Five Ways to Increase Tension and Anticipation through Dialogue

Scarab, The Level, and how to harness the power of anticipation in dialogue.

As promised, here are some essential techniques for creating anticipation in your stories, culled from classes I teach on screenwriting. Although there are many more techniques for achieving this, I discuss five that I use over and over again in my own work, and in my novels such as Scarab and The Level: 1. Questions that are left hanging or are only partially answered. 2. Reputation that causes interest. 3. Countdown.  4. Warnings. and 5. Hope of possible escape out of a bad situation.

On The Level

In my previous novel, Scarab, I tapped into the prevailing mystery associated with the Sphinx of Giza in order to create an overall sense of anticipation and intrigue in the story. In my forthcoming novel, The Level, I create anticipation and anxiety by focusing on the ability of dialogue to increase tension.

In The Level, the protagonist, Sam Code, wakes up in a pitch-black room strapped to a chair. He can’t remember who he is or how he got here. A woman dressed in a black burka approaches him carrying a paraffin lamp and warns him that he needs to get out of his current predicament before the power comes back on. She also tells him that he has to get off the island where he is being held, before dawn, or he’ll be killed. The dialogue between them is cryptic, full of suspense, and keeps us guessing as to how it will all end. Here’s an excerpt from the second chapter:

“I can’t come with you. You do understand that?” she said.

“Why not?” Sam asked, somewhat taken aback.

She hesitated. “I’m sorry Sam. I can’t answer that question. But I can tell you there’s a generator that’ll start up in ten minutes. The power and lights will come on. You can’t be in this chair when that happens.”

“Just tell me what the hell’s going on!”

“What you need to know right now is that the power will stay on for an hour. You must find your way out of this facility before the lights go out again. There are many doors to many rooms. Many dead ends. And there are a lot of people with terrifying skills who’ll be looking for you. If they find you they will kill you. But if you manage to escape, head North. You’ll come to a small harbor about a day’s walk from here. There’ll be a boat. Get on it and leave this island. What happens after that depends on you.”

“Why? Why would anyone want to kill me? What’s so special about me?” Sam sounded more anxious than ever.

“The truth is that you are very special Sam,” she said. “You just don’t realize it yet.”

“Then explain it to me,” he pleaded.

Ashanti hesitated yet again, as if weighing up the reasons for keeping the information from him against the consequences to herself for telling him.
“You have something they want,” she said at last.

“What?” Sam pressed her.

“A key.”

“A key to what?”

“A key to a very special door.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You will.” Ashanti leant over and kissed him on the cheek.

Creating Anticipation through Dialogue

Here’s how each technique works:

1. Questions that are left hanging or are only partially answered: Almost everything that Sam asks Ashanti is only partially answered or sidetracked: “I can’t answer that question”, or, “You have something they want”. This causes Sam to exclaim, “I don’t understand”. Unanswered questions create a sense of intrigue and anxiety in the reader. We, like Sam, want answers to these questions, and so we keep reading in an effort to find them.

2. Reputation that causes interest: “And there are a lot of people with terrifying skills who will be looking for you.” This causes us to worry about Sam and wonder about the sorts of skills his hunters possess.

3. Countdown: “But I can tell you there’s a generator that’ll start up in ten minutes. The power and lights will come on. You can’t be in this chair when it does.” This sets up a time limit during which something has to happen. Although we don’t know the details, we believe Sam to be in imminent danger.

4. Warnings: “If they find you they will kill you”. We are left in no doubt as to the outcome, and because we like Sam, we worry about him and keep turning the pages to see if he’ll survive.

5. Hope of possible escape from a bad situation: “But if you manage to escape, head North. You’ll come to a small harbor about a day’s walk from here. There’ll be a boat. Get on it and leave this island.” The search for the answer to this question drives the entire story. Will Sam manage to get to the boat and escape from the island or will he be found and be killed?

In Conclusion

These, then, are five simple but powerful techniques for injecting anticipation into your dialogue, changing otherwise static scenes into exciting page turners. If you’ve enjoyed this article, and have any questions or requests that you wish to be covered in a future blog, please leave a comment by clicking on the “comment” text at the end of this or any other entry, and let’s get chatting!

