Expectation: The perfect ingredient for suspense

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Readers will be simmering with anticipation when you work with, and against, expectations

I’ve previously written about how the editors of reality television shows heighten character traits to beef up the drama. Today, as My Kitchen Rules 2015 draws to a close, I want to examine the element of expectation, and how it can be used to create suspense.

Why reality TV? Devoid of anything actually meaningful, in competition-based reality television all that is left is the bare bones of drama, character and suspense. (And it’s not just my opinion – even the producers these shows admit this.)

Despite this, shows such as My Kitchen Rules attract huge audiences. An average of around 1.5 million Aussie viewers per episode makes this the most-watched show currently on our screens.

How are reality TV editors keeping us hooked? In the case of My Kitchen Rules – it’s expectation on a spectacularly over-the-top, hysterical and yet trivial scale.

You don’t need to go to such extremes to keep your readers engrossed in your stories! Expectation as a way of building suspense can be just as effective when used in more thoughtful, imaginative and insightful ways.

1. Character expectations

In reality TV shows, contestant’s expectations are staples of the genre. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a reality show that doesn’t ask contestants about their expectations at every stage of the competition.

With your story you can ask yourself, what does my protagonist expect to happen? Does he expect to win the pie-eating competition so he can shout the girl of his dreams to an expensive dinner? Does your protagonist expect to catch the bus so she can get to work in time to get the promotion she wanted?

Knowing your character’s expectations, you can then work with and against them. Can your protagonist’s expectations be thwarted? Maybe he doesn’t win the pie-eating competition, but his love rival does?

What obstacles could you put in your bus-catching protagonist’s path? Perhaps the bus is early and she misses it, or it is late and delayed interminably by traffic?

Could your character’s expectations themselves be challenged? Your love-lorn pie-eater may find another way to impress his love interest, only to find they are completely unsuited.

Your bus-catching heroine uses her determination for that promotion to find a different way to get to work. You can then challenge your character’s expectations of promotion by allowing her obstacle-rich journey to give her a new perspective on work. The result is she is no longer keen to climb the corporate ladder.

2. Expectations other characters have of your protagonist

Another thing watching reality television has taught me is that other characters’ expectations can be important too. In the ‘instant restaurant’ rounds of My Kitchen Rules, guests were encouraged to talk about their expectations for each dish on their competitor’s menu.

When the dish finally arrives, guests are prodded into delivering a verdict:
‘I expected so much from this dish!’
‘It wasn’t at all what I expected!’

It is not uncommon for reality shows to take this one step further. In the latest My Kitchen Rules, family members of one of the contestants told her to ‘do it for the memory of your grandmother’. (The camera cuts to a photo of the dead grandmother.)

While not encouraging this sort of emotional manipulation, you can see that developing the element of expectation is a way of raising the stakes. If your protagonist’s decisions and actions directly impact other characters, you increase readers’ anticipation for the outcome.

For example, your bus-catching protagonist may really need that work promotion so she can afford to spend the Christmas holidays visiting her lonely grandmother. Or her boss may be keen to promote his protegé and is kept waiting for her to get to work.

For your heroine, getting to work on time becomes even more important.

3. Readers’ expectations

When using expectation to create suspense, be aware you are also building up the expectations of readers. Treat expectation in the same way as you would story threads. Make sure you are aware of every expectation you have set up and deliver on each promise.

Watching reality television shows can be like eating a soggy soufflé. While tempting at first, characters we have followed from the beginning are unceremoniously dumped – along with their hopes, dreams and expectations. Whereas fiction thrives on character transformation, it is doubtful that the winner of a reality television show is truly transformed by the experience.

As a fiction writer, you can address every expectation you have created. Do this and you will have happy readers during and at the end of your story.

Further reading

41 ways to create and heighten suspense by Ian Irvine.
6 secrets to creating and sustaining suspense by Steven James.
The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life by Noah Lukeman has a great chapter on suspense, plus a few writing exercises to hone your skills.

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