plotting anticipation

by Toni McGee Causey

Oh, I am a sucker for anticipation. I've been thinking about this for the last week-and-a-half because I decided to go ahead and have the LASIK surgery (as I write this, on Friday) and normally, I'm one of those people who researches all sorts of things–from how much pressure it takes to pull the trigger on a Remington sniper rifle, to work tools of the 1700s, to the ignitability of dust in a grain silo. I enjoy research, and I have an incredibly random collection of books and bookmarks to make any analyst confused. And I said "normally" above, because when it comes to the LASIK, I don't want to know. They kept trying to explain the procedure to me and I was all mature and plunged my fingers into my ears, all la la la la la, I can't hear you. Because there is no better way to build my anticipation and fear than just enough details to create just enough awareness of the dangers, and no ability to control them.

[Seriously. I am going to be hopped up on valium. I'm not going to be able to explain back the procedure to my doctor or do anything more than giggle. I just hope I don't say something insulting, like commenting on his botoxed brow.]

All of which led me to think about how much anticipation means to story-telling. There have to be stakes raised from the very beginning–I'd say within the first few pages. We might not know the ultimate stakes of the story, but something has to be at risk, and we, the readers, have to anticipate what the main character is going to do… and then the writer has to surprise us. If the character does everything exactly as we predict, leading to the outcome exactly as we predicted, then the anticipation of the next event goes to zero–or worse, the reader will put the book down.

But building anticipation isn't just a matter of naming the stakes–the ultimate consequences. I mean, after all, thousands of people have LASIK surgery every day, somewhere in the world, and it's not like I had this pressing sense of urgency about the procedure before last week. And I'm pretty certain that my doctor (who, thankfully, has done thousands of these surgeries), didn't think about one day doing surgery on me and then his life would be complete. For him, it's routine. 

For me, it's my eyes.

It's personal.

Now, as I was sitting there in the consultant's office last week, studiously trying to ignore her description of the procedure, I did catch one part. She explained that at one point, as the doctor's working on each eye, there will be a few seconds where I won't be able to see. She said that he tells the patient, "Okay, you see that light above you? I'm going to turn it off for about ten seconds, and I'll let you know when I turn it back on." But really, she explained, you can't see because right then is when they're doing something to the cornea (I DON'T REMEMBER DO NOT TELL ME I DON'T WANT TO KNOW I AM NOT KIDDING) and then something something happens and "you can't see for a few seconds," and then she saw the look on my face and hastened to add, "but he's never not had a patient able to see the light as soon as that part of the procedure is over. Don't worry."

And I, being a fiction writer, immediately thought, Oh, shit. What are the odds of him doing THOUSANDS of surgeries and NEVER EVER having ANYTHING BAD ever happen, EVER? That would be akin to him being PERFECT and we know people aren't perfect so OH, GREAT, I'm going to be the one in ten thousand he has to admit to later who did not turn out so well. And I immediately wanted to ask about back-up generators (in case of a freak storm) and how many additional staff they had (in case a serial killer bursts in and takes out a couple of nurses) and did she know how long the wait was for new eyes from the organ donor people? [I did not bring all of this up, because I figured that freaking out the staff and making them nervous before I got there was probably a bad thing.] [I did ask for extra valium.] [They said no.]

So… anticipation. Tension. Raising the stakes. 

There are fundamental elements to how to do this in story-telling, and many variables on these basics, but the main things we need to remember in order to build anticipation are:

1) create risks for the character — there has to be a downside to any choice they make along the way during the story. They have to feel like if they choose a path, there is the potential that they will lose their ability to achieve whatever their goal is.

2) they have to have a goal (which I am putting second, because I think people sometimes forget that there can be a SERIES of goals, leading to the ultimate goal of the story). That ultimate goal, in my case, is to come away from that LASIK surgery with improved eyesight so that I don't have to wear contacts or glasses all of the time. But I have a smaller set of goals which can be summed up by DO NOT FREAK AND CHICKEN OUT OF GOING. 

3) both the risks and the goal(s) have to be personal to that character. Not just happening to them personally, which isn't the same thing, but personal to them–they have to care, greatly, about the outcome. They have to have something unique about them, and their story, so that the risks makes us concerned for them. We have to care.

4) things have to go wrong, and not in the obvious way. The things that go wrong for the character cannot go wrong in the way the character anticipates and fears… it has to be worse. It has to be worse in a way that they shouldn't have been able to anticipate, most of the time. If they can anticipate something going wrong and it goes wrong exactly as they anticipated, they don't seem very clever. If WE can anticipate it going wrong in a certain way and the character cannot, and that's the exact way it goes wrong, then the character is going to seem pretty stupid. If you want that character to seem stupid–if that's the point–then that's fine. But if you want us to root for them and to wonder oh, hell, what are they going to do NOW? then you have to twist the consequences and surprise us. Whatever you do, each time they anticipate something and try to do something logical, the outcome needs to get worse.

