@tdmiller820917 and I were having a conversation on Twitter:
@tdmiller820917 Thanks Tracy! Have you read Joseph Conrad yet? A good friend of mine once pointed out that Conrad foreshadows EVERYTHING.
— Vik Rubenfeld (@VikRubenfeld) June 11, 2015
@VikRubenfeld Question:How can you effectively balance foreshadowing throughout the story & maintaining a surprise payoff at the end?
— Tracy Diane Miller (@tdmiller820917) June 13, 2015
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.
@vikrubenfeld I'm so glad this post came today. It is particularly relevant as I continue to chart my suspense "hooks". Thanks!
— Tracy Diane Miller (@tdmiller820917) July 28, 2015