How to Write about a Time of Anticipation

by Melissa Tydell | 20 comments

As I write this, I’m one month away from my due date, the estimated arrival of my husband’s and my first child. At many points in life, we are in a state of looking forward. Anticipation of an event—whether it’s a joyous or devastating one—puts everything in a new perspective. It heightens your awareness, incites excitement or anxiety (or both!), and brings up a lot of emotions.

Whether you’re crafting a fictional story or recounting your own experience, how do you write about a time of anticipation in a realistic, compelling way?

Flipping book pages

Photo by Merra Marie

The Countdown Begins

1. Set expectations.

The period before an anticipated event often serves as the “rising action” of a story. Amplify the tension by setting up the character’s expectations. What exactly does he or she think is going to happen? These expectations instantly add an extra dose of suspense, so just as the big moment is set to happen, readers are invested and wondering whether things will go according to plan or veer completely off track.

2. Describe the preparations.

This step plays into the common writing advice, “Show; don’t tell.” Describe the actions your character takes to prepare for the upcoming event. The way he or she prepares—or on the other hand, does not prepare—builds the sense of anticipation and reveals character in an authentic way.

3. Depict emotion.

Anticipation generates a range of emotions, many of them conflicting. Portray your character’s emotions through action (as the tip above mentions), dialogue, or descriptions. Think outside of the character himself too; other characters’ actions, the setting, and word choice also contribute to the mood and help communicate how a character feels.

Bonus point: Show what changes.

Technically, once the event occurs, the time of anticipation is over. But to fully convey all the elements of that anticipation, add contrast by sharing what happens during and after the event. Relate the changes that occur, both internal and external, to provide the pay-off—a period of “falling action” and an ultimate conclusion.

What methods do you use to generate a sense of anticipation?


Write for fifteen minutes about a time of anticipation.

When you’re finished, please share your practice in the comments section. And if you post, please respond to some of the other comments too!

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Melissa Tydell is a freelance writer, content consultant, and blogger who enjoys sharing her love of the written word with others. You can connect with Melissa through her website, blog, or Twitter.


  1. Dana

    wrapped by the warmth of the thick blanketed cocoon, i couldn’t dare to imagine tip toeing on the ice bathroom tiles, splashing fluid after a night long of beauty sleep.
    The theme song of ‘Hills’ distracted my dream and that dare came to real life. a tingling sensation rushed down my spine as my heel kissed the cracked tile. i cleaned the eye gunk from the corners of the devil like eyes meanwhile swishing water from side to side. note to self, i should have went easy on the late night booze. Too much and i become the blood-shot, livid skinned reflection in front of me. Or maybe i can go back to the bed,. i could call it a day off if i wanted. I mean if i didn’t wear the foundation and this and that, i would be eligible and pass. Sliding my feet in the fuzzy slippers, i trotted back across the wooden floor and dived into the nest – waiting for the next sunrise

    • eva rose

      Great verbal pictures: “blanketed cocoon”, “ice bathroom tiles”, “heel kissed the cracked tile”, “waiting for the next sunrise”. Thanks for sharing a moment we’ve all known!

    • Jasmine R.

      Dana, this is descriptive and raw, and engaged me from the first word.

  2. eva rose

    Anticipation sometimes exceeds the event, like Christmas. We plan now for a trip to Teton National Park, delighting in maps, travel books, restaurant reviews, hiking paths, knowing to allow for unexpected weather, crowds and letdowns. Aware also there will always be moments of inspiration, my pen and paper record every detail for future enjoyment.
    In a recent reading of “Peace Like a River” two young children anticipate a perceived enemy by placing steak knifes inside their belts for protection. During sleep the knives pierced their skin, an uncomfortable reminder of anticipation gone astray.
    Experience brings change to life; it’s up to us to transform change into growth and joy. Wishing you every blessing on your upcoming event, Melissa!

    • Melissa

      Thanks so much! Change, growth, and joy… I love that.