5) things need to go progressively wrong and that progression needs to escalate from bad to worse to horrible to no hope in sight to no way to win. One of the worst mistakes in a story is to have something go horribly wrong early on and the next two or three things that go wrong are about level to that first one (or worse, easier on the character)–because our interest will plateau. It will feel like they're marking time, like the writer is marking time until he or she gets a certain number of words done and can procl
aim the story "done." Keep the order of progression in mind when you're plotting (even if you're pantsing).

6) educate the reader along the way with only as much information as they need to understand the next section of the story. Build the information they need to know in bite-sized moments through the story, not in one big honking swallow up front. Readers are going to trust you that you're going to give them more information as you go. They're also going to trust you that you're only going to give them the highlights of what they need to know right now, not every single detail. They do need specific details, however. Do you think I'm ever going to forget her comment about that light going out? Nope. Not for years. She used a lot of technical language up 'til that point, but that point? Stuck in my brain. Do you think I'm not going to be counting those seconds when that damned light goes out? You bet I am. Do you think that I'm not also going to be listening intently for the sound of the storm, the sound of the outer door opening, anyone crying out in pain that may distract the doctor? Ha. Those are going to be some long damned seconds. For a crisp story, one that moves fast for the reader and makes them want to turn the page, give them the least amount of information that you absolutely have to give them for them to see and understand that moment.

7) we need to understand the emotional state of the character as these things go wrong and they try to figure out a solution. If we tell the story completely from the outside and don't get into the emotions, the reader has no reason to care.

One of the best stories that I saw recently that played with anticipation is INSIDE MAN with Clive Owen and Denzel Washington. It's a brilliant film, and one of my favorites. The story starts with Clive Owen's character telling you exactly what's going to happen next. He warns you that you're not going to understand (if I remember correctly) and he's not going to repeat himself. And even with that warning, you're still going to be surprised, because it's an excellent game of three-card Monty. (Figuratively.) And even as you see what they're doing, your mind is anticipating something specific and you're filling in those details and they end up meaning something entirely different. The thing that I liked so much about how this film accomplished its goal is that Spike Lee (director) and Russell Gewirtz (writer) didn't cheat the viewer. When you realize what it was you actually saw vs. what it was you thought you saw, you realize how the filmmakers used your own anticipation against you–and you respect them for it, because the clues were all there, all along.

That leads to:

8) use the reader's anticipation against them. Sometimes this means giving something a double meaning, or having a character lie. (It is critical to note that the CHARACTERS can lie to the reader, and to each other, but the AUTHOR cannot cheat by offering a suddenly different explanation to something that was already explained, just for the convenience of being a "surprise.") You do want the reader to be surprised, and that has to come from the duality of what's going on in the moment–not from acts of God or random coincidences at convenient moments. 

Building anticipation is one of the simplest ways to look at plotting because as a person, you know how to anticipate. Think about those elements as you're writing; if it feels like something is stagnant, then you've probably hit a tension plateau–nothing worse is about to happen to the character. If it feels like it's taking too long to get moving, then look to see if you've over-educated the reader for that moment. Etc. Think about how to paint your character into a corner and then surprise us by how they get out. 

I'm sure there are other elements of anticipation, but for now, tell me what movie/TV show or book have you seen/read lately that does anticipation really well?

[Update: the LASIK went well — painless, easy, and I can now see better than when I had contacts. I'm kinda floored. No serial killers bursts into the offices, no hurricanes or earthquakes. I have never been so happy to be so boring.]

13 thoughts on “plotting anticipation

  1. Louise Ure

    Toni, I’m so glad the procedure went well! I am doubly chicken about doing it.

    Your tale reminds me of the dental surgery I went through a couple of years ago. At one point the dentist said there would be “thirty seconds of some pretty grueling pain.” When it came I counted to thirty slowly … again and again and again.

    When I got my voice and control of my mouth back, I told him I’d made my living for decades doing thirty second commercials and that was no thirty seconds.

    “Yeah, but if I’d told you how long it really lasted, you never would have stuck through it.”

  2. Terri

    Boring is never a word I would associate with you, Toni! 😉

    I’m glad the surgery went well. I knew it would. My husband had the same surgery on his eyes two years ago and the only fear I had was ‘oh geez, now he’ll be able to see me more clearly’ hah

    You know, I’ve never been much of a blog reader (still not, actually) but I LOVE reading the blogs here. Not only are they highly entertaining but very educational! Thank you so much for this lesson. You have no idea how much help it is going to be while I try to finish my wip! (I had a major ‘duh-slapupsidethehead-gottakillmydarlings’ moment so now I see a light at the end of my tunnel and this lesson will really help!) Anyway…you guys here are great!

