Carly Simon’s song, “Anticipation,” was featured in a ketchup commercial in the ’70s. Remember that? The ketchup flowed oh so slowly, but it was totally worth waiting for. I can still remember her sultry voice over singing “Anticipation” while the actor on the commercial waited with watering mouth for the ketchup to finally reach his hamburger.
This past summer, I attended Jay Asher’s talk about Anticipation at the SCBWI international conference. His basic point was that as we writers create tension within our stories, anticipation is a great way to heighten that tension. After all, if a scary monster just shows up and says “boo,” it’s not nearly as scary as if the character hears a noise, goes to investigate, finds nothing, worries and frets and works herself up for a good scare, and THEN the scary monster shows up.
I love anticipation in novels. It keeps me reading, because I want to find out what is really going on. I want to know if my suspicions are correct, or if the scary thing is something else. (I’m just using scary as an example. Anticipation can apply to happy, joyous, momentous, nervous, and life or death moments as well.)
One way to increase the anticipation of events is to slow down. My first drafts usually barrel straight through without slowing down, so when I revise this is one element I am particularly aware of. Let the scene or chapter unfold gradually and include bits that will build the anticipation. The character might wonder what that noise was. Or worry about what kind of trouble she might in with the headmistress. Or the best friend saw something and is telling the main character about it.
Another device, depending on how you tell the story, could be switching points of view. Some of my favorite authors use multiple points of view in succession, and just at the cliffhanger moment, a chapter with character A ends and we move on to a chapter told from character B’s point of view, leaving the anticipation of finding out what happens to A still in place. I usually curse the author for torturing me, but I keep reading, of course.
Ways NOT to use anticipation: When you have a scene filled with cryptic images and lots of anticipation, only to have the character awake and realize it was only a dream, the reader will feel cheated. Or if the character is building up in his head a horrible, horrible consequence, and it comes to nothing, again the reader will feel cheated. You can’t just include anticipation for anticipation’s sake. If that ketchup never reaches the hamburger, it doesn’t work.
Anticipation doesn’t always have to be very overt. It can be indicated by a tiny mannerism. For example, you set up early in the novel that character A has a nervous mannerism of twisting her wedding ring around when she’s worried. Then throughout the novel, if she’s twisting her wedding ring, we know she’s worried. That is a tiny indication that we should be anticipating something. All the better if the ring twisting is directly connected to something to do with her marriage, as the symbolism will just strengthen the anticipation. In Harry Potter, his scar burned every time Voldemort was near. Talk about anticipation! The reader knew immediately that a big something was about to take place. And kept reading.
As the holidays approach, we can all remember the anticipation we had as children. It seemed that Christmas took forever to finally arrive. I spent many moments shaking presents and trying to guess what was inside. So much so that my mom put in beans and trinkets and other things just to throw me off track. The anticipation of Christmas morning was almost more enjoyable than the actual moment itself.
Of course, not every child has a happy Christmas. Or birthdays. Sometimes the anticipation is the happy part and the reality is the tragic part. That makes for great stories. This kind of emotional anticipation and the failure of reality to match up is the ultimate tension.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to. . .oh, what was that noise? Why are the dogs barking so frantically? Find out in our next episode!