  3. Jasmine R.

    The officer walked by, glancing in the windows and silently counting, her footsteps muted by the rubber sole of boots designed for silent passage. The first streaks of dawn were slow in coming, but that was fine with Rose. Lying graveyard still on her bunk, she listened to every sound, each breath of her cellmate, a toilet flushing on the lower run. Listening, but for the last time.

    She glanced at the calendar, lit by the night light that never went out. The previous days, 1,095 of them, had been carefully marked out on a series of calendars with an “X”, but this day’s square had been decorated with flowers, a sun, a tiny patch of grass, all drawn by her cellmate who was allowed to have colored pencils in several colors. Good thing, this day deserved some color.

    The doors to the unit’s control room opened with a familiar buzzing and slammed shut with a tremendous bang. The officers could catch the heavy door so it didn’t quite slam so hard, but most didn’t care. Why should inmates get a good night’s sleep when the officers had to be up all night, or were supposed to be? Rose figured she would not slam any doors after today, and locks, well, at least she’d have a key to those again; one thing of the many things she’d never thought of until she had arrived in this place: lots of locks, but keys held by others. There were other things it would take years to forget.

    Rose went to the chow hall for breakfast but didn’t have a stomach to eat. It was too full of rocks and butterflies and besides, her friends wanted to talk. As she tried her best to listen her head reeled. They were talking about writing and sending money and calling family for them; things they needed or couldn’t do from in here. They laughed and cajoled, as if she might remember their requests better with some sugar on top. And she might. But most of the diners today just stared or lowered their heads when Rose glanced around, wishing it was their number that had come up.

    The formalities of release were accomplished amidst the chatter of officers and their supervisor. Rose listened as they described their next vacation, their last vacation, the day one would be gone from work next week because of a training class. Even though it had always been good to hear about the outside world, she had often, and even now, wondered why they always seemed to talk endlessly about being away from work, as if they wanted to be anywhere but here. But then again, so did she. Prison is prison, no matter what your purpose for being there is. The gates closed behind the officers too, and for a time they were all locked up together, even if they did hold the keys.

    They approached the first of the gates. At the officers’ signal they slid open, operated by a shadowy figure in a nearby control room with one-way glass. Over the years Rose had watched as many others had passed out of that gate toward the liberty on the other side.

    Presently that liberty seemed unreal and even threatening, which caused a new type of uneasy feeling in her belly. Thoughts began to strike her mind in quick succession, leaving trails in her quickening pulse and she began to fear she might throw up what she hadn’t eaten that morning.

    What would she do now? Had she had a genuine change of heart that would lead her to a new life, one without the habits that had brought her here? For so long the system had made her decisions, all of them. Now she would have freedom of movement and choice, but what if she used the freedom to fall back into the hell that was her former life? The notions became a cold fear that began to swirl around her pounding heart. And then she saw them.

    On the other side of the gate, leaning against the car, her smiling husband held a blonde-haired angel in his arms. Another slightly larger angel stood at his side, his head tilted, with a curious look on his face. Rose realized her son was looking at the officers, who smiled back. Then she remembered: this little one loved any kind of uniform. One of the officers spoke gently, as if into the air.

    “Well, Rose, there are two beautiful reasons to leave here and never come back.” She nodded and smiled, heaving a deep sigh that was a prayer that became a declaration. Suddenly her heart awoke from its slumber and affirmed her longing for the gift she now embraced.

    “Yes.” Rose said yes to freedom, and never stopped saying it, as long as she lived.

    • Winnie

      You describe the conflicting emotions experienced in jail so well. ‘Lying graveyard still’ is a good metaphor for the place where life has ended for many.
      Her husband and the two kids make a stark contrast betwteen her old life and the new one.

  4. Victoria James

    Sophie and Dylan pulled up outside Leah’s house. The lights were off, and all was quiet. Leah’s call had got Sophie anxious and worried. She remembered the shaky tone of Leah’s voice. “It’s only a small scratch, it’s nothing… just… can you come over?”

