Robert Plutchik, professor emeritus at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, identified eight primary emotions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust, and joy. I’ve seen similar lists from experts as varied as Donald Maass and Tony Robbins. Some are a little longer, include a few other emotions, but looking at this list . . . I can see it. This makes sense to me, and anyway it gives us a place to start to talk about the emotions that motivate or drive our characters. In this series of posts we’ll get into each of these eight emotions and how they can help drive your narrative forward and infuse it with the humanity your characters need to connect with readers.

If you haven’t been following along you can click here to start at the beginning.

This week . . .


Of the eight emotions we’ll talk about in this series, anticipation may be the one that has the widest range of both positive and negative connotations. It’s also something that, in a much broader sense, touches on one of the first principals of the science fiction genre. In fact, Anticipation was even the name of a French science fiction publisher in the 1950s, playing on the idea that SF “anticipates” future events.

When we experience anticipation it comes from an attempt to predict the future. We often wonder what the future will bring, not just in the far term like Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke trying to anticipate the world of the year 2001 from the mid-to-late 1960s, but much more often in the near term.

We get either worried about or excited for what will happen next, how things will turn out. Anticipation can drag on for years, even decades, if not longer: When will we finally contact an extraterrestrial intelligence? When will we finally discover a clean, renewable energy source? But often it’s a brief, transitory experience: What’s in the box? Will I win tonight’s MegaMillions jackpot?

This can cause a lot of stress, especially if we’re not sure what we’ll find in the box, a cute little puppy or a severed head? Greg Bear made use of this in his brilliant novel Queen of Angels:

!Alan Block to Roger Atkins> Band 5 diagnostic is totally tapped. Machine neural seems stable but biologic is in a complete dither. Australian Command is breathing down my neck on this one; they’re afraid we’re going to have a navel watcher. So am I. What do I tell them? I wish you’d go back online and talk to them.

!Roger Atkins to Alan Block> Jill has corrected our problem and is bringing AXIS Sim to parity. We’re waiting for confirmation of AXIS situation. Give me some time, please, Alan.

But Andy Warhol said, “The idea of waiting for something makes it more exciting.” Waiting for something we know is going to be good, or at least hope is going to be good, has a life affirming quality to it. In her New York Times article “What a Great Trip! And I’m Not Even There Yet,” Stephanie Rosenbloom wrote:

As anyone who has taken a vacation knows, they can be rife with complications: flight delays, illness, family squabbles. And when you get home you have to catch up on all the work you missed. That’s not to suggest that vacations don’t bring us joy, but social scientists have been saying for years that we get an extra happiness boost if we consciously delay any type of pleasure—be it booking a trip to Bali months in advance or eating that sliver of chocolate cake tomorrow instead of today. Doing this allows us to build up positive expectations, to relish how enjoyable the experience might be.

Lately I’ve been obsessively researching a trip to Vegas. We’re trying to go there, our first vacation since our last trip to Vegas about four years ago, in September. Though I haven’t booked it yet (it gets cheaper and so we have more options the closer you get to your travel date, within reason) just the idea that we most likely actually will go there makes me feel a little better. It’s as if I’m anticipating the anticipation of four days in Las Vegas.

I guess that makes me like these people from The Plague by Albert Camus:

Whereas during those months of separation time had never gone quickly enough for their liking and they were wanting to speed its flight, now that they were in sight of the town they would have liked to slow it down and hold each moment in suspense, once the breaks went on and the train was entering the station. For the sensation, confused perhaps, but none the less poignant for that, of all those days and weeks and months of life lost to their love made them vaguely feel they were entitled to some compensation; this present hour of joy should run at half the speed of those long hours of waiting.

In his seminal novel Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein brought the concept of positive anticipation to a new metaphysical level:

Then he remembered. Many years earlier when chemically-powered rockets were used for the earliest human probing of space, he had watched a countdown in a blockhouse. He recalled the same low voices, the relaxed, very diverse but coordinated actions, the same rising exultant expectancy. They were “waiting for fullness,” that was certain. But for what? Why were they so happy? Their Temple and all they had built had been destroyed . . . yet they seemed like kids on a night before Christmas.

But anyone who’s struggled with anxiety and panic disorders can tell you, anticipatory anxiety can be—or at least in the moment it can certainly feel like—a more damaging emotional experience than positive anticipation is a healing one.

Marie Suszynski described anticipatory anxiety, what I guess we can call negative anticipation, in her Everyday Health article “What is Anticipatory Anxiety?

Anticipatory anxiety can be chronic if you find yourself worried about something for months at a time, such as losing your job in a poor economy. Besides feeling anxious and fearful, you may also experience anger, confusion, hopelessness, loss of control, numbness, sadness, moodiness, irritability, guilt, and preoccupation with the threat, to the point where you can’t concentrate or make decisions.

If anticipatory anxiety is chronic, you may also find that you’re withdrawing from people and things you enjoy doing. You may have memory problems and physical symptoms such as:


Tense muscles




Stomach problems


Changes in sleep patterns


Changes in appetite



Save those lists. This will help you think more deeply into your characters’ emotional experiences. Think about how to show the effects or outward symptoms of “tense muscles” or “changes in appetite,” that can signal to your readers that something is troubling that character. And your readers won’t need to have this list at hand to understand what you’re getting at. We have a shared emotional experience. We can tell by another person’s behavior what he or she is feeling—with various levels of accuracy, of course. Show characters experiencing this, don’t tell us: “And Galen felt serious anticipatory anxiety as he opened the door to the dragon’s den.”

As a side effect of our ability to detect the emotional responses of others, we can feel significant pressure to avoid being the source of another’s negative responses, including others’ anticipatory anxiety. And if someone fails to consider that, it can say a lot about that character, as we see in this bit from A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke:

Every five minutes, or less, Lawrence spoke to Selene, keeping Pat and McKenzie informed of progress. The fact that he was also informing the anxiously waiting world scarcely crossed his mind.

And sometimes, picking up on others’ anticipation can be a warning of some ill intentions, which Larry Niven played with in The Ringworld Throne:

The vampire woman—women—shied back from the light. Two women now, and a man, too, all trying to balance above him on the shell. Waiting.

On the “meta” writing level, keeping a careful eye on building and maintaining your readers’ anticipation—remember when I asked, “What’s going to happen next?”—will keep your readers engaged and drive your story forward to a satisfying conclusion.

That’s a much bigger subject than a sentence or two could ever cover, but for now take a look at this post from Beth Hill at The Editor’s Blog, “Build Toward the Story’s End”:

When readers anticipate that something is going to happen to characters they’ve come to know, come to like and maybe admire—whether or not they know for sure what that something is—those readers get involved and stay involved in a story. So anticipation is an emotion you want to induce in the reader.

She goes on to offer some very good advice:

Consider one of your works in progress—have you actively written in the anticipation? Are you pointing characters and readers toward a future moment or event? Have you hinted that there will be a showdown? A climax? A moment when story forces will collide?

If not, if your chapters or scenes read like unconnected episodes, go back and start adding in words and sentences and moments that point toward the future.

I can’t wait to see what positive effects this has on your writing!*


—Philip Athans


*See what I did right there?

Part 7: Trust

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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