Monday 11 February 2013

Creating Anticipation

Anticipation is more than being eager to find out what’s going to happen. When you anticipate something, you predict events. You have an expectation.  The way things turn out will definitely affect how you feel about the story you’re reading, but the anticipation part is nothing to do with what actually ends up happening. 

Because what creates anticipation is not just a question without an answer, it has to be the kind of question where the reader thinks they know what the answer is going to be.

Having no clue what’s going to happen creates no anticipation. But when anticipation is at a high enough level, it can be more exciting than the actual outcome.

If I tell you a man is about to go through a door, there’s no way you can anticipate what’s on the other side of the door. You can be curious, but you won’t feel anticipation. 

If I tell you the door has a sign on it that says ‘Maternity Ward’ your anticipation kicks into gear.  Information creates anticipation. 

The information doesn’t have to be definitive and complete, but it has to provide enough context to give the reader a shot at a guess. It’s up to the writer to decide what they want the reader to think is going to happen and provide the necessary information that will enable them to do that.

Exactly what the reader believes will happen, how much they care, what the stakes are and how long you keep them guessing are all variables in setting up anticipation. But YOU have to set it up. You can’t leave it to the reader to come up with something on their own, and you can’t wait until things are revealed and rely on them being suitably impressed. You have to get them to commit to an expectation. Once they go from wondering to predicting, they are engaged with your story world.

Of course, once they’re engaged they may not like what they find, a story will be judged by its content, but first you need to draw the reader in. 

There are a number of different types of anticipation. What they all have in common is making the reader think they know what’s coming.

If something dangerous is about to happen we call this anticipation FEAR.

When something of value might be lost, this is called WORRY.

If we sense an unpleasantness in the future, we experience DREAD.

On the other hand, expectation of a good outcome creates HOPE.

But if the thing we anticipate doesn’t come or is delayed, then we experience FRUSTRATION.

And when you’re expectations are wrong, then you get SURPRISE (this last one is a little different as by definition you can’t anticipate surprise, but it can be a useful technique to wrong foot the reader).

These can be mixed or tweaked to various degrees of intensity. You can focus on just one, or switch between them. But once you create a sense of anticipation, in any of these forms, it makes the reader want to know if their expectation will be met.

But you might wonder, if the reader thinks they know what’s going to happen, why would they keep reading the story?

And the answer is because the thing that makes anticipation work is the feeling that you’re not going to get what you want.

If you want the boy and girl to get together, then the story will try to make you think that’s not going to happen. If you’re afraid the hero’s going to die in the snakepit, then every effort will be made to make it look like he’s a goner.

Even when you know the couple are going to get together (because they always do) or you know the hero isn’t going to die in the first chapter (what’s going to happen in chapters 2-50?), even when you’ve read the book before or already seen the movie, the challenge to what you’re anticipating is enough of a lure (especially if it’s handled skilfully) to keep you engaged.

On the other hand, if you’re reading a story or watching a movie where things follow a predictable path from start to finish and everything you expect  to happen, happens, then you’re going to lose interest in that story.

If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Keep it interesting and drop hints, misleading or otherwise - check!

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. I like your idea of creating anticipation of what's next, but leaving things open for the readers to keep wondering if their guess is right or not.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Anticipation is such a great writer's tool. It fuels the reader's imagination to expect almost anything.

Thanks for the tips, Mood.

Unknown said...

I like a good red herring. It helps keep me wondering in the back of my head.

mooderino said...

@Alex - be sneaky.

@LB - I think it also helps if what characters are planning to do seems difficult of unlikely. Makes readers want to see how things work out.

@Michael - Cheers.

@Diane - not giving readers what they expect helps keep them on their toes. Helps if what they end up with is better than what they thought, of course.

Anonymous said...

I doubt anyone who's ever watched a Die Hard film is really in doubt about the ending. Therefore, the suspense comes not from knowing whether Brucie and wife will make it to the end, but how Brucie will get there. In other words, if the destination is clear, you'd better make the journey interesting.
An obvious way to build expectation is to ensure that your reader knows more than the characters or assumes that they know more. For example, a story beginning with three unconnected characters getting in their cars has built in anticipation because the assumption is the characters will interact at some point and may do so harmoniously or messily. Colin

Golden Eagle said...

I love it when an author effectively uses surprise.

Great post!

mooderino said...

@Colin - I agree with what you say, but it doesn't really explain our ability to enjoy a story after repeated viewings. Some mechanism in our brain likes to see a certain pattern play out. Or something.

@Golden - Cheers.

Charmaine Clancy said...

The Walking Dead keeps me busy with all those kinds of anticipation!

And Jaws was an awesome movie!

Unknown said...

Thanks! Great advice to keep in mind while writing.

Mark Paul said...

Very good article. Thanks for the tips. Which brings up the question, why do television series like NCIS, KNIGHT RIDER and Dallas work, when most of the time they have a predictable plot element to them.

Maria said...

Creating the feeling of anticipation is sometimes tricky, but necessary as you say.

Drip feeding information seems to work for me. Good post.

mooderino said...

@Charmaine - they like to kill off major characters in the Walking Dead. Who will it be this week?

@CS - cheers.

@Chronicles - Adding a cool talking car always helps.

@Maria - Cheers.

Rusty Carl said...

Anticipation is one of those things that I have to struggle to figure out sometimes in my writing, how much is too much, too little, did I make a promise early that I'm not keeping... that sort of stuff, great to think about.

mooderino said...

@Rusty - one of those places where beta readers come in handy.

Unknown said...

Note worthy

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