Anticipation isn’t at the forefront of a writer’s mind, but it’s an equally important element for creating a good, page turning story.
Isn’t anticipation the same
as tension? Not quite. Writers use tension like a rubber band, they
flex it to heighten tense moments during a story and then loosen their grip
when they want to relax things or lull the reader into a false sense of
security, but creating anticipation is a little different.
A sense of anticipation is
all about expectation. The reader is expecting something to happen;
they’re expecting Character A will do something drastic, they’re expecting the
story to conclude with a showdown…and so on. In a way, the reader is quietly
predicting what will happen as the story unfolds, so writers need to divert
that expectation so that the plot isn’t as predictable as readers think. And
the way writers do that is by creating uncertainty and doubt to develop a
different sense of anticipation.
Think of a football
competition – one team will win, and one team will lose. That part is certain.
But it’s the anticipation of which team will win or lose that
creates the uncertainty, because nothing is certain until the final whistle. We
expect our team to win, but they could also lose.
Expectation and doubt create
In other words, the story
shouldn’t be what the reader expects. It should generate that doubt and
uncertainty, because maybe the protagonist might not be able to reach his or
her goal, maybe an important character dies, or perhaps there is a possibility
that the bad guy could win and possibly the protagonist might die.
That doubt about what might happen entices the reader to keep turning
the page, because what they think is a certainty actually isn’t – so they have
to keep going to see if their intuitions could be right. By introducing doubt
to outcomes, the reader will feel more of an emotional impact with the
protagonist as they deal with the different problems and dilemmas – and more so
if you have created a sense of immediacy and a strong connection right from
chapter one. The reader needs to care about the characters and what will happen
to them, otherwise that sense of anticipation won’t work.
Writers are master manipulators – they constantly exploit the reader’s
emotions, play on their inner fears, give them false hope and deliberately lead
them. They introduce doubt that nothing is certain, which makes it hard for the
reader to predict what might happen. They won’t really know what’s coming.
There are a few ways to introduce doubt to outcomes and create some
Don’t let your main character win all the time. No character should be
successful all the time. The reality is that everyone fails at something at
some point – whether that’s through behaviour, making errors, being
overconfident or just not paying attention.
Make your characters vulnerable - they will have emotions, fears and
anxieties that we all experience. Vulnerability leads to weakness.
Don’t make scenarios a sure thing. For example, the reader will expect
the hero to crack the bomb code and save the girl…but what if he doesn’t crack
the code? What if he’s thwarted? What if someone finds him? By not cracking the
code, he can’t save the girl…yet. Everything is thrown into doubt, which
creates uncertainty. But because of the doubt, the writer can create a new
sense of anticipation to control the reader – will the hero escape and still
save the girl? Even though that could still happen, it’s not a certainty.
Make it so that that the reader can expect the unexpected. Don’t let them get too comfortable, and don’t make your writing predictable. Instead, create doubt. Rip that sense of certainty from them.
Make the reader question everything.