Using Foreshadowing to Build Suspense

Vik Rubenfeld#AskVik2 Comments

@tdmiller820917 and I were having a conversation on Twitter:

She asks:

Tracy, thanks very much for this excellent question! To respond, I re-read one of Joseph Conrad’s best-known works, “Heart of Darkness”.

In this novella Conrad really does, as my friend said, foreshadow everything. Here are a few examples.

“It was just two months from the day we left the creek when we came to the bank below Kurtz’s station.”

That sounds like the beginning of a passage in which the narrator, Marlowe, will describe his arrival at Kurtz’s station. But that arrival doesn’t happen until considerably later in the novel. Instead, this sentence begins a description of the journey up the river, on the way to Kurtz. Marlowe is foreshadowing the coming arrival at Kurtz’s station.

“Perhaps I had a little fever too. One can’t live with one’s finger everlastingly on one’s pulse. I had often ‘a little fever,’ or a little touch of other things— the playful paw-strokes of the wilderness, the preliminary trifling before the more serious onslaught which came in due course.”

That foreshadows the life-threatening illness Marlowe will have much later in the story.

“I thought, ‘By Jove! it’s all over. We are too late; he has vanished— the gift has vanished, by means of some spear, arrow, or club. I will never hear that chap speak after all,’— and my sorrow had a startling extravagance of emotion, even such as I had noticed in the howling sorrow of these savages in the bush. I couldn’t have felt more of lonely desolation somehow, had I been robbed of a belief or had missed my destiny in life. […]

Now I think of it, it is amazing I did not shed tears. I am, upon the whole, proud of my fortitude. I was cut to the quick at the idea of having lost the inestimable privilege of listening to the gifted Kurtz. Of course I was wrong. The privilege was waiting for me.

That foreshadows his meeting with Kurtz, that doesn’t come until much later in the story.

Whether he [Kurtz] knew of this deficiency himself I can’t say. I think the knowledge came to him at last— only at the very last.

That foreshadows Kurtz’s last words—among the most famous lines in the history of the novel.

Using Foreshadowing to Build Suspense

All along, Conrad is using foreshadowing to tease us—to pique our interest and curiosity—to build anticipation. When Marlowe says (as quoted above),”It was just two months from the day we left the creek when we came to the bank below Kurtz’s station,” and then makes us wait many pages to find out what happened on Marlowe’s arrival there, it makes us curious.

When Marlowe says (as quoted above), “The privilege was waiting for me,” it makes us curious to what the outcome would be of Marlowe enjoying that privilege.

And when Marlowe says “I think the knowledge came to him at last— only at the very last,” it foreshadows Kurtz’s death—and makes us curious to know what exactly was this knowledge that came to Kurtz at the end.

Conrad’s use of foreshadowing makes us curious. It keeps us turning the pages. It builds suspense.

Using Foreshadowing While Maintaining a Surprising Ending

Marlowe doesn’t tell us at first what happened when he arrived at Kurtz’s camp—only that he would indeed arrive there in the course of the story.

He doesn’t tell us what Kurtz’s last words were. He makes us curious to know—then makes us wait to find out.

The key here is to foreshadow using enough info to make us curious—and not a bit more! That’s how Conrad is able to foreshadow everything—without giving away the surprise of events.

I hope this has been helpful.

Update 7-28-2015:

2 Comments on “Using Foreshadowing to Build Suspense”

  1. Foreshadowing is what I call “telegraphing your punches.” It is the opposite of suspense. Far better than flashbacks, not as good as a true hook. Here’s Conrad with a hook:

    “It was just two months from the day we left the creek when we came to the bank below Kurtz’s station and the hideous sight we found there.”

  2. To me, one of the key distinctions between a good novel, tv show or movie is how well it foreshadows events to come. Some people may think foreshadowing gives away what’s to come, and, yes, I often decipher the coming story from foreshadowing, knowing in advance what’s to come.

    This is half the fun for me, and when I discuss the book or show with someone else, or we watch the movie or show together, I’m the only one in the room who noticed.

    But even viewers who don’t recognize foreshadowing are prepared by it. Good foreshadowing builds a sense of anticipation and moves them closer to the edge of their seat without even recognizing what’s happening.

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