Anticipation and Surprise in Fiction

What is Anticipation in Fiction?

Anticipation is an element of style in which the author deliberately sets up the passage to lead the reader to think that something is likely to happen (or not to happen) or to be said (or not to be said). It is used to create interest in the story line and to draw the reader into the story. Anticipation also helps the reader follow the characters’ progression as the story unfolds. As I have thought about how to use anticipation in my fiction, I have tried to learn how to apply it to action, the characters’ arcs, and to the dialog to involve my readers emotionally as they read.

Anticipation and Action in Fiction

Which aspects of anticipation have to do with action? Anticipation is related to suspense, potential prospects, and the probability that something will occur or not in the story line. The means that the writer must understand how to create suspense, how to lay out potentialities for each character, and suggest through techniques, such as foreshadowing, that the action will or will not develop in a certain way.

Anticipation is also connected to characters’ beliefs and their ability to react to what happens. Do they move quickly to intervene, to attack, to fight back? Do they enter a room alertly? Do they respond immediately with sensitivity when another character is in emotional or physical pain?  Does an action move the story along, interrupt, or redirect what the reader anticipates? The use of anticipation in fiction writing involves the reader as an active problem solver in the unveiling of the action.

Anticipation and Character Arc

Character arcs must be developed for the protagonists and antagonist that illustrate each one’s acuity and perceptiveness (or lack thereof) regarding each one’s ability to anticipate what will happen in their own life stories. The writer must communicate to the reader the characters’ soft spots, what they hope for, what they are eager to do, what they are passionate about, or if they are fanatical about something.

Readers also want to know how keen characters are about pursuing something, the intensity of their passion, or if their desires are going to get them into trouble. Once readers know the depth of the characters’ courage and enthusiasm as well as their weaker areas, they can anticipate the likelihood or the improbability of characters’ successful course of action.

Anticipation and Dialog

Anticipation can be built into dialog by creating characters who are astute or clueless. They might be responsive or not. They might hang with bated breath on the words of others or ignore all nonverbal signals sent in a conversation. Characters’ ability to anticipate will depend on their alertness and sensitivity to what other say. Are the characters quick responders? Are they perceptive? Are they intelligent? If they are, they can anticipate what others are going to say or do. If they are contrary or negative, both the characters and the reader may be surprised and forced to figure how to respond to them.

What is Surprise in Fiction?

Generally, people are surprised when they encounter something unexpected. The experience might range from wonder to amazement to being scared out one’s wits. Personally, I don’t like surprises. They can have a negative or a positive valance. Of course, they occur, but even the happy ones can be unnerving.

Surprise is related to anticipation in the sense that if characters think something is going to happen and it doesn’t, they may be disappointed. If they think something is not going to happen and it does, they might be shocked. Thinking about the relationship of surprise to anticipation in fiction lead me to figure out how to apply it to action, character arc, and dialog as well.

Surprise in Action

Surprise in action can be the result of interruption, disruption, or intrusion. Whatever characters are doing, another character, something mechanical, or a sound could interrupt them. They might be simply bothered, annoyed, or distracted. If they are completely disrupted and caught unawares, they are likely to be scared or frightened. If someone or something intrudes on them unexpectedly, the action will take a new direction.

Surprise in Character Arc

Characters are likely to experience surprise as shock, astonishment, or as revelation. Each response could affect how their transit through the story occurs. A startling event such as an accident or death might occur. A disruption might ensue in the middle of a sober scene or at the end of a chapter.

When surprise manifests as astonishment, something completely unexpected might happen. For example, winning the lottery, a partner announcing an unexpected departure, or another character doing something completely out of character, such as throw a party.

Regarding revelation, the impact depends on a character’s relationship with another. A character might be shocked by an unexpected disclosure, behavior, or report from a friend. Or they might not be surprised at all, if they have already surmised what is going on.

