Humans read stories to make sense of life—to make sense of chaos. Stories revolve around “plots” and the simplest definition of plot is cause and effect: “Because this happened, that happened; and because that happened, another thing happened.”
Real life, however, is chaotic and often times doesn’t make sense: “You ate a piece of toast for breakfast and then you got kidnapped at lunch.” Wait, what? And that’s why humans love stories. Because stories make sense.
But having a story make sense fulfills only the most basic requirement of storytelling. Readers expect more, especially from fiction. They want stories that are engaging, suspenseful and, ironically, unpredictable. How can a story both make sense and be unpredictable?
Here’s where foreshadowing comes in. You could say that foreshadowing is the more genteel cousin of cause and effect. Foreshadowing prepares readers for unexpected events in a story by dropping hints about them earlier on. That way the story makes sense, but it’s still unpredictable.
Foreshadowing, however, requires slight of hand. It’s a literary magic trick, and just like any magic trick, the more you study and practice it, the better you’ll get at it.
The most important thing is to read as much as you can, like I did. It will give you an understanding of what makes good writing . . .
—J. K. Rowling
Why Beginning Writers Struggle with Foreshadowing
The most difficult part about properly executing foreshadowing is learning to trust your reader. New writers tend to be heavy-handed with their foreshadowing because they don’t trust their readers to put the pieces together.
(On the other end of the spectrum are new writers who don’t connect their story events at all—but that goes back to understanding the first storytelling requirement of cause and effect.)
An experienced writer knows that the human brain is highly sensitive to the smallest story details. Even if readers aren’t consciously putting the pieces together, they are subconsciously. This understanding of the human brain is what allows writers to pull off a story twist that feels both unexpected and inevitable.
Going to School for Free
The great thing about being a writer is that you can study the masters for free. You don’t have to pay thousands of dollars to learn their tricks; you just have to pick up a book.
One of the most celebrated and well-known examples of foreshadowing is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. (If your Gatsby is rusty, here’s a quick SparkNotes summary.)
Let’s look at how Fitzgerald uses foreshadowing to prepare us for Daisy Buchanan killing Myrtle Wilson in a hit-and-run. This is an extremely important event in the story that needs to feel inevitable yet unexpected.
[Another example of a foreshadowed story twist is Sirius Black’s death in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.]
Foreshadowing in Dialogue Banter
Fitzgerald connects cars with death right away in Gatsby on page nine (2004 Scribner paperback edition). He cleverly puts a twist on this first connection by having it be a joke—and aiming that joke at Daisy, the character who will eventually commit the hit-and-run. Daisy used to live in Chicago but had recently moved to East Egg, New York. The narrator, Nick Carraway, is visiting her at her new East Egg house:
I told [Daisy] how I had stopped off in Chicago for a day on my way East, and how a dozen people had sent their love through me.
“Do they miss me?” she cried ecstatically.
“The whole town is desolate. All the cars have left the rear wheel painted black as a mourning wreath, and there’s a persistent wail all night along the north shore.”
“How gorgeous! . . . .”
Not only does this foreshadowing link Daisy with cars and death (“a mourning wreath”), but it also shows her need for attention and admiration. This need makes her decision to flee after hitting Myrtle seem inevitable because, with her character, she couldn’t very well stop—otherwise she’d risk losing the good opinion and love of others.
The best foreshadowing is based on character development, since it’s the characters who act out the plot. The more a character believably embodies the action required to foreshadow an upcoming event, the more believable the entire story is. And a story twist will feel inevitable even if it’s a surprise because it’s based on the personality of a character. As Fitzgerald himself said:
Character is plot, plot is character.
Foreshadowing in Minor Details
Daisy’s bruised knuckle is another instance of Fitzgerald using character development to foreshadow the hit-and-run. Only three pages after he connects cars with death through a joke, Fitzgerald then links Daisy, the future hit-and-run assailant, to pain.
. . . [Daisy’s] eyes fastened with an awed expression on her little finger.
“Look!” she complained; “I hurt it.”
We all looked—the knuckle was black and blue.
“You did it, Tom,” she said accusingly. “I know you didn’t mean to, but you did do it. That’s what I get for marrying a brute of a man, a great, big, hulking physical specimen . . .”
Daisy’s outburst shows that her immediate response to something unwanted, like pain, is to blame someone else. This early development in her character builds to the later event that she won’t stand up and take responsibility for killing Myrtle.
Foreshadowing in Setting
On page twenty-five Fitzgerald introduces us to the doomed Myrtle. We meet Myrtle in her husband’s car repair garage, which is the same location where she’ll later be hit by Daisy. Fitzgerald’s first description of the garage is:
The interior was unprosperous and bare; the only car visible was the dust-covered wreck of a Ford which crouched in a dim corner.