The Craft of Dialogue

In this series of articles I’ll be exploring some essential writing techniques that I’ve garnered over the years. Some, have migrated over from screenwriting, but they are applicable, with a little modification, to the novel or short story.

Today’s topic is how to add resonance and depth to your story through metaphor in dialogue.

In film, as in the novel, dialogue provides a plethora of opportunities for hooking the reader into the story early, developing character, and developing plot. One of the ways to deepen the reading experience, to create a sense of resonance in your writing, is through the use of metaphor. Metaphors may appear in several forms – as visual, olfactory, and auditory objects. In this blog we shall be touching on their use in dialogue.

Make Metaphors Unobtrusive

The first thing to say is that a metaphor shouldn’t draw attention to itself as a literary device, since that would snap your reader out of the immersive experience you are trying to create. What it should do, other than embellish character, is quietly seed or explain some previous and/or future moment in your story. This could take the form of foreshadowing the “reveal” — the moment in which some previously unexplained or hidden motive or event is shown for what it truly is. Structuring reveals is an indispensable part of creating momentum in your stories, but that is the subject of a future blog.

Allow Metaphors to Stitch your Story Together

The cardinal rule in writing is, as we’ve often heard,  “show, don’t tell.” I would rephrase this to read: in showing, rather than telling, it is preferable to reveal the hidden truth in your story in a measured and purposeful way — in the case of dialogue, through a series of related but widely interspersed metaphors. Dialogue is a prime candidate for metaphor since, metaphor, by its very nature, carries more meaning than ordinary language. Additionally, metaphor in dialogue is less obtrusive than in a descriptive block, since it can fly under the radar as part of a character’s speech idiom. Metaphors, once fully unpacked by the reader or audience, act as invisible threads, stitching your characters and story together into a seamless whole.

Metaphors in Chinatown

There is a wonderful bit of dialogue in Chinatown between Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) and Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) in which Gittes notices a black spot in the green part of Evelyn’s eye, prompting her to remark, “Oh, that…it’s a flaw in the iris…”. This admission of a flaw, of course, is about much more than the structure of her iris. Like a fracture in a beautiful diamond, Evelyn’s secret is not visible at first glance. The idea of a flawed diamond with its added capacity for diverting light fits snugly into the idea of flawed moral and physical perception. It points to how easy it is to miss the truth even when it is in plain sight; how easy it is to camouflage from one’s self, and others, a shameful secret in one’s life.

Yet, the “flaw” as a metaphor for imperfection or sin, which may lie at the heart of the beautiful and the rich, also points at the heart of the plot. In Chinatown, it finds expression in one of the greatest lines in movie history, when Evelyn admits to Gittes that Katherine is both her sister and her daughter. This is something that we have failed to spot, just as Gittes failed to see that the gardener’s remark to him earlier — “Bad for glass” — was not referring to the broken eyeglasses at the bottom of the pond at the Mulwray home, but to the fact that saltwater is bad for the lawn. Had Jake allowed for the Chinese tendency (a linguistic flaw?) to pronounce “l” for “r” — “glass” instead of “grass” — he might have understood that Hollis Mulwray, Noah Cross’ former partner, had been drowned in this very pond, at the bequest of Cross, and his body dumped near a storm-drain pipe to make it look like an accident. It is only when the characters and the audience come to see the truth for what it really is (Gittes “seeing” that Noah Cross has instigated the murder and that he has fathered Katherine by sleeping with his own daughter, Evelyn), that the story can reach its dark and somber conclusion: that the rich and powerful are forever hidden from the law’s ability to bring them to justice.

In Summary

Strategically placed metaphors add depth and resonance to your story, yet should never draw attention to themselves as literary devices. In Chinatown, the failure to see the truth is hinted at through metaphorical objects such as cracked eyeglasses, a flawed iris, as well as in dialogue – in Evelyn’s mentioning of the flaw in her eye, and in Gittes mistaking “grass” for “glass”. As metaphors, they seed and explain actions and events as part of a well-structured reveal. Used well, metaphors enrich character and help stitch the various parts of a story into a seamless whole.

In my next blog, I will be discussing the many ways in which dialogue can help to build anticipation and tension.

See you then!