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When my brother and I were little, my father used to tell us bedtime stories featuring Doctor Terrible, a villain of his own invention, and me and my brother as the heroes. Each night, my father would get us into an impossible predicament. There we were, trapped by Doctor Terrible and armed only with tennis rackets. We listened to my father's words, breathless with anticipation, eager to learn what ingenious plan we would hit upon.
And then it would happen. My dad would turn the light off and say, "To be continued tomorrow."
Mine was a sleep-deprived childhood, hanging out there on that cliff. All I could think about was WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT.
When you anticipate something, you look forward to it, like a special night out or a vacation, or you prepare for it, like a job interview or retirement. Anticipation propels you into the future, and the emotions about the upcoming event can range from hope and excitement to dread and worry. In real life, most of us find swinging back and forth between the two extremes too stressful. But at the movies, we find it exciting. We want to be kept on the edge of our seats hoping the hero will make it but worrying he won't. A gripping story uses anticipation to keep us hooked.
There are many ways to build anticipation into your story. One is the tactic my dad used—setting something up, and then delaying the payoff (see tip #34, Setups and Payoffs). Another is to hide information from the character but share it with the audience. One scene I saw recently did both of these to great effect. In the movie Babel (written by Guillermo Arriaga) we know that Cate Blanchett's character will be shot. We see the kids aim at the bus and pull the trigger. Then we go back in time a little and see Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt on the bus. She's sleeping, her head against the window. We KNOW the bullet will penetrate the window, and we wait for it to happen. But she continues to sleep peacefully, oblivious to the danger, as the bus rolls on. And rolls on. The moment of impact is delayed and you're left squirming in your seat with anticipation.
After you've written a scene, go back through it and see how you can create more anticipation. Where can you make us hope the character will achieve his goal, and where can you make us worry that he won't? How many different ways can you make us ask what will happen, if it will happen, and when will it happen? Build anticipation into your script and your reader won't be able to put it down.