When you read the title of this article, what do you envision? For many, it probably brings images o a “Hansel and Gretel” movie to mind, or perhaps a traumatic experience of feeding ducks at a local park as a child (okay, that one’s a bit too specific on an image, but I digress.) Unsurprisingly, an image of breadcrumbs probably doesn’t bring up thoughts about writing, or give you any sort of direction for how to write a story you’ve been working on, but I will argue that it should — leaving breadcrumbs in the form of foreshadowing is something that all great writers do, and something you should too if you’d like to be in that category with the greats one day.
What is foreshadowing
If you’re like me, foreshadowing is something that you have probably only ever heard about in a high school literature class. Sure, Charles Dickens used foreshadowing in some of his novels, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle definitely left some breadcrumbs for the reader to follow when writing his many Sherlock Holmes stories, but foreshadowing is so much more than that. Foreshadowing, or as I call it, leaving breadcrumbs, is weaving clues and hints into your story that give readers a sampling of how your tale might end.
Foreshadowing is most often utilized in mystery novels — while reading a whodunnit, the detective will undoubtedly come across clues that hint at who the criminal mastermind is. In a mystery novel, those clues are often actual physical objects or images — a footprint in the mud underneath the window where a robber broke in, a fingerprint left on the glass that held the poisoned liquor that killed the unlikable businessman in chapter one, or a ripped ticket stub left in a suspect’s car that proves his whereabouts when a fight broke out backstage.
In other genres, foreshadowing functions in much of the same way, but isn’t usually as obvious.
Why use foreshadowing
So why should you use foreshadowing if your main character isn’t a quirky crime-solver on a quest for vigilante justice? Because you owe it to your reader. Our job as writers is to create a compelling story — a plot and characters that are real, multi-faceted, and, to a certain extent, unpredictable. You don’t want your story to lay everything out exactly how it happens from all sides of the story — that’s why we use limited perspectives and don’t reveal everything about a character in the first chapter. But you’ve still got to give your reader something to go off of — you need to keep your story and your world equally mysterious and understandable, something that foreshadowing helps you establish.
This is why foreshadowing is helpful. It gives your reader enough information about what is to come — be that a criminal deed or a devastating breakup or a battle of wills between your protagonist and antagonist — without giving them an outline of the whole story beforehand. Foreshadowing gives your reader an “aha!” moment without giving them your whole plot in advance, and makes them want to keep reading to see if their suspicions are right, or just a red herring that makes for one heck of a ride through the coming chapters
How to use foreshadowing
Now that you’re sold on the why of using foreshadowing, how do you actually do it? It might seem like a tricky line to toe, but it’s simpler than you think to plant bits of foreshadowing into your writing. Take the aforementioned “Hansel and Gretel” story, and bring to mind the literal breadcrumbs that are used in the tale. The breadcrumbs that the children lay behind them as they venture into the woods are to lead them back to safety. In your story, the breadcrumbs that you leave should be scattered with the intent of leading your reader somewhere. It might be leading to a specific character, hinting at future plot development, or even bringing something up that won’t be resolved until book two (some of the most famous authors out there plant clues for future books and storylines well in advance of when those breadcrumbs lead anywhere.)
Even TV shows and musicians (ahem, Taylor Swift) have fun leaving breadcrumbs all over the place, or, as they’re also sometimes referred to, Easter eggs, and let their fans have a heyday deciphering clues and predicting what’s happening in the next episode or when the next album will drop.
In the novel I’m currently working on, I have bits of foreshadowing throughout, and all of it makes sense by the time you get to the last page (or sooner!) Think about how you can reveal enough information in earlier chapters to pique a reader’s interest without giving anything away, and do it a few more times throughout the coming chapters before revealing what was really going on all along. Use words that have double meanings, or dialogue from characters that doesn’t quite mean what you might think it does at first glance, to give your readers a trail of breadcrumbs that lead to the final climax or a revealing epiphany for one of your characters.
Don’t forget about foreshadowing
As you’re working away on your next great masterpiece, don’t forget to leave that trail of breadcrumbs. Foreshadowing is a well-known and oft-used literary element for a reason — it works! Give your readers what they want and lead them through your story with a little bit of intrigue and a lot of carefully left breadcrumbs. It will make the story more fun for you to write, and even more fun for your readers to decipher later on when all your hard work has paid off.