Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
Have you ever read a story that was more like a loosely connected series of events than a story built upon action and reaction, cause and effect?
What did you think of such a story? Were you disappointed that there didn’t seem to be a destination for the story and its characters? Disappointed that there wasn’t an end that the story was working toward?
I want to encourage you to make sure your stories head somewhere, that they have a destination. That they build toward something.
When readers anticipate that something is going to happen to characters they’ve come to know, come to like and maybe admire—whether or not they know for sure what that something is—those readers get involved and stay involved in a story. So anticipation is an emotion you want to induce in the reader.
Give readers a sense of expectation, maybe even a yearning, toward a showdown or a climax. Toward a moment filled with meaning or impact.
A series of episodes, linked only by the presence of the same character, does not create the sense of anticipation that a story building toward some unknown but hinted-at ending does. In novels, for the most part, you want the reader eager for what comes next as well as eager for the big moment that solves the main character’s problems. And to have readers eager for not only the next problem stirred up by the antagonist or story situation but curious about what will ultimately happen, you have to build in the anticipation.
I’ve read manuscripts where the story doesn’t seem to be leading anywhere. There may be a climactic scene, but if the story doesn’t anticipate a climax, doesn’t prime the reader for multiple possibilities regarding that climax, the story loses much of its punch. It loses its power to hang on to the reader. A big climax means little if there was no anticipation leading up to it, no ties linking story events and character actions to it.
Where Is The Story Going?
To give readers a sense of expectation that keeps them turning pages in order to find out not only what’s going to happen next but what’s going to happen at the end, you’ve got to show that the story (and the characters) are moving from one place to another. You have to imply that the characters are going to end up in place other than where they began.
This can be a physical place, a mental place, or even an emotional place. But you want to give readers a sense of something happening, of forward movement. Chapters that read like unconnected episodes, with no sense that they will lead to anything or any place new, don’t create anticipation.
Episodic events can be entertaining in themselves, but in novels we expect effect to follow cause, reaction to follow action. So when something happens, we expect characters to have moved toward something new or different.
That something can be a positive thing but until the end of most novels, that thing that characters move closer to is often a negative. A character performs an act, hoping to get himself or someone close to him out of trouble, and yet inevitably gets himself into more trouble. When the character acts, something negative befalls him or his family or his friends.
Sometimes other characters have a hand in a character’s problems, ensuring that bad things happen no matter what the main character does. Thus not only does the reader want to see the main character succeed, he wants to see the main character’s nemesis fail and suffer consequences.
This pattern of cause and effect, these linked moments of action and reaction, propel the story forward toward a confrontation or showdown. And this anticipated showdown keeps the reader turning pages, wondering how the story could possibly work out in a way that benefits the main character while at the same time it deals justice to those who get in his way.
Some stories are different, of course, with the main character fighting himself rather than another character, but still there is a sense of anticipation, a sense that the story has a destination, a climax, a peak moment that all events are leading toward.
As a writer, you have to be the one to fold in that sense of anticipation.
Consider one of your works in progress—have you actively written in the anticipation? Are you pointing characters and readers toward a future moment or event? Have you hinted that there will be a showdown? A climax? A moment when story forces will collide?
If not, if your chapters or scenes read like unconnected episodes, go back and start adding in words and sentences and moments that point toward the future.
You don’t need to explain what that future is, simply hint—or even state boldly—that a future moment will come when what has happened up to that point culminates in some result.
Think finale. Think final product. Think of a stew or pot of soup that comes off the stove after a combination of ingredients has been stirred in and the stew has been heated so that the ingredients release their flavors and aromas and blend into something powerful and altogether different from what they were before they were combined.
You might not be able to smell the final product when the ingredients are first cut and introduced to the pot—each component may have its own distinct fragrance—but as time passes, as the elements of the stew are exposed to one another and to the heat, the scent of the final product begins to emerge.
Anyone standing near a pot of soup or stew will start to notice the smells as they blend. He or she will start anticipating what the soup will taste like when it’s done cooking. When the soup is almost ready, the scent fills the air and those nearby will know it’s close to being finished.
The scent will have built up—from distinct ingredients into something new. An anticipated something new. There’s nothing better than anticipating something that’s cooked all day—we want it. Our mouths have been primed to expect it, to bite into it. To savor it.
But it’s the final product that’s anticipated, not the individual ingredients. Each ingredient is important for the mix—and different blends of ingredients will create a different final product and taste—but it’s the end that’s anticipated.
The same holds true for novels. Events and character reactions combine to make a final product. Readers won’t know exactly what that product is since they’ve never read the story before, but as you tip new ingredients into the story, readers will start getting a feel for what the end will be like. And the closer the story comes to the end, the stronger reader anticipation should get. You should have made it so appealing that the reader can’t wait to see how it turns out.
