! In this case, you might put them in a similar situation to one they experienced earlier on, except this time they handle it completely differently.
In contrast, maybe you want to highlight the core message of your novel. So, instead of creating a scene with a mirrored situation, perhaps your hero meets someone with the same harmful beliefs they suffered from. Whereas before they would have behaved just like them, now they’ve learned to grow past those flaws—reinforcing the moral of your story.
The key is that all of these examples create contrast.
Whatever you want to highlight in your novel, you’ll need to create callbacks later in your story that draw readers’ attention to those elements. So, consider your goals carefully! This will help you ensure a foil scene is the best possible fit for your novel.
Here are some situations where a foil scene might work:
- Showcasing your protagonist’s growth (or failure)
- Foreshadowing coming conflict by mirroring an earlier event
- Reinforcing the core message of your story by highlighting your theme
- Strengthening the relationship between two or more of your characters
- Hinting at the solution to a major mystery in your story
5 Ways to Create a Foil Scene
Once you’re clear on your goals, you can begin creating foil scenes in your own novels. These foil scenes can be created in any number of ways, but some of the best are by picking specific elements of an earlier scene that repeat later in your novel.
First on our list, we have dialog.
With this option, a character might repeat a specific line from earlier in your story, just with a unique twist on the subtext of that line. A great example of this would be Steve Rogers’ line from Captain America: The First Avenger: Is this a test?
When Steve first says this line, he’s a scrawny kid trying to prove himself in order to join the draft. When asked if he “wants to kill Nazis” he responds, “Is this a test?” He explains that he doesn’t want to kill anyone, because he doesn’t like bullies—no matter where they’re from. This gives us an important glimpse at Steve’s character, because he says this even though he knows it might jeopardize his chances of being chosen.
Flash forward to his time in boot camp, and Steve is still struggling. He’s smaller and weaker than the others, but he still wants to fight. So, when someone throws a fake grenade into a group of soldiers, he jumps on top of it. Sitting up, he sees the trainers grinning, and asks “Is this a test?”
Through this foil scene, viewers are clued in—before Steve himself is—that yes, this is a test, and that he’s just passed. Thus, we get a visceral sense that this scrawny kid from Brooklyn’s’ life is about to change.
Alongside dialog, another useful element for creating foil scenes is setting.
Consider this example—as your novel reaches its end, your protagonist returns home after months away at war. However, their once vibrant childhood home is now empty. Their family has fled to escape the fighting, leaving them truly alone. While this may seem like a small detail at first, this setting underscores everything they’ve lost, from their family and their previous life, to their childhood innocence.
Through this simple detail, you’ve created a foil scene.
Of course, not all settings need to be polar opposites to work in a foil scene. Even returning to a location that’s seemingly unchanged can have a powerful effect, simply because your characters have a new understanding of that setting.
For instance, say your protagonist destroys an ancient shrine while hunting a fugitive early in your novel. If their journey was about learning humility and respect, the simple act of purposefully returning to this shine to repair the damage and make amends could be a hugely cathartic foil scene.
Next, let’s talk about symbolism.
Symbolism is a powerful tool for creating foil scenes, especially since symbols are often integral to your story long before you set out to write a foil. These symbols can be anything from icons to objects, but whatever they are, they’re an easy thing to leverage when you want to draw readers’ attention to an earlier scene in your novel.
Take The Hunger Games…
In this series, a recurring symbol is the mockingjay, which is both a repeating motif throughout the series and a key element used to create foil scenes. Initially, Katniss is given a gold mockingjay pin as a token of good luck, so she’ll never forget District 12. However, it’s gifted to her at an extremely dark moment in her life. She’s isolated in this initial scene, meaning this small token is one of the last connections she has to her home.
This comes full circle when a fellow competitor in the games, Rue, notices her pin and recognizes the symbol. She played with the mockingjays back in District 11, and she and Katniss spark a friendship thanks to this pin—a scene made even more memorable by the fact that, what marked a moment of isolation earlier in the story, ultimately creates a moment of friendship when Katniss needs it most.
Moving down our list, we have events.
These events are any conflict or situation that occurs early in your novel, and that you can then mirror later on in order to highlight your characters’ journeys. In fact, when you think of a foil scene, you probably think of event-based foils, and with good reason—these types of foil scenes are often the easiest to create, and are therefore very popular!
To see what I mean, think of our grocery store example from earlier.
While that is somewhat of a setting-based foil, it’s also an event-based one. Our protagonist returns to the grocery store, but rather than feeling like an outsider, they’re welcomed with open arms. It’s more obvious than ever that their life has changed.
Finally, sometimes creating a foil scene is as simple as changing your tone.
This technique is typically layered on top of one of the other options we’ve already discussed, but that doesn’t make it any less useful.
A character escaping from angry guards in a crowded marketplace sets a very clear tone. They’re afraid, and the crowded market is likely a source of anxiety. However, if that same character later returns to that marketplace and calmly strolls through it, we’re met with a very different tone. They take their time watching the colorful banners flutter in the wind and absorbing the hum of passing people, and it’s clear to us that something has changed—not just in the story, but within that character too.
Ultimately, this option is definitely harder to pull off on its own, but it’s still a great element to mix and match with the others we’ve discussed in order to drive your foil scenes home!
Creating Foils Through Story Structure
When you first sit down to write a foil scene, you’ll likely start by picking an important scene from early in your novel to mirror later on—and, that’s a perfectly valid way to approach this.
However, there’s another way to create a foil scene, and that is with story structure.
You see, while your foil scenes don’t have to be based on story structure, often the easiest foil scenes to create are those that overlap with major plot points. This is because story structures like the Three Act Structure typically include plot points that act as built in mirrors of earlier scenes. These plot points mark major moments of change in your novel, and they do so by striking a contrast when compared to another, earlier plot point—just like a foil scene.
Here are a few of these pairings you might want to consider:
This is something K.M. Weiland talks about in her excellent series on chiastic story structure, which I highly recommend checking out. Essentially, her theory is that the best stories mirror themselves at key moments through their plot’s structure.
The Hook is your reader’s first glimpse at your story, while the Resolution is their last. The Inciting Event sparks your conflict, and the Climactic Moment resolves it. And finally, the First Plot Point is the moment your protagonist chooses to begin their journey and crosses a point of no return, while the Third Plot Point is the moment they choose to finish their journey, crossing another key threshold.
Basically, by leveraging the plot points already baked into your novel and combining them with the principle of foil scenes, you can level up your plot in some very exciting ways!
Other Types of Fictional Foils
Overall, foil scenes are an excellent tool for adding impact and catharsis to your novels, and they’re a tool I hope you’ll put to good use in your own stories.
What’s more, the principle of foil scenes isn’t just limited to your plot!
From foil characters in the form of villains or antagonists to important subplots, there are many ways to create powerful foils within your novels. The key is simply to leverage the principles we talked about in this article—regardless of what kind of foil you’re applying them to. 🙂