Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Turning Expectation into Anticipation

Alfred Hitchcock gives us this example of how suspense works:

If you have two guys in a room talking about a baseball and then a bomb goes off, there is no suspense and no tension, just surprise. If you show the audience the bomb, then they have something to anticipate, and then the tension ramps up high. Especially if the two guys don't know the bomb is there.

Anticipation is the thing that makes a reader turn the page - and anticipation is based on what the audience expects.

Expectation, though, is a two-edged sword. In Hitch's first example, where the audience doesn't know there's a bomb until it goes off, the audience expects that the two guys will continue chatting, and there is no tension, so they get bored.

But the cool thing is that you can use both edges of that sword to your advantage. Dear Hitch didn't mention this in his example, but he did it all the time: If you establish two guys sitting around and talking about baseball, and let it go on just long enough for the audience to start to expect boredom, you can give the audience a real jolt if you then reveal the bomb. The tension will crank up twice as high. (At least if you don't actually bore them, but just threaten to.)


When you raised the expectation of boredom and then surprised them with an interesting change, you made a promise. You put your hand over your heart and you pledged that you were the kind of writer who would never let them get bored. So now they are anticipating two things. They anticipate the danger from the bomb, and they anticipate surprises from you.

Anticipation makes you turn the page.

There is a third edge to this sword, however. Hitchcock adds a warning to that story. He says that once you show the audience that bomb, you must never let it go off! He did that in some of his early films and his audiences hated him for it.

The promise you make in surprising the audience, you see, isn't really about surprise and thrills. You took control when you did that. Now you're responsible. You rescued them from boredom by showing them the bomb, now they expect you to rescue them from the horrible consequences of the bomb. The more you indicate that you won't, the more they expect you to do it.

This is somewhat related to the fourth edge of the sword of expectation (it's a very edgy sword) - that of satisfaction.The audience likes to be right. Even if you surprise and shock and thrill them, they get satisfaction when, in the end, the know they were right to trust you, and that they were right about the world of the story, and what they learned about it.

So yes, you have to surprise them, but you also have to satisfy them.

This is why, in Hollywood, producers ask for something that is "exactly like that blockbuster, only different." They aren't being venal when they want something exactly like the latest big hit. They aren't asking for a cookie-cutter copy. They're asking for something that can be anticipated. They want the audience to know what they're getting.... and then be pleasantly surprised, so they want to see it again and buy the DVD.

Proper use of archetypes and tropes and formulas are a great way to create the expectation you can use to create anticipation. And archetypes in particular promise satisfaction to the audience - they know what they're getting into. But they are also powerful tools, and if you don't watch out, they'll take control of the expectations right out of your hands.

Next time I have a couple of examples of How Tropes Can Trip You Up.

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Anonymous said...

Good post. Unfortunately, it can be quite difficult to implement in novels depending on your POV. However, I don't see any excuse for not using it in scripts when the audience can be more knowledgeable!

The Daring Novelist said...

Oh, no, you MUST do it in fiction as well as with film. It's not harder, it's just different - but in both cases it is absolutely necessary.

Consider Hitch's example as a metaphor, if you must.

Two guys talking about baseball. In an earlier scene we've learned that the first guy is out to get the guy who ruined his father's business. In the present scene, we're in the other guy's point of view. We realize he's the guy! But neither of the characters have realized it yet. There's your bomb.

Characters can be clueless - even when you're fully in one single point of view, you can still signal the audience that the character is headed for trouble.

It's just a matter of doling out information at the right time.