    Leah had been attacked on the way home from work. Sophie had tried to warn her about walking by herself, tried to encourage her to stay home with all the madness on the streets, but Leah had laughed her usual carefree laugh and told Sophie she was being silly.

    Sophie walked up to the front door and knocked, calling Leah’s name. No answer or any sound from inside. “Let’s go around the back,” Sophie said to
    Dylan. At the back door, the silence wasthe same. Sophie peered in through the
    windows but she couldn’t make out anything in the gloom. A high window into the bathroom was open and Dylan boosted Sophie in through it, handing her the crowbar when she was through. Inside, the gloom was oppressive and Sophie could smell something weird. It was a kind of rotting, coppery smell and
    Sophie’s stomach lurched. She swallowed hard and gripped the crowbar harder in her hands to stop them from shaking.

    Sophie made her way out of the bathroom, listening out for any signs of life. She crept down the hallway, aware that every sense was on hyper-alert. She could hear the wind in the trees outside, the low idle of their car in the driveway, the
    distant scream of sirens. Her eyes were adjusting to the gloom and every detail of the hallway seemed to leap into her brain, screaming at her to get out, that something wasn’t right.

    Sophie rounded the corner into Leah’s bedroom. The blanket had been pulled half off the bed and a still and bloodied hand still gripped the corner of it. Sophie could see Leah’s foot protruding at a strange angle at the bottom of the bed. “Leah?” she called softly, creeping further forward and gripping the crowbar. Her hands trembled but she didn’t notice.

    She rounded the edge of the bed and her breath caught in her throat. Leah lay crumpled on the floor, the blanket pulled half over her face where she had grabbed it as she had fallen. The wound on her shoulder was ghastly and congealed blood had dribbled down her arm and pooled on the floor beneath her. “Leah?” she called again. No response.

    Sophie turned away, taking her phone out of her pocket to call an ambulance, when she heard a noise behind her. She spun around quickly and saw Leah’s hand tightening on the sheet. She moved forward, calling her name again. Leah’s face appeared above the bed and Sophie made a strangled noise in her throat. Leah’s eyes were shot through with yellow and red, her skin was a sickly
    grey. She made low, growling sounds as she awkwardly pulled herself up, her eyes fixed on Sophie.

    Sophie backed slowly out of the room, holding her crowbar in front of her, her eyes never leaving Leah’s awful face. Suddenly, she bumped into the doorframe and let out a small squeal of surprise. What used to be Leah let out a louder moan and started towards Sophie. Sophie turned and ran.

    • Abigail Rogers

      Oooh, wow! This one had me on edge, actually cringing wondering what would happen next. Great job!

    • Victoria James

      Thanks for your feedback! Appreciate that it created the apprehension I was wanting to convey!

    • Winnie

      Dying to find out what the ‘little scratch’ did to Leah.

    • Victoria James

      Thanks for your feedback! You’ll have to wait until my novel is finished!

  5. Carol

    Sean watched the fire spit and crackle in the pit. He sat, leaning with his forearms on his bare legs and watching the mosquitos come and go. He lifted his head and glanced across the fire at Leah. She was sitting on a log, licking marshmallow from her fingers.

    Sean pushed his elbows into his thighs and lifted himself up, trying to act causal. He pushed his hands deep in his pockets and strode over to Leah and asked, “Mind if I use your marshmallow stick?” as he picked it up from between her feet.

    Leah tucked her chin to her chest and glancing up at him said, “Sure, no problem. I’ve had enough for one night.”

    Sean couldn’t tell if she was blushing or if the heat of the fire was making her cheeks turn red. He squatted near the fire, holding the marshmallow a safe distance from the flame. He could feel the heat from Leah’s bare leg against his arm. Satisfied that the marshmallow was warmed and melted he sat down on the log, a mere inch or two from Leah. He peeked out the corner of his eye and saw her quickly avert her glance at him. He wanted more than anything to put his arm on her shoulder and pull her close but his fingers were sticky with melted marshmallow.