Surprise in Dialog

Dialog can be written to show characters’ level of surprise. Are they simply flummoxed? Amazed, stunned, bowled over, or dazed? Of are they so shocked that they are rendered speechless? What can cause a character to be surprised? Another character might reveal something that was unknown. Something the character was unaware of may be exposed. A friend might leak information about a secret. A partner might be caught having an affair.

Characters’ reactions to the surprising event can be portrayed through their astonishment. A revelation might unnerve them. However, the surprise transpires, the other characters will be obliged to attempt to soothe or comfort or perhaps even abandon the interlocutor.

Anticipation and Surprise in Current Fiction

In Shuggie Bain (winner of the 2021 Booker Prize), Douglas Stuart uses both anticipation and surprise in his development of action, dialog, and character beginning on page one. Anticipation and surprise in the action is evident when the family moves to a new house that has its own door (as opposed to an apartment building). Each family member anticipates what might occur. The wife dresses up because she believes she is moving up in society. The children anticipate having new friends. The husband thinks he is moving them to an attractive place. Unfortunately, they are all surprised by the blackness, ugliness, lack of privacy, and abandonment they encounter.

Another excellent example is in the hospital scene when Shuggie questions a nurse about his grandfather going to heaven. He wonders what kind of vehicle his grandfather will ride in on his way to heaven. The nurse explains that only the soul goes to heaven. Surprise is used when Shuggie expresses relief that only the soul goes because he is worried about how his own body has been defiled by an older boy.

Another good example of surprise in character arc in the novel occurs when Shuggie, at the age of eight, is saved from bullies by a larger nine-year-old girl. He is grateful. Annie invites him to her place to play with her plastic ponies. Shuggie enjoys playing with the little girl and loves the pink and purple ponies. However, he is horrified to learn that his mother comes to interact with Annie’s disgusting drunk father. His horror turns to anger and when Annie leaves the room, he steals two of the toy ponies.

Anticipation and Surprise in My Fiction

As I look at my manuscripts, it is clear to me that anticipation and surprise are not my strong points in action, character development, or dialog. Because my awareness of the need for these aspects in writing a novel has been heightened, I need to do some rewriting. Anticipation and surprise keep the action, character arcs, and dialog moving along which keeps the reader guessing.  

My Writing Goals for 2021

Revise and complete a final edit of my first novel, sending it out for review by December 7, 2021: 

This month, I rewrote several passages to introduce anticipation and surprise.

Complete a revised draft of my second novel by December 7, 2021:

This month, I spent some time developing a map of my fictional town.  

Add 25,000 words to my third novel by December 7, 2021:

This month, I wrote another section of this novel.

Publish the Moon Chimes Workbook: Arts & Sciences:

I didn’t work on this project this month.

Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:

Boulder Writers Alliance:  Because I am stepping down as vice president, I offered to serve as membership chair in 2022. I line edited the newsletter for September 1, 2021. I attended the Writers Who Read group on Zoom where we had a lively discussion of Shuggie Bain.

Denver Women’s Press Club: I wrote a small piece about the DWPC to be published in the September 2021 issue of the Boulder Writers Alliance Newsletter. I communicated with the president of DWPC.

Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers: 

I read Kelley J. P. Lindberg’s and Jason Evan’s blogs. In “Don’t Toss Those Writing Fragments” Kelley suggests that you save drafts so you can integrate them or repurpose them later. Interestingly, I just read a tweet by Stephen King who revealed that a story he wrote in college was repurposed as the prologue of Salem’s Lot.

Jason’s blog was about “Managing Your Author Platform.”

Women Writing the West:

I paid my registration fee for the online virtual conference on October 7-9, 2021. I also voted in the annual election. I read the WWW newsletter.

Document my writing progress through my blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2021:

Today is September 7, 2021, I am posting my ninth blog of 2021. August has been another month of stressful news: fires, earthquakes, floods, evacuations, hurricanes, tornadoes, and needless deaths. I do my best to not anticipate disaster and am happily surprised when a day goes by without one. I also try (As Mr. Roger’s mother reputedly said) to “Look for the helpers.” There are always many. Additionally, I try to be a helper when I am able.

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