Anticipation is making me wait…

by Gina Burgess

Sally watched Harry yawn, scratch his chest and pad to the bathroom to brush his teeth. He wet his toothbrush and spread the minty paste over it then popped it in his mouth brushing up and down the one hundred twenty-eight times he allotted every night.


What a boring paragraph.

Why is it so boring? One reason is because there is zero anticipation, another reason is we know what’s coming next. He spits out the toothpaste and rinses his mouth then goes to bed. It’s something we all do every night. Routine. Who wants to read routine in a novel? We don’t read for familiarity. A third reason it’s boring is that there is zero conflict. We want escape, adventure, romance, quirky and/interesting characters. Yes? Of course, yes. But without conflict, those things don’t appear in a novel.

Boring does not move story along. Boring doesn’t help characters to kick and claw their way to their ultimate goal.

Anticipation of Consequences – If you are like me and older than dirt, you’ll remember the song Anticipation by Carly Simon. Heinz Catsup used that song in a commercial with Tony Danza (probably his first gig). He’s on the balcony eating a hamburger and knocks over the catsup bottle. Carly starts singing, and Tony races down the stairs hamburger bun in hand. He looks up and catches a dollop of catsup before it hits the ground. The way they drag that moment out creates tension and audiences everywhere waited on the edge of seats to see if Tony would catch that dollop. (Looked for it on YouTube, but couldn’t find it.)

Anticipation is a tool I believe most authors don’t take enough advantage of in their stories.

Think about this: Shakespeare tightens the already tense situation in Romeo and Juliet when the man carrying the message to Romeo to fear not, Juliet is not dead and frantic Romeo pass each other on the road. Definitely tragedy is only moments away. Anticipation is hoping everything will turn out good, but there’s that nagging expectation it won’t. Some might call this suspense, but it isn’t.

How incredibly blind Margarete is to Percival’s under cover activities as The Scarlett Pimpernel. Anticipation fairly quivers through the entire book as the reader screams at her though every page, “Open your eyes girl! Your husband isn’t so craven and such a fop!” (If you have never read this book, I urge you to do so.) Again, some might call it suspense, again, it isn’t.

Suspense is not knowing what will happen. Will the babysitter run upstairs and be killed or run downstairs and out the back door leaving the children to be killed? Or will something intervene to save the babysitter and the children?

Anticipation is the expectation something will happen.

When my daughter was a senior in high school, she found a kitten and adopted him. That cat loved my daughter. Every day he would sit in the upstairs window watching for her to come home from school. As soon as he saw her car, he would dash downstairs and sit on the back of the couch ready for her scratch behind the ears when she came in the door, the picture of anticipation.

The reader knows something, a kiss, a proposal of marriage, a rising to the occasion to overcome the conflict, something will happen. Example: A young boy told almost his entire life that he is worthless. Circumstances force him to embark on a quest. During that quest he learns wisdom and cunning and martial arts. The reader is now anticipating a conflict where the young man uses all the skills he has learned. When the villain strikes the young man’s loved ones, the reader is anticipating that he will use everything he learned to save his loved ones.

Anticipation is most satisfies when the guy gets the girl, when the world is saved, when justice is served. Especially, when justice is served. The sense of justice that God gave us is basic and primordial. We need our world to be balanced, so when a villain tips the scales, we need the scales to re-balance by the villain paying consequences for bad behavior. That’s why ambiguous endings are so unsatisfying.

Let’s add a little bit to the above paragraph…

With a little Mona-Lisa-smile, Sally watched Harry yawn, scratch his chest and pad to the bathroom to brush his teeth. He wet his toothbrush and spread the minty paste over it then popped it in his mouth brushing up and down the one hundred twenty-eight times he allotted every night.

Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. At least we’ve raised a question. “What is Sally smiling about?” We know to expect something, but not what to expect.

Let’s add a little more…

Sally pulled the needle from the tube and inserted a toothpick mixing paste with poison.

Now we know what the Mona-Lisa-smile is all about and we’re anticipating what the poison will do to Harry. We can predict it’s something bad for Harry, but we don’t know when, or where. We could read the whole story and find out much later Harry knew all along what Sally was up to and switched tubes, or watch Harry die a slow, agonizing death. Or maybe Harry is an atrocious serial killer, and since he deserves that agonizing death, the reader deliciously anticipates it.

Your reader’s reaction?

In the movie, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, the whole audience actually stood up and cheered (me included) when Annabella Sciorra socked Rebecca de Mornay in the jaw sending her backward. Finally, Annabella found her gumption and started fighting back. The audience was overjoyed and cheered.