    Despite the cooler night air, Sean was beginning to sweat. He had waited all summer for this camping trip. He knew this would be the one time when the boys and girls would be around the campfire together and it was his chance to make his move and grab his first kiss. If he was lucky, he might even cop a feel.

    His ears were buzzing from the blood pumping through his body as he imagined their lips touching. His heart beating faster, sweat starting to pool under his armpits. He was about to make his move when the camp leader shouted, “And there was the HOOK!’ and all the girls around the campfire shrieked, and to his wonderful delightful surprise Leah turned to him, grabbing him in her arms and hugging him in fear.

    Sean sat with his arms softly but firmly around Leah’s back, smiling. Tonight was gonna be his lucky night.

  6. Abigail Rogers

    I stand still in the middle of my bedroom, looking at the piles of clothes without really seeing them, feeling a giddy, pleasant, but slightly sickening tremor in my heart. The empty red suitcase lays on my bed, and the embossed letters on a blue passport wink at me in the morning sunlight. I’m going to Britain. It’s really happening. The trip of a lifetime–the one I’d been saving for since I was 11–is finally coming. Tomorrow I’ll board a plane headed for Manchester, and the green fields of England will be waiting for me.

    What will also be waiting for me is customs, that frightening ordeal that I’ve heard about but never experienced. I picture myself running a savage gauntlet with my luggage in tow, standing in a line three miles long before finally coming to a booth where a woman with a sour face and a strong German accent will interrogate me, stamping a big red “X” across my passport and shouting at me to go back to the States where I belong. Why she has a German accent I have no idea, but it does a good job of scaring the living daylights out of me.

    Hairbrush. Toothpaste. Shampoo. Stick to the basics. Don’t worry about what will happen on the other side.

    I pick up a guidebook to England and flip through it for the thousandth time, relishing every photograph, underlining a few more things, making note of prices.

    T-shirts. Sweater. How many pairs of shoes?

    My mom finds me at the computer–again–making absolutely sure how many ounces of liquid I’m allowed and how big a carry-on case can be.

    “Don’t worry about it! You’ve done enough research, just relax.”

    Yes, relax.

    Necklaces. Formal dress. Pajamas.

    Rick Steves strikes again. I watch as he walks around the streets of London, animated, enthusiastic, full of energy. I want to be a traveler like that, soaking up the local flavors, digging deep into the mossy crevices and making the most of every moment, no matter how mundane.

    Insurance. Debit card. Boarding pass.

    Apparently my stomach wants to join the Cirque du Soleil. Everything is packed, I’m saying goodbye to family, taking my shoes off for security, and my guts are twisting inside out and doing cartwheels.

    Luggage tag. Gate number. Group 2.

    Then I see the plane. White, sleek, with a patriotic touch of red and blue. And then I realize that I’m going home, and it’s going to be a grand adventure.

    • Winnie

      Was she originally from Britain, and is now an unwilling exile in her present country?
      There’s a sense of expectation, as if she’s always been waiting for this trip.

    • Abigail Rogers

      I had in mind that she has never been to Britain, but has longed for it so long that she thinks of it as “home.”

    • Winnie

      I also built up similar expectation before I went overseas for the first time in my twenties.

  7. Winnie

    David read the riddle again, and wondered. The other side of the card had an invitation to a get-together Sunday afternoon at the hall behind the hamburger den they frequented after school. From there they’d speed off home, doing crazy things on their skateboards, because they were the only ones who could.
    He’d be a special guest. For a partner he was to bring along the answer to this riddle.
    Why should he go? It would take a huge bite out of his time preparing for year-end tests.
    Miss Plastow! It must be his math teacher. The correct answer to the riddles she always set earned you extra term marks
    “Learn to think laterally,” she said when even parents protested they had
    nothing to do with Pythagoras’ or Euclid’s theories.
    David could still feel the bruises on his arm. Armed with a thick builder’s ruler she patrolled the class, bashing brains awake on freezing mornings, and making them write on the chalk board with frozen fingers.
    “She’s making Spartans of you all,” his dad replied when he complained. “Some day you’ll thank her.”

