You don’t always want to shock your readers. Sometimes, huge twists can work not because the reader is completely blindsided, but because they’ve been anticipating them. Anticipation is THE fundamental story element. It’s what gets the reader to keep reading.
Big twists can work even if the reader knows they’re coming as long as the characters remain in the dark. In fact, your readers should always have slightly more information than your characters. You don’t have to spell out every twist, but you can give your readers enough pieces so they can put them together on their own. This is, in a nutshell, what foreshadowing is. Foreshadowing is the tool we use to create anticipation, and it can work in a number of ways.
Red Herrings & Mysteries
First I’ll cover the type of foreshadowing we’re all probably familiar with. This could be the subject of its own post, so I’ll try to just stick to the main points here. Most books foreshadow by giving a few hints and clues but not so many that it gives the whole game away. This might mean hinting at a character’s secret motivation, slowly revealing a backstory, or, as in a mystery, parcelling out clues without showing the full context and meaning behind them. The basic idea of this is to give your reader a question in the earlier parts of the book that later will come back to help explain a certain twist or new element being introduced.
Sometimes, this means giving an alternate explanation for these hints or clues (a red herring) and only later revealing the truth. The way this kind of foreshadowing creates anticipation is by giving the reader enough information to start making guesses about what’s really going on, and putting the character in situations where the result of these guesses might change the entire context of the scene.
In Fair Verona Where We Lay Our Scene
The second type of foreshadowing is what I call the Romeo & Juliet. This kind of foreshadowing is so blatant, it’s not even really foreshadowing anymore. It’s literally telling the reader how the story ends. Lest you think that this is a clumsy tool for unclever writers, let me remind you that one of the most iconic stories in the Western canon says this in its second stanza:
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
You might be tempted to think that learning the end of a story at the very beginning would sap all the anticipation, and thus the enjoyment, out of the rest of the story. After all, what is going to keep us guessing if we know how things turn out?
But this technique also creates anticipation. The key to this is that whatever knowledge we are given in the beginning of the story—like a certain character or characters dying—must not reveal how the stakes of the story are resolved.
For example, Moulin Rouge! tells us in the third line of the movie that Satine dies. But the stakes of the story are not whether she survives—it’s whether each of the two characters will be able to get what they truly want. This is the question that we as the viewer are desperate to find the answer to over the course of the story, all the while anticipating that no matter what the answer is, Satine ultimately won’t survive. (Compare this to Titanic, another great love story, where the survival of the two main characters is baked into the stakes and premise of the movie. In this version, we start off knowing one of their fates, and the other is left to be revealed over the course of events.)
Another great example of this is THEY BOTH DIE AT THE END by Adam Silvera. The end of the story is right there in the title, before you even get to page one. But the stakes of the story are not about whether these two characters can make it through this one day alive. Rather, the stakes are about whether these characters will finally live the life they always wanted to before they meet their ends.
For the Genre-savvy
I said that your reader should always know more information than your character, and while this may not seem like universal advice, there is one piece of information your reader will always, always have that the characters don’t. It is simply this: the reader knows that they’re reading a story. That alone gives them a huge advantage, because there are things that we instinctively understand about story that give us tools to see what comes next.
A reader’s understanding of meta narrative logic can be a detriment to some writers—but a clever writer knows how to use their reader’s knowledge to their advantage. A great story can work with a reader’s expectations to make them anticipate the next turn of the story, without those turns becoming predictable.
Again, one of the best examples I can give is a classic romance. In one of the first scenes of Pride & Prejudice, we (and Elizabeth) meet mr. Darcy. We (and Elizabeth) are presented with a rude, antisocial jerk (who Austen cunningly contrasts with the much more amiable Mr. Bingley.) To Elizabeth, that’s all Darcy is. A rude jerk who was mean to her at a party one time. But to us, the reader who KNOWS this is a book and furthermore knows that this is setting up the central relationship of the book, we know that there is something beyond the antisocial jerk. That Darcy must contain more depth–he must, because otherwise he would not be set up as the central love interest.
So then each time Darcy and Elizabeth meet, we get to see him two ways–as Elizabeth interprets his actions, and the way we, a reader of romance, interpret them. The thrill of this story is not in whether these two characters ultimately get together (any savvy romance reader knows they do) but in how these two conflicting versions of Mr. Darcy are ultimately reconciled—how he changes as a character, and how Elizabeth’s perception of him changes.
Again, I’ll take this back to stakes. You might say that the stakes of a romance are whether the two characters get together, but a savvy romance reader would say that the stakes are how the two characters get together—what mistakes they must make, what shifts in their perception of themselves and their future partner must happen for the relationship to come to fruition.
Anticipation is, very simply put, story set up + foreshadowing + stakes (why should we care?) These three elements work together to tell your reader not just what’s happening, but why they need to keep reading to see what will happen next. Once you’ve given your reader something to anticipate, you are free to fulfill those expectations, turn them on their head, or some combination of the two. The important thing is to give your reader a reason to keep turning the page.
How do you create anticipation in your story? What techniques do you use to keep your readers reading? Let us know in the comments!