An ending isn’t a singular thing, it’s built up through the rest of the narrative of a story so there have to be hints that the reader can pick up on, even if it’s only in retrospect. A prime example of this would be The Usual Suspects where all the hints to the ending are hidden throughout the film and become obvious at the end (assuming we haven’t been double-bluffed but that’s another article). Agatha Christie is another obvious example where she drops clues and then collects them all together to show the reader all the ways they could’ve fit together.
The idea of breadcrumbs suggests the need for a plan but as we’ve already discussed a plan isn’t necessary if it doesn’t work for you. Some of the breadcrumbs will be planned like dots in a dot-to-dot book but others will be dropped subconsciously so even you might not notice until you read it back. But editing is where the trail is really laid, once you have your ending, or a clearer idea of your ending, it’s much easy to drop clues for the reader.
Dropping clues might sound counter-intuitive if you’re not writing crime fiction because you can worry that you’re revealing too much. Sometimes this is simply because as the writer you see the whole picture of your work so when you read it back things can be conspicuous to you that wouldn’t be to the reader. It’s at this point having other people to read your work helps because you can ask them about your work; what they picked up, what they didn’t, what they felt was missing and so on.
But if we step aside from the possibility of showing too much for a moment there is the possibility of hinting too little. Crime fiction would be an example because it is a genre where the reader expects to try and figure out who committed the crime before the detective. They can be blindsided by an unexpected ending that they didn’t see coming but that is different from an ending they had no chance of predicting. For example if the murderer turned out to be a character that had never been introduced or mentioned in the story the ending would be unsatisfying because it makes no sense, throws the reader out, and generally feels unsatisfying.
Laying breadcrumbs in any other story works on the same principle. While the primary purpose of the story may not be to give the reader a chance to solve a mystery the ending still needs something to foreshadow it and make it fit in with the rest of the story. Even in stories where a character is killed by an accident there can be a sense of the right ending. The tragic love affair, for example, where everyone knows it will end badly but they don’t necessarily know how it will end badly. Or a story where the reader has a sense that a character will have a redemptive change of heart, they just don’t know when it will happen or what will cause it. Subtle hints, whether an off-hand comment or a clue in the environment, make an ending more satisfying and solidify it into a story.
If you’re not convinced try re-reading a book or watching a film you think has a great ending and look carefully for little, or not so little, things that hint at the directionality of the story. It may surprise you when you really think about it what you missed the first time through.