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!

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Stavros Halvatzis

I'm a writer, teacher, and story consultant.

5 thoughts on “Five Ways to Increase Tension and Anticipation through Dialogue”

  1. This has actually reaffirmed what I already assumed good writing consisted of. I don’t think I could’ve said it so well. I’ve always (at least tried to) use these techniques in everything I write. However, a lot of it has come from reading my favourite books. One thing I think you’ve missed in these techniques… although probably not as universal as the four you have mentioned… is that things should present some sort of undeniable truth. Think about “Fight Club”, the book and the movie. So much of why people like it is because they (subconsciously) agree with what is being said. Same goes for Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”. Something is there to be said of the world that people can, even if they don’t want to, identify with.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post, Russ, and thanks for taking the time to comment! About truth in dialogue…I agree. One’s writing must reflect verisimilitude at some or other level, or else it will lack impact and relevance. I do think that’s an underlying principle across all techniques, rather than a single specific one, though.

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