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.
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.]