–Oscar Wilde knew that building anticipation makes a story a thrill to read.
As a child, the anticipation of eating one of my mom’s freshly made brownies nearly drove me to the brink of insanity. She had a rule about how long they needed to cool down before my sister and I could cut them. I’d be bouncing off the walls with excitement until the kitchen timer dinged, and I was allowed to dig in. Oh, the humanity.
While those brownies were absolutely delicious, it was my eagerness and impatience before eating them that was the real rush.
Years later, my mom’s rules about her homemade baked goods reflect how I like to tell a story. Whether my tale is verbal or written, fiction or non-fiction, it’s my goal to hook my audience, build excitement, and create mystery about the resolution. The best compliment I can ever receive is, “I couldn’t stop reading. I couldn’t put it down.”
Any genre, any topic, can thrill a reader…if you know how to build anticipation.
If I am telling a story about hanging off the side of Mt. Everest in a snow storm, creating tension is probably going to be a breeze. But, how does one build suspense in mundane, everyday stories? What if you’re writing about a baking a gluten-free cake, dropping your youngest son off at college, or trying yoga for the first time? Trust me, suspense can be applied to any tale. I once wrote a darn exciting piece about knitting a sweater.
Here are a few qualities that successful, suspenseful stories contain:
Stakes. Why is this activity, action, or goal important to you (or your character if you write fiction)? Make the reader care about the outcome. What might happen if your goal isn’t attained in the story? Why should we root for your protagonist? If I know why it’s so important for you to get the job for which you just interviewed, it’ll make me empathetic toward you. You will have me on your team.
A tip: Devices such as time limits and deadlines are terrific to use when building stakes. Think about my mom’s kitchen timer, or the gas gauge on a car that is about to hit empty as you’re driving through a strange town, by yourself, at night.
Foreshadowing. Drop us a hint of what might happen during your tale, without giving away the ending too soon.
There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.
Avoid premature revelation. If your first line is, “I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to change my own tire in the middle of the freeway, but I did it, and everything’s fine,” as a reader, from square one, I know that you accomplished your task. So, I’m not going to have the same eagerness in getting to the end of your post. I’m not saying you can’t write a good story if you give away your ending at the beginning…but it sure is hard to build anticipation that way.
Here’s an example of foreshadowing from personal experience: I was married outdoors on a beach in Maine. As I took my dad’s arm for him to walk me down the aisle, the wedding planner said to me, “The only thing that can ruin this day is if it starts to rain.” Any guesses what happened next? You’d have to read my whole wedding-day story to find out.*
Develop a great villain. Now, I’m not talking about some creepy, mustache-twirling baddie who’s hiding in your basement — although, feel free to use that. Anything that presents an obstacle can become your story’s villain: a person, the passage of time, a fear, an event, the weather, an allergy, or your internet going down the moment you try to email your doctoral dissertation to your professor before the deadline…get creative. Who or what creates tension in your story?
In an essay I’m currently writing, a weekly delivery of unwanted vegetables from our local CSA is my villain. Come on, how much celery root can one woman be expected to cook? I’m only human.
A knock-out ending. Don’t leave us hanging! Deliver on all the promises you set up. Let us off the ride in a satisfying way.
The great thing about the blogging platform is that you can use different media to give us the ending. If you’re sharing the experience of rehabbing your kitchen with your own two hands, an “after” photo might do the perfect ending.
If you’re a comedic writer, a hilarious punchline will be the reward for your readers.
If you do movie reviews, your final thumbs up or down will let your readers off the hook.
If you’re going to dangle the carrot in front of the horse, you better feed him the carrot at the end of the journey, or he might not subscribe to your blog anymore.
Let anticipation be your inspiration: create a suspenseful narrative that keeps us on the edge of our seats. Turn everyday life into a roller coaster ride for your followers. And remember: not every roller coaster needs to be the Screaming Eagle…it can be a kiddie roller coaster with Big Bird airbrushed on the side of the car. The suddenness and depth of the twists and turns are entirely up to you.
Publish your own edge-of-your-seat story. Then, sit back and enjoy a brownie.
*I can’t stand the anticipation: it rained. A lot.