Expectation: The perfect ingredient for suspense


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.

Ric Bennett’s advice to aspiring writers

Today I’m featuring an article by Tasmanian author, Ric Bennett. Ric’s novel, The Moses Prophecy, is a mythology-inspired adventure story.

‘What process did you use to write your book and what advice would you give to young aspiring writers?’, I was asked.

Goodness me. Who am I, a first time writer with no previous experience at writing a novel and who has never attended any story writing courses, to give advice about writing a novel?

Ric Bennett with a display stand to promote his book, The Moses ProphecyI can only tell you about my own desire and determination to write my book, The Moses Prophecy and how I went about it.

Being an artist and musician/songwriter/composer certainly helped. I’m a very visual and auditory person and my imagination does run riot quite often.

My writing style has been described as ‘cinematic’. While thinking of ideas and dialogue I actually saw my story played out like a movie on a cinema screen. I wrote about what I was seeing and hearing.

A well-known author told me that with the appropriate training I could become a good screenwriter. I guess that fits with my style being called ‘cinematic’.

I also had conversations with my main character. Never having done this before I figured this was normal for all writers, until I found out otherwise. Well, it worked for me.

The one piece of advice I would offer is this. Enjoy what you are doing. If you have a story and you believe you can write it down in a coherent way, without losing the plot (excuse the pun), then do so. Don’t be put off by anyone telling you can’t do it. And don’t be put off by adverse criticism. You have to believe in yourself.

The idea for my book was in my head for about fifteen years before I had the opportunity to get it out and let it take form as a coherent story. It involved a lot of research into historical data that I needed for the plot. Although the story came out of my imagination, it is fiction, set in the present but woven around facts, myths and legends. So much so that the reader will not know what is true and what isn’t. And this is entirely intentional.

Once you have the story down, and that may take many re-writes, additions and deletions before you are satisfied, then get a good editor. That may mean more re-writes but it’s worth it, especially if you want to submit it to publishers.

Ric Bennett is an artist, musician and writer who settled in Derby, Tasmania in 2014. The Moses Prophecy is set in London, Washington, Melbourne, Israel and Tasmania and is Ric’s first novel.

I will be publishing another interview with Ric in June, as part of the Dorset Art & Craft Festival.

Ric’s website
Amazon page for The Moses Prophecy
If you are in Tasmania, The Moses Prophecy is stocked by Petrarch’s Bookshop in Launceston. (They are on Facebook.)

Tips for young writers: How to make your story more exciting

Update, May 2015:

Margaret Pearce’s creepy new science fiction/fantasy novel, The Year of our Invasion, was recently published by Ravenswood. Cath Isakson – blogger here at Great (book) expectations – was the editor.

In this guest post, Margaret demonstrates ways to make your creative stories more exciting.

Tip #1

Book cover for The Year of our Invasion by Margaret Pearce

Cover for Margaret’s new book, The Year of our Invasion. Cath was the editor!

For a story to be exciting it has to show not tell what is happening. You want your reader to feel that he or she is there experiencing what is going on.

For example, being told that ‘the dog bit the man, and the man bit back’ is telling and not showing.

Instead of telling, try Tip #2.

Tip #2

It’s always good to start your story with something happening. A story that begins with action is more likely to be gripping for the reader than, say, description.

‘Ouch!’ the man yelled when the dog bit him.

Tip #3

We live in a technicolour world. Bring attention to the vivid colours around us.

The man’s blood dripped down into the hole the dog had dug. The ripe tomatoes on the dug-up tomato plants exactly matched the colour of the bright red blood dripping from the man’s hand.

Tip #4

Try a different perspective or point of view. Another way to think of point of view is to imagine the story as it is seen through another character’s eyes. Sometimes writing your story from a different point of view can change the effect completely.

In the following section, the focus shifts from the man’s point of view to the dog’s.

The dog snarled, baring his white sharp teeth. He’d thought burying his bone would keep it safe, but this intruder had found it anyway.

Tip #5

Add dialogue. Too much narrative (telling) can bog a story down. Adding dialogue can make it more exciting for your reader.