After describing this “wreck,” Fitzgerald brings Myrtle, the future hit-and-run victim, into the scene. We might not consciously register this connection, but our subconscious takes note. (Fitzgerald later has Myrtle’s lifeless body lying in this same garage after the hit-and-run.)
Fitzgerald brings us to this garage by way of Daisy’s husband, Tom, who insists on introducing Nick, the narrator, to Myrtle, Tom’s secret lover, while Myrtle’s oblivious husband is standing right next to them.
The impropriety of the whole situation is glaringly obvious, and it’s through this scene that Fitzgerald shows both Myrtle’s and Tom’s impulsive, selfish characters. This character development, in turn, creates a feeling of inevitability when Myrtle gets hit as she impetuously runs at Gatsby’s car because she thinks Tom is driving it.
Foreshadowing in Actions
After Myrtle’s introduction, Fitzgerald sends her, Nick, and Tom to an apartment in New York where Fitzgerald gives us another example of Tom’s and Myrtle’s selfish, impulsive natures.
While partying at the apartment, Tom gets angry at Myrtle and breaks her nose. The fight starts because Myrtle is shouting Daisy’s name. Then Tom, in a moment of grotesque chivalry, says that his mistress doesn’t have the right to say his wife’s name, and he breaks Myrtle’s nose for it.
Notice that Myrtle gets hurt because of Daisy, foreshadowing that Myrtle will get hurt again because of Daisy (except next time it will be fatal). And notice that Tom hits Myrtle to defend Daisy, which foreshadows the scene where Tom is protecting Daisy after she’s killed Myrtle:
Daisy and Tom were sitting opposite each other at the kitchen table, with a plate of cold fried chicken between them, and two bottles of ale. He was talking intently across the table at her, and in his earnestness his hand had fallen upon and covered her own . . . There was an unmistakable air of natural intimacy about the picture, and anybody would have said that they were conspiring together.
Foreshadowing in Minor Characters
The most recognized example of Fitzgerald foreshadowing the hit-and-run is the scene during one of Gatsby’s many extravagant house parties when a car slams into a ditch and rips off its wheel. Standing by the disheveled car is a character named Owl Eyes. Nick, the narrator, asks Owl Eyes about the accident:
“But how did it happen? Did you run into the wall?”
“Don’t ask me,” said Owl Eyes, washing his hands of the whole matter. “I know very little about driving—next to nothing. It happened, and that’s all I know.”
“Well, if you’re a poor driver you oughtn’t to try driving at night.”
“But I wasn’t even trying,” he explained indignantly, “I wasn’t even trying.”
An awed hush fell upon the bystanders.
“Do you want to commit suicide?”
“You’re lucky it was just a wheel! A bad driver and not even trying!”
“You don’t understand,” explained the criminal. “I wasn’t even driving. There’s another man in the car.”
The shock that followed this declaration found voice in a sustained “Ah-h-h!” . . .
This mimics what will happen later when Gatsby is wrongly accused of hitting Myrtle. And just like the wheel of this car is “violently shorn,” so is Myrtle hit so hard that her left breast is ripped and “swinging loose like a flap.” This incident also serves to connect Gatsby with cars and chaos.
Foreshadowing in Summary
In another small detail foreshadowing the hit-and-run, Fitzgerald includes a long list of names of all the people who come to Gatsby’s wild parties. Among the names is a man named Snell, who was at one of the parties “three days before he went to the penitentiary, so drunk out on the gravel drive that Mrs. Ulysses Swett’s automobile ran over his right hand.”
Again chaos follows Gatsby, and again it involves a car.
Foreshadowing in a Story within a Story
Fitzgerald even connects car accidents to the past of Tom—Daisy’s husband and lover of the doomed Myrtle.
Jordan Baker, Nick’s girlfriend, tells Nick about Daisy and Tom’s courtship and relates a story about Tom’s first known extramarital affair, which he had only a few months after marrying Daisy:
Tom ran into a wagon on the Ventura road one night, and ripped a front wheel off his car. The girl who was with him got into the papers, too, because her arm was broken—she was one of the chambermaids in the Santa Barbara Hotel [where Tom and Daisy were staying].
Here another tire is ripped off in a car accident, and just like Myrtle’s foreshadowed hit-and-run, the victim is a mistress of Tom’s. This information only adds to the escalating trend that girls who get involved with Tom get hurt: Daisy’s knuckle is bruised; Myrtle’s nose is broken; another lover had her arm broken; and soon Myrtle is going to pay the ultimate price. Tom is both a bad guy and bad luck.
These are only a handful of examples which illustrate the many ways that Fitzgerald used subtle details and character development to deftly foreshadow story events that needed to feel unexpected yet inevitable. This practiced sleight of hand is what can turn a good story into a great story.
All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald