Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

18.10: Anticipation is More Than Just Making Us Wait

Last week we talked about tension, and promised that we’d be breaking it down into more pieces. This week we’re discussing one of those pieces: Anticipation. We sub-divided it as follows:

  • Surprise
  • Suspense
  • Humor
  • Promises

We talk about how to create anticipatory tension well, where the pitfalls are, and how this fits into the creation of our stories.

Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. It was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Look at your current WIP. Are there genre tropes that you can subvert? Can you pay off reader anticipation by delivering something other than what the genre has led the reader to expect?

Thing of the week: Dead Country, by Max Gladstone.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Forms of anticipation? Surprise, introducing an unexpected element. Suspense, delaying the action or answer. Humor, the joke is coming. Unfulfilled promises, waiting for the promised action. For anticipation, you need to know or think you know what is coming. Be careful about trying to build tension with unearned interruptions, withholding information. Inevitability, and genre tropes, can build anticipation. Subverted tropes, using the reader’s expectations against them. Mix up the kinds and places of anticipation, and play them against each other. Horror and humor use the same anticipatory expectation, but horror fulfills it, while humor subverts it. Use your beta readers to check your anticipation. The twist in mystery depends on the reader anticipating something, and then you take them someplace else.

[Season 18, Episode 10]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[DongWon] Anticipation is More Than Just Making Us Wait.

[Erin] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[DongWon] I’m DongWon.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Mary Robinette] So now that you’ve been anticipating something, let’s talk about actually how this works. There’s a number of different forms of anticipation that we can think about playing with. I’m going to mention four of them, but there are more. This can be anything from surprise, where you’re introducing an unexpected element, suspense, where you’re delaying an action or an answer, humor is often a form of anticipation where you know that a joke is coming, and then unfulfilled promises, where you… The reader is waiting for the thing that you’ve promised is going to happen. Like, in a previous episode, we mentioned going down the dark stairs, and you know that someone is going to jump out. You’ve just made that promise.

[Howard] Yeah. The title of this episode comes from the 1976 Heinz ketchup commercial where they’re singing anticipation while the very slow ketchup comes out of the bottle. The whole idea being I really want to just eat the sandwich, but I have to wait for the ketchup first. Anticipation is inherently… There is an inherent tension there, and you can be anticipating something wonderful. Even the ordinary kind of wonderful like ketchup.

[Mary Robinette] That actually…

[Dan] I just want to say, an important part of anticipation is that you have to know or think you know what’s coming. A very, very short version of a story I know I’ve told before. I was trying to teach this to a group of teen writers several years ago. I showed them the beach scene, the first beach scene in Jaws, where there’s a bunch of kids out playing in the water. It is full of jump scares and all these things. It is just delicious mounting tension of which one of these kids is going to get eaten by a shark. But I, in my foolishness, forgot to tell this group of 12-year-olds that there was a shark. They didn’t… They had no context for this movie whatsoever. So instead of a very tense scene, it was a really boring scene in which nobody got eaten by a shark. Without knowing that something bad was going to happen, there’s no anticipation at all.

[Mary Robinette] One of the things that I love about that example is the… Is that you have to have that conversation with the reader. One of the things that I will see people do badly with anticipation is that they will hold onto a key piece of information trying to build tension by creating a mystery around it that is unnecessary. Where the reasons for interruptions are unearned. This is a… Like, this is, again, a thing that I played with a lot with Spare Man was that I would attempt to have… To create tension by having someone say, “Oh, well, the answer to your question…” Then I would use Gimlet, who is an adorable small dog, to interrupt the process. So, “The answer to your question… Is this dog allowed to have fries?” The reason that that worked was… Usually… Was that it was an earned interruption. It was an interruption that wasn’t under anyone’s direct control. There was also a different payoff, like that interruption was serving another function. Often, the interruption is just like someone comes by to drop a check, and they decide not to answer the question after all. That dropping the check? That is not serving any other purpose in the scene. It’s not… It’s an unearned, in my mind, interruption.

[DongWon] In a different way, you also used anticipation in one of the most clever ways that I’ve seen. Which is with the intimacy between your two leads. Right? There’s this recurring sort of very funny thing where they’re just trying to get a moment alone to sort of have an intimate moment, because it’s their honeymoon. You’re using those scenes to give us an enormous amount of exposition and information. You’re having them talk through the mystery, and you’re using them is what could, in other circumstances, be a very dry and boring dump, but by including this anticipatory element of like are they finally going to get to do the thing, it creates this very funny loop where you using the anticipation in this very like subtle background way that draws us into the scene and gives us a reason to care about what they’re saying, while we’re just like, “Can they please just make out now?” It’s great.

[Mary Robinette] Thank you for noticing that.


[Mary Robinette] Or not. Maybe I don’t want you to notice it. But, yes. But it is that thing which I think gets back to something that Dan said earlier, that anticipation, that there is an element of hope… That there is a thing that you’re hoping is going to happen. I think that was Dan. It may have been Erin.

[Howard] It was Dan, and it was two episodes ago.

[Mary Robinette] Two episodes ago. Previously.

[Howard] Or, no. One episode ago. But, yeah.


[Mary Robinette] Before. Someone said. I thought it was clever. But that element of hope, whether it’s that there is an outcome that you’re wishing for with anticipation…

[Dan] Now, one form of anticipation that I don’t see on your list, though it arguably can be a part of suspense, is the idea of inevitability. If we have seen a character do a certain thing in a certain situation every previous time that that situation has arrived, then, all of a sudden, you can present us with that situation again, and we know what’s going to happen. We know they’re going to make the wrong choice or we know that they’re going to kill the person. You can see this a lot in No Country for Old Men, for example. Where we suddenly find ourselves in this situation and we know what’s going to happen because we’ve seen it happen before. That inevitability just adds so much tension into it.

[Howard] Genre also programs a measure of that inevitability into us. If you’re watching a… Watching or reading a thing, and you realize, “Oh, this is sort of following Hero’s Journey, and this character is the mentor… Oh, crap. I like this character and they’re the mentor. Something is going to happen to them to prevent them from being useful. Oh, no.” That’s real. That’s a thing that your readers bring to your book, even if you’re not writing Hero’s Journey. If you’ve dropped enough things that might telegraphed to the reader that it’s Hero’s Journey, the character they think is the mentor is the character they’re expecting you to kill off. It’s something that we need to be aware of any time we’re writing in a genre.

[DongWon] Sometimes you can be really explicit about it. Star Wars has spent 20 years now milking anticipation as a narrative engine in all these prequel series. Right? I’m a huge fan of the cartoon Clone Wars, also known as the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker. Right? We know what happens to Anakin. We spent five seasons with all these characters that we know aren’t surviving this series. They are not in the movies. We know what is going to happen when Anakin becomes Darth Vader. So the tension of that series is so much in wait, there are all these characters we care about. Are they going to make it out of this? How do they make it out of this? And those questions. Andor recently was such a fascinating series because we know where Cassian Andor ends up. We know… And the entire question of the series that we’re watching is, how does he become the character that we meet in Rogue One? So they’re sort of using this as a loop, over and over again, to answer interesting questions that the audience has, using our anticipation, using our sense of inevitability, to give us like these little Greek tragedy structured stories. Because we have certainty about where this ends up.

[Mary Robinette] Speaking of inevitability and anticipation, why don’t we take a pause for our thing of the week?

[DongWon] Our thing of the week this week is Max Gladstone’s Dead Country. This book is out March 7th, which should be a couple days from when you’re hearing this, if you’re listening to it when the episode drops. Max is returning to his most well-known and original series, the Craft sequence, with a new series of books that is telling the story of a war that is coming to the world of the Crafts. The first book starts with Dead Country. We meet Tara Abernethy, who’s the hero of the first book, Three Parts Dead, returning to her home for the first time since she was chased out because she’s heard the news that her father has died. So, we get to see this character that we’ve seen before returning home. It’s this really wonderful examination of what we give up when we go out into the world, what ambition costs us, and how do we pass on the learning that we’ve had over the course of our lives. Dead Country kicks off a new arc in the Craft that is a much closer, tighter knit arc then we’ve seen Max do before. I cannot tell you how excited I am for everyone to see where he takes this universe over the next four books.

[Mary Robinette] So, as we’re continuing this conversation about anticipation, there’s… One of the other things that I particularly enjoy are subverted tropes. Where you are using the reader’s expectations against them. Sometimes this is a… I will spoil a little bit… This is a thing that I used in Spare Man, when… You’ll see this used a lot… Where you’re like, “Aha. I think that it is this person.” Then they become the act two corpse or something else happens that causes you to decide, “Oh, I guess I was wrong.” Then, either they have fake their own death or they have… There’s something where you subvert the reader’s expectations. You use their anticipation of the ways they think it’s going to go to toy with them.

[Howard] One of the best examples I can think of, just off the top of my head, is Samuel L. Jackson’s St. Crispin’s Day speech in 1999’s Deep Blue Sea, where he is riling everybody up and saying, “Yeah, these sharks might be smart, but we’re human beings, and we’re…” He is ramping up to awesome, full-blown Samuel L. Jackson. Then a shark comes out of the water from behind him and eats him. Now that… I mean, it’s 20 years later, we kind of expect that kind of thing. Now that it’s been done a few times. But at the time, it was both hilarious and horrifying and was brilliant. So, I look for ways in which I can do something that looks like it’s delivering what people are anticipating, and then twists and delivers something else that makes them laugh and makes them scream at the same time.

[Erin] One of the things that I love about that is that it plays with the different types of anticipation. Not in the way that Mary Robinette has set this up, but just the different strands. You can have physical… Like, the anticipation of physical pain, the anticipation of emotional change. Like, I’m going to have a breakthrough, or a relational change, we’re finally going to make out. What I think is cool about that example is it’s an emotional… The anticipation is of this emotional release, and then a physical thing comes in and interrupts it. So one thing that’s really fun is to play around with the different types of anticipation or the different kinds of places in which anticipation can happen, then layer those in among each other.

[DongWon] Mary Robinette kind of mentioned this earlier, but I think horror and humor really rely on the same overlapping anticipatory impulse. Right? This kind of goes to what Erin was saying as well, in… There’s one type of anticipation that sort of drives that flip. There’s a moment in the recent reboot of Candyman. It’s a tiny little moment, where one of the characters opens a cellar door and looks down a dark stairwell. We have this horror anticipation of she’s going to go down there, something bad’s down there, it’s not going to go great. She just says, “Nope.” and closes the door.


[DongWon] It becomes this comedy beat. It’s a delightful beat. I was in a theater. We all just lost our minds at this. But it is the thing of humor can be that subverting the expectation, and horror can be about fulfilling of the expectation. The horror version is she goes down there and something bad happens to her. The humor version is she’s like, “I ain’t doing this. I’m out.” and closes the door and walks away. So, I think how you resolve the anticipation can sort of determine what genre space you’re in. But the same impulse is there in terms of the feeling we have going into that.

[Mary Robinette] The… One of the examples of how you can really use anticipation along these lines is in the Expanse, in the first episode, we meet… I think it’s the first episode… But we meet a ship’s captain and he has this wall of collectible cat figurines.


[Mary Robinette] The main character is like, “So what’s with the cat figures?” He’s like, “What?” He clearly refuses to answer, there’s something there. What you’re anticipating is that later he’s going to be… There’s going to be a telling moment, a compelling moment where they… He shares why he collects the cat figures, or you’re anticipating that one of them is going to be broken, and he’s going to feel… The main characters going to feel really bad about having broken it. Instead… Full on spoiler… What happens is we just blow the entire ship up, and we will never get the answer to what is going on with all of those cats. But it creates this little bit of tension there that it’s like here’s… We’re anticipating something… That these are going to be important for some reason. We’re anticipating that they’re Chekhov’s gun, and then they are not.


[Mary Robinette] The other… Go on.

[Dan] If I can interrupt really quick, that’s also an example of that combination of anticipation and hope. Just giving those little cat figurines humanizes that character in such a tiny but vital way that suddenly we care about this person. We care about getting the answer to that question. We find them to be more interesting than just standard captain on a doomed ship. So, when the ship blows up, we care in a way we wouldn’t have without that little element.

[Howard] I want to call out one of my favorite go to tools for anticipation. That is the beta reader. I will ask my beta readers at the end of each chapter to tell me what is it that you are anticipating? What is it that you are dreading? What is… Tell me what you think is going on. Not so I can second-guess you and write the story so that you’re wrong. I want to know if the anticipation is working. Because it’s very difficult to know if it’s working when the only person who’s reading it is you.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. That’s very true. Which actually brings me to how you can use anticipation with a mystery. We mentioned that one of the main beats in a mystery is the twist. The twist does not work unless you have the reader anticipate something else. That’s one of the things that you have to do when you’re setting up the mystery is you have to build in anticipation. Then, at the twist point, you take them somewhere else. Speaking of taking us someplace else, think let’s take us to our homework assignment.

[Howard] I can do that. Have a look at your current work in progress, and ask yourself, are there genre tropes that you can subvert? Can you payoff reader anticipation by delivering something other than what the genre you’re writing in has led the reader to expect?

[Mary Robinette] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.