‘Digging holes in my garden!’ the man yelled. He wound his white handkerchief around his hand, and it quickly grew spotted with red. ‘Look what you’ve done to my prize tomatoes!’

Tip #6

Show emotions through action. If I write that the man was so upset at the dog burying a bone in his tomato patch that he got angry, I would be telling, not showing. In the next passage, the man’s loss of control and temper are shown by his shouting, high face colour, heavy breathing and irrational behaviour.

The dog didn’t care about the prize tomatoes. He dragged his large bone further into the shelter of the tomatoes, destroying more of the plants.

The man’s face was now as red as his spotted handkerchief.  He was breathing heavily. If he had been a steam engine there would have been steam coming from his nose.

‘My tomatoes. My prize tomatoes!’ he howled.

He ran after the dog through the tomato plants. He swung his heavy, mud-laden garden boot forward into a kick. But the dog ducked low to the ground. The man missed the dog and overbalanced.  He fell down, flattening even more of his precious tomato plants.

Even on the ground, the man flailed about, trying to grab the dog. The dog dropped his bone and turned to have another go at the man. But the man managed to clamp the dog’s muzzle shut. He pulled the dog’s head closer.

Tip #7

Think of an original ending. For a short story that is funny, an unusual finish can be exciting.

‘Bite me, would you?’ the man shouted. ‘How do you like being bitten?’

The man chomped his large teeth on the floppy dog’s ear. He bit down, hard. The dog howled in pain and tried to pull away, but the man’s teeth were too firmly attached.

The dog whined and stopped struggling. He was beaten. He had never heard of humans biting dogs before. The man let go. He spat out dog hair and blood and stood up.

‘Now get out of my garden and stay out,’ he screamed. ‘And take your bone with you!’ he yelled and hurled the bone after the fleeing dog.

Margaret Pearce, author of children's fiction

The elusive Margaret Pearce.

Margaret Pearce has had around 28 books published, mostly for children and teenagers. She can be found lurking in an underground house in the hills near Melbourne, writing.

Margaret uses many of the techniques described in this article in her writing. Find out more about her very creepy new science fiction/fantasy novel for young adults on the Ravenswood website. There are tentacled aliens that communicate telepathically! (Told you it was creepy!)

Tips for young writers: How to make your story more interesting

Sometimes it’s hard to make your stories sound exciting. In this guest blog, author Marianne Musgrove gives tips to make your next story more interesting.

Tip One: Begin at an exciting moment
Read the two story openings below. Which do you think is more interesting? Why?


Amal was nine years old. She loved animals and running. One day, she went to the zoo. A lion escaped and chased her down the path.


‘Run!’ shouted the zoo keeper. ‘Or you’ll be eaten!’
Though only nine years old, Amal was a fast runner. She raced down the path away from the roaring lion. ‘I normally love animals,’ she thought. ‘Today, I’m not so sure.’

Even though the same information is in both openings, B is worded in a more interesting way. The word ‘Run!’ makes you wonder what will happen next.

Exercise: Take a look at one of your old stories, or write a new one. Choose an exciting part of the story and begin it there.

Marianne Musgrove

Marianne Musgrove

Tip Two: Make life hard for your character
Have you ever read a story where a character has an interesting problem that gets solved too easily? Eg. a character is stuck in a bog and a genie suddenly appears and rescues her. Think about this: what if the genie didn’t appear? What would your character do then? Be creative. Make things hard for your character and the story will be more interesting.

Write a story where you and a friend are marooned on an island. A boat lands on the shore. How would you finish this story? The easy way would be to make the boat owners nice people who offer to give you a ride home. As an ending, it’s okay, but it’s not terribly exciting. What if the boat owners turn out to be pirates? Or what if they’re runaways with a secret? What if your friend is ill and needs urgent medical attention?

Come up with your own way of making life hard for your characters and see what happens next.

Tip Three: Describe how your character feels
It’s one thing to say ‘Taylor is angry’ but another thing to show Taylor is angry. What do I mean by this? Here are two very short stories. Which one do you think is better? Why?


Max’s teacher, Ms Anders, was very strict about students handing in their homework on time. Max hadn’t finished his. When Ms Anders walked into the classroom, Max was very scared.


