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Anticipation and Uncertainty—Lessons From TV Sports

August 10, 2016 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified August 10, 2016

I don’t know if you’re caught up in Olympic fever or if sports leave you cold, but I admit to loving the Olympics. Winter or Summer Games, the competition grabs my interest.

I’d like to use the current emphasis on the Olympics to suggest that writers could borrow a lesson from the TV coverage of the Olympic spectacle.

The TV audience isn’t there in a stadium or arena. Most of us don’t get to enjoy the noise and excitement of world-class competition in person, but we still can feel as if we’re part of the events unfolding around the world or for a lucky few, in the next town.

Television announcers try to create excitement for the viewer. They want us to watch (and to buy products from their advertisers), and they want us to keep watching and to come back day after day.

They grab and keep our attention by sharing not only the spectacle, but by ratcheting up the excitement and our levels of anticipation.

Is my athlete or team going to win?

Who will come in second?

Who has a chance of beating my favorite?

And hey, how did my favorite become my favorite in the first place when I hadn’t heard of him or her before three days ago?


TV announcers, in a bid for keeping the audience tuned in, play up rivalries, give us backgrounds on the athletes, and show us what stellar athletes have accomplished in the past. They make sure to point out the dominant athletes in every field, yet they also highlight the up-and-comers.

The announcers (and their producers and staff) stir our interest by making sure we know what’s at stake in every race, event, and competition. They get us charged up, just as the crowd in the stadium is roused to cheer on the competitors.

But the TV folks have to exaggerate some of the dramatics. After all, it’s beyond difficult to manufacture empathy and team spirit when the team is thousands of miles away from the would-be fan sitting on a couch and dealing with homework or getting the kids to bed or working on a report that’s due in the morning  or handling a personnel problem at the office.

But one sure way to snare an audience is to play up anticipation and to introduce uncertainty.

Anticipation is established by promoting and talking about athletes and events long before events are due to begin. Uncertainty is created by introducing doubt about who could possibly win.

Most of us aren’t nearly as interested in a contest that’s guaranteed to be a blowout. Well, parents of the athlete are interested. And coaches are. But the rest of us? We want some uncertainty. We like races that come down to the final seconds. We like the chance for the underdog to take down the top dog.

Yes, we like our longtime favorite teams to win by a wide margin. But the games and contests aren’t nearly as exciting when the winner is known before the opening whistle is blown or the athletes take their marks.

We like uncertainty. We like hard-won victories. We don’t like being handed the gold cup if we don’t deserve it. What’s winning when the competition isn’t on the same level, isn’t any competition at all?

My advice today is simply a reminder for you to include uncertainty in your stories, to give readers a reason to read, even when they think they know how the story will turn out.

Modern romances typically end with a happily ever after, but readers shouldn’t know exactly how the couple will find that HEA.

The murderer is usually caught and punished in a murder mystery, but readers don’t usually know in advance who that murderer or evildoer is, so mysteries contain uncertainties.

The end of the world is typically averted in political thrillers, although the cost to countries, governments, and individuals is still often high and unpredictable.

The point is, no matter what the anticipated end to a story, there should still be uncertainty at several levels.

The way story problems are resolved and choosing who resolves them are often the issues we deal with in our fiction. Even with a foregone HEA, the road to the end shouldn’t be crystal clear for readers. Readers should feel that maybe—just maybe—the good guy isn’t going to win or the murderer isn’t going to be punished. Readers may feel that hero and heroine are too far apart to ever get together, to ever fall in love.

And it’s the blending of anticipation—what’s going to happen?—with uncertainty that keeps readers turning pages.

We can’t script the events that unfold in a live sporting contest, but TV announcers can raise the anticipation levels of viewers by reminding them of what’s at stake. Announcers can also remind viewers of the limitations of one group and the strengths of the opposing group.

The announcers can play on our emotions, getting us to pull for contestants we don’t know in sports whose rules we don’t quite understand.

And you can do the same for readers of your books. You need to do the same for readers of your books.

•  Create uncertain outcomes or create uncertainty in the path toward fairly certain outcomes. Give readers a worry or two or ten.

•  Create anticipation in readers by making them care about what happens to major characters. That means giving them characters that tug at their heartstrings or that they desperately want to see succeed (or that they desperately want to see defeated and punished).

•  As TV announcers do for their audience, stir up interest in one or two characters by making them vulnerable, by making them the underdog or the plucky challenger who just might win against all odds.

•  Give readers an outcome and a character to worry about.

•  Give readers a possibility (or two) to fear. Then play up those fears throughout the story.

•  Give readers hope, but build that hope on shaky legs, support that may be unable to last under strong winds and opposition.

•  Make sure you’ve provided more than one possible outcome or victor.

•  Make characters vulnerable on several fronts.

•  Expose the fallacy of a sure thing by exposing a weakness in the strongest of characters or plans. Consider hiding that weakness from other characters and let only readers in on the secret. Or consider letting a character’s nemesis discover his secret.

•  Make sure that no character—protagonist or antagonist—is 100 percent successful.

•  Let overconfidence cause problems or even be the temporary downfall of a character.

•  Remind characters and readers why one character won’t—can’t—be successful, even though readers want him or her to win.

•  Don’t give away all your story and character secrets too soon. Keep readers guessing.


Take a lesson from TV coverage of the Olympics. No, you don’t have to be so overly dramatic that you turn readers off. But do stir up reader emotions and encourage readers to root for some characters and against others. Recognize that readers, like TV viewers of televised sports, don’t actually walk through the adventure they’re following, so you need to find ways to make them care about those who do.

Creating anticipation and uncertainty is only one way to make fiction real. But don’t overlook it as a means of drawing readers into your stories.

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3 Responses to “Anticipation and Uncertainty—Lessons From TV Sports”

  1. Darien says:

    Great article with an excellent analogy. I do usually watch the little personality spots they do for the different athletes as it does improve the suspense.

    I love, love, love the Olympics, especially gymnastics. The men’s coverage is too brief for me, even if USA isn’t doing the greatest, I’d still like to see it!

  2. Steve Lowe says:

    I love Olympic gymnastics, too; especially as we (the UK) have just won 2 gold medals for our men! (We’re hot on your heels in the medal table, US :-)

    Regards, in friendly rivalry,

  3. So much talent, skill, and dedication shown by athletes. I love watching a great race or performance. I got into watching archery this Olympics (with the London Games, I was into track cycling). I keep wondering if I could get an arrow anywhere near the target.