Anticipation creates an emotional state in the reader that slowly builds to a breaking point. Whichever way it breaks, with joy at the kiss or with cheers and clapping at justice served, the reader is completely satisfied. Just how satisfied, of course, is up to you and how you orchestrate the conflict.


Gina Burgess is an editor, illustrator, and author. She is COO of Common Sense Marketing Strategies, LLC and She also writes a weekly column at

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13 thoughts on “Anticipation is making me wait…”

  1. I agree with you about ambiguous endings (I hate them!)–except in the case of “The Lady or the Tiger?”. I rewrote that story in simpler language and used it for YEARS with my adult English as a Second Language classes. We had some great conversations when I had the students make up their own endings. One of my favorites was by a Japanese student: the man chooses the door with the tiger, subdues the animal in the arena, and rides it to the princess. The princess hops on the tiger’s back and the two escape, living happily ever after.

  2. I actually disagree about the paragraph in question. Everything about anticipation depends on context. If we know Sally is waiting in the bedroom with a gun because she’s sworn that if Harry doesn’t deviate at least a tiny bit from his routine, she’s going to kill him, there is anticipation. We know Sally has slowly been driven mad by Harry’s one hundred twenty-eight brushes that he does every single night–along with every other OCD thing that drives him. Will she follow through on her vow to kill him if he doesn’t deviate at least a tiny bit? Stay tuned…

    1. Oh EXCELLENT, Terry!!

      “Everything about anticipation depends on context.”

      Absolutely, you are correct. For it to be really boring, I should have left out “Sally watched…” That did give the paragraph some anticipation for Sally’s reaction.

      Great catch 🙂

  3. “In the movie, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, the whole audience actually stood up and cheered (me included) when Annabella Sciorra socked Rebecca de Mornay in the jaw sending her backward. Finally, Annabella found her gumption and started fighting back. The audience was overjoyed and cheered.”

    Have been to hundreds of movies over the years and never seen an audience react like that. (Okay, okay, when I was about 8 years old, I went to a Saturday morning kids movie. It was a Western and when it ended every kid in the theater seemed to leap to their feet and cheer because the good cowboy hero had just killed the villain.)
    Come to think of it, when my wife and I were watching a TV adaptation of The Scarlet Pimpernel, she kept clenching her fists and shaking them up and down while saying, “Oh, why doesn’t he tell her who he really is?”

    1. Steve, I can’t tell you how many movies I’ve been to where I’ve not seen another reaction like that, either. One could call it a fluke, but I believe the story had such a grip on everyone there that the reaction was a natural outpouring. Today, I go to a movie and can hardly hear it because of all the rattling, talking, laughing, and general disregard for courtesy toward others in the same theater. That’s one reason I’ve not been to a movie in a long time…

      1. You’ve got that right. The last movie I remember seeing in a movie theater was way back in the 1990s. I could not follow the movie because of people answering their cellphones, making calls on them, talking in a loud voice to those seated next to them instead of whispering. Having my shoes stick to the gunk on the floor left behind because of dropped drinks, popcorn, and other snacks made what should have been fun into an unpleasant experience.
        It’s going on 30 years since I’ve been to a movie theater.
        Thank you for your article. Readers have many expectations and anticipation is high on their lists.

  4. Exactly! Conflict is THE heart of every story, and suspense is a GREAT way to keep the reader’s interest! (And I’m a natural at creating suspense!)

  5. Such a great topic, Gina. Thanks for these examples and reminders of keeping the reader in a little suspense…or a lot of suspense. I think some suspense can be subtle. It doesn’t have to be a explosive or violent necessarily. Just enough that the reader is wondering what the character will do next or how they will solve their problem. Too much in between stuff could get boring for the reader though, so I have to consider this when editing.

    1. So true, Lisa! I am a big fan of Syd Field and his book The Foundation of Screenwriting where I learned this technique. Although, he called it raising questions in the viewer’s mind to keep him/her watching. I didn’t connect anticipation with the raising-questions-thing until many years later. But since then, I’ve seen many authors (who call it various things) advocate the same technique: Stephen King, James Scott Bell, Jerry Jenkins, etc.

      I agree with you that using subtlety is such a marvelous way to keep reader’s attention (read that turning pages). Great point about remembering anticipation when editing!

    1. Hi Rani,

      Mainly, we need to develop character, environment, etc. in such a way that it isn’t all blurted out on the first page or even the first chapter. Allow the reader to pick up bits and pieces and put them together. Never rush the first kiss or give away secrets without some buildup to it so that it bursts on the page like a sunrise, not with the suddenness of a train wreck. 🙂

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