Writing and the Art of Anticipation

“The thrill is in the chase, never the capture.” – Doctor Who, “The Unicorn and The Wasp”

I cannot stress enough the joy that exists in wanting. My favorite writers share the idea that romance is less about kissing and having sex, and more about the anticipation of a kiss, and building sexual tension. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, this can go on for years. Chris Carter was able to stretch the relationship between Mulder and Scully on The X-Files for seven, right up until David Duchovny’s departure from the show. In other words, he kept us waiting until the last possible moment, and if viewers weren’t grateful, they should have been. Good writers know there’s an art in giving characters space to miss each other, time to want each other, and the magic of the tease.

Yet when I recite the quote above to my writing workshop full of high school girls, one of whom just read me a first-kiss scene that she is particularly proud of, I am met with skeptical stares. “No kissing in the first book of a series,” I’ll say, “and if it’s a standalone story, absolutely no kissing until the end.” It’s easier said than done, and even I’ve been tempted to write that sensual, romantic first-kiss scene too early in my novel. To myself, my students, and writers everywhere, I urge you: Don’t do it! Build romantic suspense instead.

The X-Files did this so well, it is in fact, the best I’ve ever seen. All the affection had to be shown through the characters’ concern for one another. Chris Carter mastered the art of keeping from the audience what they thought they wanted, which was for the characters to get together and accomplish their goal. What audiences really want is to want the characters to get together. We wait seasons for them to kiss, but once they do, that anticipation dissipates and things get boring fast. You can never get that first kiss or the feeling of wanting it back. Afterwards, characters become a sort of mundane couple sickening us with their constant cloying cuteness. Think Jim and Pam on The Office. I remember reading a fan comment about four seasons into the show that said: “For once in a show I just want the characters to get together and be happy. Is that so much to ask?” No! Bad fan! And yes, it is a lot to ask for, because you are essentially asking the writers to terminate the anticipation you feel when tuning into their show every week. Will this be the episode they finally get together? Think about it. Did you enjoy the show more when Pam was an unattainable goal for Jim, or when they were happily married and working on baby number two? This question is rhetorical given that we’d already seen the latter storyline with baby number one. Pam gets pregnant because there is nothing left to do with their story. The best parts are over. Remember when Jim was in emotional agony because Pam was engaged to Roy? Remember feeling that pain with him? That was good stuff.

I know I’ve been talking T.V. shows here, but it applies to books as well. A book becomes a series when the first one hooks us, usually because our main character meets a new and intriguing person and they spend the length of that book chasing one another and a goal. By the time we reach book two or three, and the characters have already gotten together, most of their time is spent kissing and arguing over who’s prettier. Think Edward and Bella in Eclipse. However, if done correctly, we’ll still be waiting with bated breath for Katniss to choose Peeta or Gale, or to see what happens between star-crossed lovers June and Day in Marie Lu’s Legend series. Lu kept me waiting until the very last page, and I thanked her at the end.

But using T.V. as an example seemed appropriate since this Friday I found myself on the page of one of my favorite new shows, 12 Monkeys, discussing the relationship of the two main characters with another fan. In order for me to get to this stage in a relationship with a new series, several factors need to be in place. First, the concept has to hook me. In order to get me to the second episode (a rarity for me), it must be well written with well thought out story lines. But how do we reach the stage where I’m on the internet talking to other nerds about the show? Thirdly, and most importantly, there must be interesting characters that want something and make me want it for them. That’s anticipation.

We’ll keep tuning in for a stolen glance…a meaningful moment…a hand hold…a hug, that moment where their lips almost touch but some awesome story-related snafu interrupts it.

This fan and I shared concern that Cole and Cassie might kiss by the end of the first season. There were a few moments already that showed the characters growing closer, and it’s romantic to be sure. We love to see them dance, appreciate art, and be generally adorable despite the time-oriented plot device keeping them apart. I’m loving the development, but I do hope they keep that first kiss at bay. So far, the writers are doing a good job of emotionally attaching me to Cole and Cassie, making me want what they want, a difficult feat in so few episodes. I want Cole and Cassie to be happy together. I just hope the writers continue to keep from me what I want. Because that’s what I really want.

Perhaps, like the students taking my workshop, you’re reading this right now with eyebrows raised, thinking I’m off my nut. Don’t believe me? This theory is backed by science, which you can read more about in the Daily Mail, and upheld by writers long before me. After all, it was Robert Louis Stevenson who said, “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.” My fellow story lovers, I wish you long and hopeful travels wrought with anticipation.

Jack and Carter of Stargate SG-1 separated by a forcesheild in the episode “Divide and Conquer.” They will never share a kiss in the series that is unaffected by an alternate universe, disease, or memory.
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