Creating Anticipation

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 anticipation.

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 anticipation:

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.


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