Max’s teacher, Ms Anders, was very strict about students handing in their homework on time. When Ms Anders walked into the classroom, Max’s hands began to sweat and his heart thudded. ‘Oh, why hadn’t he done his homework?’ he wondered, sinking into his chair.

Reading about how a character feels in their body helps the reader feel the same thing.

Lucy The Lie DetectorExercise:
What happens in your body when you feel relieved? Do you sigh? Do your shoulders and head droop because they were tense just before? Does your heart slow down? Write a list of feelings, eg, relieved, angry, scared, sad. Under each feeling, write down what happens in your body.

Next time you write a story, rather than saying, eg. ‘Jenna was angry’, describe how Jenna feels the anger in her body.

Good luck!

Marianne has a new book out: Lucy the Lie Detector. She has written many other books for children, including The Worry Tree (also with Random House Australia).

Click here to visit Marianne’s website.

Hazel Edwards’ Hints for Emerging Writers

This morning well-known Australian author Hazel Edwards guest blogs. She shares her hints for emerging writers keen to develop their careers.

How To Self-Promote Without Sounding Egotistical

1. As the ‘brand’ you are promoting the ‘work’ by sharing ideas with potential audiences, not necessarily being egotistical about yourself as the creator.

2. If you haven’t had anything published yet, list your WIP (Work in Progress) e.g. ‘Making a Killing at the Pokies: 30 minute audio script satirising gambling addiction. (Workshopped mid 2010)

3. Experiment in different formats or lengths e.g. a script from a short story.  

4. Have available a 50 word bio (written in the third person ‘s/he’ not ‘I’). List your skills if you don’t have publications yet.

5. Consider yourself a professional. Have a business card with contact details in a colour & font that’s readable. No tiny, curly, pale green font on unreadable pale blue.

6. Add an e-signature to all your emails with your website address and/or image of your latest book cover. (But NOT a hi-resolution cover, which will annoy recipients.)

7. Who are you writing for, apart from yourself? Craft it with apt vocabulary for THAT audience.

8. Titles are vital. Match the tone to the content. A funny article needs a witty title as the first clue.

9. Use the same book title for any talk or workshop title. E.g. I offer ‘Writing a Non Boring Family History’ talks as well as having written the book.

10. Be brief. If you ramble when you talk, listeners’ll fear you are the same in your writing and refuse to read it.   In one sentence, what’s your work about? (Use the title here too, not ‘my book…) e.g. Internationally  ‘f2m: the boy within’ is the first YA novel about transitioning gender & punk music, with a co-author who has transitioned.’ 

11. Prepare, so that generic things can be used more than once. (Like this list of hints.) 

12. Always include Title, ISBN and where the book can be bought online.

13. Give added value. Have ready on your computer, or web site well labelled activities which relate to that book title which can be sent to schools, libraries or bookshops which have newsletters or events to which you are invited. E.g. I have free downloadable scripts, finger puppets and posters, all related to specific titles.

14. Book trailers publicise your book via new media, and force you to convey the essence of that story, briefly. Even if you don’t create your own, having to storyboard the ideas for the designer is a discipline.

15. Network by joining professional writers’ organisations (like the Australian Society of Authors) and keep up to date on electronic markets by attending seminars. Invest in your writing career. The Australian Society of Authors provides contract advice, mentorships and advice on responsible self-publication.

16. Make sure your website address is on your business card, as long as the site is updated monthly. Time spent on this is saved from answering other requests for bios and photos etc. for school projects. 

17. Be wary of what you put on social media sites, as this may later reflect on your finished work and can be lifted and copied out of context.

18. If you provide publicity in a format that others can use easily, they are more likely to use it, tomorrow. Make sure it reflects positively on your work.

And finally, a well-thought-out web site is your the best investment in PR. It is your shopfront. 

Hazel Edwards and Ryan Scott Kennedy

Hazel Edwards & Ryan Scott Kennedy at the launch of f2m: the boy within

Author Hazel Edward writes for adults and children and has several ‘How to Write … articles available for free download on her website.  Hazel’s latest book is f2m;the boy within with co-author Ryan Kennedy for whom it is his debut YA novel. Hazel’s a panellist at the Emerging Writers festival in Melbourne.