    That’s if I’m going to live in the Arctic circle, David muttered.
    After she’d married a Greek her thoughts had become centred on that spit of land dangling below Europe on the world map in the classroom. Because if his unpronounceable surname she remained Miss Plastow to them.
    But David wasn’t a timid little Junior anymore. Arms akimbo, he drew himself up
    before the full-length mirror in his room.
    “Dream on, Superman.” His sister had stuck her head in the door on the way to her friends.
    “Get lost. Lois Lane,” he shouted, slamming the door shut.
    So what if he couldn’t make the football team. Even after hanging round the team for six months they still hadn’t been dated by any of those hulking retards.
    Harvard, Yale, Princeton, here I come, he murmured. And Miss Plastow was his key to those ivied halls. Nerd or not, having their letter on his sweater would set
    him up for life.
    After every class Miss Plastow always gave them something to take away. He looked at the list on his desk, her last present. From previous years he knew it contained the questions that would appear on the test paper.
    He arrived early, wearing that cool sweater with that fancy Greek letter on the
    front that was meant to impress one person. The whole school seemed to be
    there. They showed each other their invitations. All had the same riddle.
    He sighed, relieved. “I know what the answer is, you work it out for yourself,
    dummy” He walked around the milling crowd with a knowing half-smile on his face.
    After they finally settled down Miss Plastow gave a short speech. This was her final term, next year she was leaving to settle down with her husband. “Everyone of you will remain special to me,” she gushed. Despite being an iron maiden in the class, she was like his mother. She could also become weepy at times. .Then, “Who has the answer?” Seven hands shot up. She looked at each one, naming them in turn. David swelled when his name was called.
    She pressed a button and the curtain behind her parted. The bust of an ancient philosopher stared at them. Whoever he was, David had no doubt about his nationality
    “Who’s that?” someone shouted.
    “Never mind who it is. What’s he on?”
    A plinth. P L I N T H. The answer to the riddle, Big deal. He’d forgotten it straight after he’d opened her invitation.
    He brushed aside a creeping tinge of guilt. What did she have in store for the
    seven who’d put up their hands?
    He joined the others after the rest had left. They’d get more than just a signed photo of her.
    They stood in the deserted hall.
    And waited.

  8. Chelsea

    Love … the one word that is reiterated in songs, poems, stories, movies and plays. When I was in my teens, I was book smart, not street smart. So every single time I felt giddy with delight over falling for a person the opposite sex I blamed it on hormones, I told myself that he is unattainable, and that it was a crush – I would get over it sooner or later.

    Now, I am in love. Finally in love with somebody attainable – not a teacher, not a gay guy, not a famous guy, or a married guy, or a guy three times my age… but it’s ironic – I’m in love with one of my students. He comes in every Friday and I teach him how to play the cello. He is the last student of the day, I teach him for an hour and then I proceed to talk to him for three hours. I don’t mean to do this… but it happens all the time.

    On Friday, after his lesson, he asked me to grab coffee with him… I couldn’t believe what I heard so I packed up and followed him through the main streets of Burwood. He found a place and we sat and talked for hours…

    That was nice. This feels nice. The seconds, hours and days trickle by so slowly when he isn’t here. I sound like a teenager… I never dated when I was that young. I took antidepressants when I was eighteen, that killed my desire, and interest in men… and now, he seems to have defied all the odds – my calculating mind, my no longer thinks or calculates, it just plays music – cello music ironically … and it yearns for the very next moment with him.

    It’s Wednesday today – only two more days until Friday.

  9. Katie Cross

    congrats! And great post. Even without you expounding, the list you have here speaks for itself. It was just a bonus that you expounded. Thanks for the insights!


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