    As for your question…there was only one movie I watched where I went…”ooh,,,didn’t see that coming” but for the life of me, I can’t remember what it was. so, I guess it wasn’t that great a movie. (I’ll check out the Denzel movie though, haven’t seen that one yet)

    Thanks again!

    Oh, and I sent you an email…let me know if you got it. 😉


  3. pari

    Toni,What a great post; it’s the kind of thing that should be basic reading for writers of all skill levels.

    I do believe the reader needs the pleasure of that anticipation but that it plays differently in different subgenres. I’m not sure I’ve got the little gray cells to think THAT through right now, but it’s a hunch.

    BTW: I’m glad the surgery went so well. May you enjoy your restored vision with utter gusto.

  4. Don

    Glad the procedure went well. I developed and hold the US patents for the Excimer laser used in LASIK surgery… and spent several years training docs on how to perform the surgery. I’m always very happy to hear of success!

    I’m trying to build anticipation, but I’m having trouble transferring my thoughts to paper and visualized in a readers mind.

  5. Fran

    Oh congratulations on the Lasik, Toni! I wish I could have it, but I can’t. Enjoy your cleared vision!

    We do all build up worst-case scenarios, don’t we? And the anticipation there can be intense. It starts at a very early age, too, doesn’t it?

    “Please don’t let him call on me!””I hope (s)he likes me!””What if somebody saw me do that! I’ll just DIE!”

    Great post!

  6. toni mcgee causey

    Louise, I’d have killed him. 😉 And I know what you mean about doubly chicken… I’d been wanting to have the LASIK for a couple of years and finally talked myself into going. (I think margaritas were involved.) Happily, it was really insanely easy. I could see better that night than without my contacts.

    For a girl who was very close to legally blind as a child and who’d worn glasses (and then contacts) since she was two, this is nothing short of a miracle.

  7. toni mcgee causey

    Terri — YAY — I am delighted to help. Believe me, I have a billion of those moments reading the others here, too. I’m happy anything I said rang a bell.

    (and HEY, I did not get that email… !!)

  8. toni mcgee causey

    Pari, so glad it was of some use. And I completely agree with you about the sub-genres playing out differently. What would really work in a romantic suspense would kill a hard core thriller, anticipation-wise, and vice versa. Comedy is going to play out significantly differently than horror… that may be another blog for another day.

  9. toni mcgee causey

    Don, seriously? Well damn, you’re a hero. 😉 I’ve been running around all day like a kid on Christmas morning, able to see and reminding myself I don’t even have contacts in.

    As for the transferring the thoughts to paper, I find one trick that I can use in moments like that is to just tell the story as if you’re talking to a friend. For example, if you were to say, “Well, we went into this cave…” the friend would be a bit lost and want to know where and when, and who, and what kind of cave, so as you’re telling it, you’ll see their puzzled expression and fill in the details–just enough so that you can move on to your next point, and not so much that their eyes glass over. That’s pretty much all story-telling is… giving just the amount to keep the reader’s interest. Plus, remember, most first drafts suck. It’s fine to just get the bare bones down on paper and then figure out later what needs to be finessed.

  10. Jake Nantz

    Hmm…an axample of someone usuing good suspense and creating anticipation.

    You think you’re slick, Toni, but I’m on to you.

    I’m gonna have to say you. With this post.

    The structure of it is just too perfect. You tell us you’re going in on Friday, and it’s now Sunday, so of course we KNOW you’ve gone through it, but you spend so much time talking about the fears you (the character) have, and how it’s personal, and the stakes. You then mention all the horrible things that could go wrong (a freak storm, permanent blindness, serial killers). Then, as Sol Stein would say, you REFUSE to take the reader where the reader wants to go. Do you tell us how it went? NO. OF COURSE NOT. Instead you tell us EXACTLY what you’re doing as far as building anticipation, through your “how-to”. You even give us a freakin’ example of Clive Owen doing the same thing in the film. And THEN, FINALLY we get to find out that everything is A-OK.

    Yeah, you thought you were bein’ sneaky, but I caught ya. I know you’re going to protest, to play it off, but you’re too good a writer to convince me you hadn’t planned it that way all along.

    And if you didn’t plan to show by telling, well, nicely done anyway.:D

  11. Jake Nantz

    Well, planned or not, I’d bet storytelling technique like that is just ingrained in you. Same way Ms. Brennan always claims she can’t dissect story structure, then Alex points out how many of her books follow it to perfection. It’s just natural for good writers like you guys.

    Either that, or you’ve all taken some weird writer-steroid. And I want some.


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