Some stories seem to put us on the edge of our seats, constantly hoping and fearing about what will happen in the lives of the characters. Even when it seems very little is happening, in a well told story it can feel as if something is just around the corner and we become keyed up about it. Or we have a sense of what the characters might want to have happen even if they haven’t exactly said so to each other. The audience experiences anticipation even when there isn’t an obvious ticking clock or bomb under the table. How do they do that?
Elements of the future are moments in which a story pushes the audience’s attention and
interest toward possible upcoming events.
A potential event suggested by an element of the future could be immediate or it could be distant; in fact, it doesn’t actually have to come about or even be possible to have an impact on the audience. If a moment of action, dialogue or setting subliminally makes the audience think about what might happen, it’s an element of the future. It can be an omen, a prediction, a promise, a good feeling, the purchasing of a ticket or the changing of a dress. It can be a character looking for something or trying to hide something. It can be buying a knife or a rope or a pregnancy test. It can even be falling asleep or waking up. It might be a come-hither look or a go-away look. It can be a prediction of what will come next or a declaration of having no clue about the future. These can all be effective tools for storytellers to encourage the audience into an anticipatory mode even when there are no banks to be robbed or love to profess. These pointers into the future make us want to know – what actually is going to happen?
An element of the future can be any moment which suggests a possible upcoming change or
action — sooner or later or possibly never.
Many writers starting out use this tool intermittently and only by accident. Great storytellers use elements of the future with deliberate intention and almost constantly. There is practically no down side because suggesting what might happen – or what a character would like to have happen – in no way telegraphs what will actually take place. A character looking longingly at another doesn’t ensure a love affair. A knife doesn’t guarantee a stabbing. A cloud doesn’t necessarily mean rain. These moments and images can reveal an intention, a hidden desire or a possibility but an element of the future is not a guarantee of upcoming events, it is simply an indication that a change might be possible or wanted or feared. And even if there is an affair or a stabbing or a rain storm, how it comes about and the way it impacts the characters still remain to be determined. These indicators of possibilities simply give the audience all the more to anticipate and greater focus to their feeling of suspense.
Elements of the future often reveal something about a character to the audience. We discover
a character’s wish or want or hope or fear or plan. And the audience subliminally takes sides
by hoping or fearing about that possible outcome. They feel it; they anticipate. When the
audience anticipates, it’s participating emotionally. They care about what might happen, but
they can’t predict it. This is the ideal position to put an audience in: they know what might happen,
but they don’t know what will happen.
Generally we are so caught up in the emotions of anticipation – small increments of suspense – that we are not aware the feelings have been carefully orchestrated for us by the writer. The events and predictions, the hiding of secrets and preparations for upcoming events seem so natural and organic to the ongoing moments in the story that we never notice the deliberate use of this powerful tool in the hands of storytellers. Instead we welcome the feeling of this seemingly invisible manipulation of our experience.
Continually making the audience concerned about the next minute is the key to keeping them
engaged, caring and involved in the unfolding of the tale.
Nothing in the telling of a story is truly accidental, though in the best stories it all seems inevitable and the tools used by the writer are all but unseen. Making the audience actively anticipate possible upcoming events and – by extension – participate in the story by caring about the futures of the characters, well-told stories draw their audiences in and carry them along for the ride. This nearly continual experience of blossoming suspense stems in large part from the use of this crucial and often overlooked tool: elements of the future.