You whet the reader’s appetite through the individual components you stir into a story, and you make the reader’s mouth water for that final product. You appeal to the reader, promising an end that has combined all the story elements into a satisfying mix.
That doesn’t always mean a happily-ever-after, of course, but satisfying implies an inevitable ever-after. A believable ending.
As not all dishes are sweet, so too not all stories will end on a positive note. And as not all soups are super spicy, stories don’t have to end on an explosive moment either, as if readers were biting into a habanero chili. But endings should come naturally out of the elements that you mixed into the story.
Look at what you put into a particular story, the balance of elements. Which are strongest? Which will prove to have the biggest impact on the outcome? What secondary element will mitigate the impact of that first element? What other elements will flavor the ending? What will they add?
The climax and end of the story should be the result of what you introduce from Chapter 1 right up to the moment the climax unfolds. If you want a particular ending, you’ve got to add the right blend of ingredients. If you write your ending first, you’ve got to make sure the story elements are the right mix to produce the climax and end you want.
You can always change either the climax or the story events so that the two truly match—you can’t produce a climax or ending that you didn’t build toward. Sure, you can tack on the ending that you want, but if you didn’t create anticipation for that ending, the reader won’t believe in your story’s conclusion; you’ve got to have a setup that matches the end. That leads to the end. That creates the end. You can rewrite but if you don’t, readers will know if what you put together could not possibly produce the end that you said it did. Readers will not be satisfied if the end doesn’t match the buildup.
That would be like a cook mixing ingredients in one pot but serving soup out of a different pot that had been stuffed with other ingredients. The deception will be found out.
Set your story pot cooking and add only the ingredients that will lead toward the end product that you want. Put in a greater amount of the elements that will provide the base for your story. That may be showing your main character in action, doing not what he wants to do but what he must do out of duty or loyalty or love. Add in other ingredients for flavor and balance, to give the story fullness. Secondary elements may be a love story or side plots, maybe circumstances that get in the way of a character’s ability to get the job done.
As are some spices and foods, some story elements are strong, with a little going a long way. As you wouldn’t drown a soup in cumin, don’t overwhelm your story with a single strong element. Thus you wouldn’t want your antagonist to always be outlandishly successful with every move he makes. You wouldn’t want every exchange between the same two characters to end the same way, with an argument or a fistfight. You don’t want too much of any one element to take over.
So how do you set up anticipation for the ending? You build it into every chapter and scene.
Ways To Build Anticipation
~ Set a clock ticking or a calendar’s pages turning—indicate a time or occasion by which the main character must succeed at his tasks in order to save whatever needs saving . . . the world or his child or his marriage. Periodically remind readers of the clicking clock and/or keep the calendar pages turning visibly—keep readers aware of the passage of time.
~ Hint at possible outcomes and indicate what could happen if certain acts are not completed.
~ Show negative outcomes for small infractions of the rules (stated or implied) so that character and readers anticipate even worse outcomes for large infractions.
~ Connect events so that one leads inexorably to the next. Show those connections. Have readers anticipate even more connections because they’ve seen how events are linked, how events lead to particular outcomes.
~ Set into motion a chain of events that cannot be stopped or slowed.
~ Introduce inevitability—one circumstance, if it comes to pass, will inevitably produce the next.
~ Show characters fighting with everything they have to stop or derail the inevitable. Show the cost characters pay for fighting against a certain happening or event. Show the toll it takes. Make the anticipated outcome have an effect on the story’s current events even as they unfold.
~ Give characters new resolve as the story marches on—give characters reasons to keep going. Give characters new tools to use in the fight. Show a character’s inner strength coming out as the story heads toward the end.
~ Don’t let characters go too long without thinking or talking about a future they are trying to head off or the one they are trying to create. Show characters planning for a future after the anticipated big moment. Show them planning celebrations of success as well as future battle campaigns in case they fail. Keep characters aware of the future—through dialogue or actions or thoughts—so that readers are also aware and anticipating.
~ Show a character’s emotions when his actions bring the unwanted showdown closer. Conversely, show a character’s relief when he does something to delay the feared ending. Keep characters emotionally involved in anticipated outcomes so that readers will likewise be emotionally invested.
~ Introduce surprises, both positive and negative, to keep characters off balance, to make them have to recalculate possible end scenarios and re-evaluate their commitment. This will keep readers aware of the end the characters anticipate.
This wasn’t a lesson in cooking when I began the article, so I hope it makes sense.
The point is to set up anticipation and maybe even dread in both characters and readers. Have characters live in the moment, inside unfolding events, but keep them aware of possible outcomes. Keep them pushing toward or pulling away from those outcomes. Make possible consequences drive action and response.
Include anticipation so that readers have reasons to stay involved and turning pages.
Write involving fiction.