Foreshadowing: The Secret Sauce of Best-Sellers

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

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Don’t Fall into This Trap: Hogwarts Is Not Why Harry Potter Became a Best-Seller

If you were to ask yourself, Why was the Harry Potter series so record-smashingly popular?

It’d be easy to think, Well, Hogwarts, of course.

The Hogwarts setting is so imaginative, so detailed, so enthralling. In fact, that’s what Rowling herself used to think (“the magic is so fun and the idea of this hidden world is so appealing”). But then in 2011, she changed her mind.

She had gained some perspective, she said, after talking to thousands upon thousands of fans. The appeal of her story had nothing to do with setting at all. What was it? She realized that:

[readers had fallen] in love with the characters.

Character Trumps Setting

Some of the most popular novels recently have had memorable settings (e.g., The Hunger Games and Divergent), so it’s tempting to think that a unique setting is the be-all, end-all of a blockbuster book. It isn’t.

Only one thing can create a fresh, gripping story: character.

Or to be exact: character in conflict.

How to Create Characters in Conflict

Sample Study: This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Every year I reread The Great Gatsby, but this year I also read for the first time This Side of Paradise, which was Fitzgerald’s first published book.

One of Fitzgerald’s greatest talents as a writer was his ability to succinctly yet so clearly portray each of his characters’ inner and outer conflicts.

For example, here’s how he introduces the character Rosalind in This Side of Paradise.

Rosalind is—utterly Rosalind. She is one of those girls who need never make the slightest effort to have men fall in love with them. Two types of men seldom do: dull men are usually afraid of her cleverness and intellectual men are usually afraid of her beauty. All others are hers by natural prerogative.

If Rosalind could be spoiled the process would have been complete by this time, and as a matter of fact, her disposition is not all it should be; she wants what she wants when she wants it and she is prone to make every one around her pretty miserable when she doesn’t get it—but in the true sense she is not spoiled. Her fresh enthusiasm, her will to grow and learn, her endless faith in the inexhaustibility of romance, her courage and fundamental honesty—these things are not spoiled.

There are long periods when she cordially loathes her whole family. She is quite unprincipled; her philosophy is carpe diem for herself and laissez faire for others. She loves shocking stories: she has that coarse streak that usually goes with natures that are both fine and big. She wants people to like her, but if they do not it never worries her or changes her.

She is by no means a model character.

The education of all beautiful women is the knowledge of men. Rosalind has been disappointed in man after man as individuals, but she had great faith in man as a sex. Women she detested. They represented qualities that she felt and despised in herself—incipient meanness, conceit, cowardice, and petty dishonesty. She once told a roomful of her mother’s friends that the only excuse for women was the necessity for a disturbing element among men. She danced exceptionally well, drew cleverly but hastily, and had a startling facility with words, which she used only in love-letters.

The foreword to the 1996 edition of This Side of Paradise said that Fitzgerald was criticized for “the novel’s lack of polish, its dreadful spelling and frequent gaffs in word-choice.” These would ultimately prevent the book from reaching “the permanent heights of acclaim attained by his later works,” but still Paradise received “outstanding reviews and sold spectacularly.”


Because Fitzgerald built his story around interesting characters who were dealing with interesting conflicts.

Second Sample Study: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby is one of the most celebrated novels of all time—and it is all about characters in conflict.

Here’s how Fitzgerald introduces Tom Buchanan, a character who absolutely must be believable in order for readers to accept the story’s ending:

And so it happened that on a warm windy evening I drove over to East Egg to see two old friends whom I scarcely knew at all. Their house was even more elaborate than I expected, a cheerful red-and-white Georgian Colonial mansion, overlooking the bay. The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walls and burning gardens—finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run. The front was broken by a line of French windows, glowing now with reflected gold and wide open to the warm windy afternoon, and Tom Buchanan in riding clothes was standing with his legs apart on the front porch.

He had changed since his New Haven [Yale] years. Now he was a sturdy straw-haired man of thirty with a rather hard mouth and a supercilious manner. Two shining arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward. Not even the effeminate swank of his riding clothes could hide the enormous power of that body—he seemed to fill those glistening boots until he strained the top lacing, and you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved under his thin coat. It was a body capable of enormous leverage—a cruel body.

Gatsby became a classic not because its setting of extreme wealth in the Jazz Age was interesting. It became a classic because Fitzgerald perfected the art of characters in conflict.

How to Create the Best Characters

One of Rowling’s greatest strengths as a writer is her ability to create complex, lifelike characters (Stephen King called her the current champ of backstory). I’ve included a chart below found on Tumblr which lists the different personality types of the Potter characterslook at all that conflict!

If you struggle with character development, I recommend Please Understand Me II by David Keirsey. It was my 2013 number one pick for best writing books. It’s actually a psychology book and it analyzes the sixteen types of personalities, covering everything from societal roles to parenting styles to sex lives.

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Harry Potter Myers-Briggs Chart