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The Importance of Anticipatory Desire In Narrative Works

This article will view anticipation as a broad term which encapsulates and subsumes the very nature of story tension. It will call upon the unspoken promise of any given narrative that there is indeed something within it that the reader is anticipating to read. Therefore, the claim is that, on some level, most narrative works are dependent on maintaining the sense of anticipation or suspense – if that tension is not finely kept and preserved throughout, the narrative could fail to captivate its consumer. This need for a gripping narrative is only made stronger and more pronounced in the contemporary society which is filled with distracting and easily consumable entertainment. For one to devote their precious time to a novel, that novel must keep the reader engaged for the entirety of its duration. This article does not postulate that the importance of suspense or of an intriguing narrative is something new, but merely seeks to point out just how important that aspect of literature is for the contemporary reading populace at large.

Allen Richard (2003), previously a professor of Cinema Studies at NYU and now the acting dean of the University of Hong Kong School of Creative Media, points out that “narrative suspense develops out of a basic and pervasive feature of storytelling – the manner in which stories sustain our interest by encouraging us to anticipate what happens next” (p.163). That anticipation, however, is not simply a “what happens next” – if a work of literature is to truly encapsulate the mind, the question should be focused on the narrative as a whole. That is to say that events are not the only driving force of anticipation. Characters with their developments and (mis)doings are of vital importance for sustaining that anticipatory desire within a reader.

Jacques Barzun (1958), a prolific French-American cultural historian, points out the gravity of suspense in detective novels, while Noël Carroll (1987), a leading name in contemporary philosophy of art, argues that, for the genre of horror, “the two most frequent plot structures … are the Discovery Plot and the Overreacher plot” (57). The first of the two centers around “proving the monster’s existence” while the second “proposes a central figure embarked on the pursuit of hidden, unholy, or forbidden knowledge” (57). Both genres, detective and horror, are entirely built upon the notion of maintained suspense that grows like a bubble until it bursts at a pivotal moment from which it regrows only to be burst once more. In horror, the goal is often to produce fright of some manner, while detective novels thrive on the so called “aha moments” for both the reader and viewer as well as the characters within the story.

Figure 1

Nosferatu creeping up the staircase

Note: A classic example of on-screen suspense from the 1922 Nosferatu (International Business Times).

The reason why one must call attention to those genres is to make a clear delineation between what is meant by anticipation. The anticipation this article speaks of is not equal to the suspense necessary for a “proper” work of horror or detective fiction. Anticipatory desire as such can be found in almost every piece of literature, regardless if one observes popular genres or classic works. Smuts (2008) points out that “according to Hitchcock, the key to the most effective method of arousing suspense is to give the audience some crucial information that the characters lack” (p. 281). However, this comment is made for a visual medium. It can be argued that for literature, the most effective method of provoking suspense is to point the reader’s attention at a piece of text that is, to them, undecipherable at the present moment. It then becomes crucial that the meaning of said text is revealed as the story develops – this idea is perhaps most evident with story titles. Let us consider a canonical work of English literature, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Figure 2

Heart of Darkness

Note: The cover and the title work in harmony to provoke anticipation, (Kuper, 2018).

The title itself poses myriad questions: what is the heart of darkness, where is this heart, is it a living thing or a metaphor, what does that heart do to be labeled one of darkness? The anticipatory desire is peaked! From the title alone, the reader is given a promise of many revelations and the reader anticipates a new one each time a page is turned. However, there is such a thing as “the paradox of suspense” (Smuts, p. 281) which also applies to anticipation. This paradox postulates that even though one knows the outcome, suspense is maintained. It can be argued that this is especially the case with character-driven narratives, where the reader no longer desires to merely obtain obscured information, but desires to observe the path the characters take in order to reveal the answers necessary (either to themselves or to the reader).

Figure 3

Mesh of Iconic MCU characters

Note: A Selection of Characters From the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), (Pinterest).

The majority of audiences approach classics with some knowledge of their plot for these works have been referenced and used throughout popular culture. Yet, the anticipatory desire is not lessened: it merely shifts from anticipating results to anticipating the path that leads to those known results. If classics are perhaps not a clear enough example, the ever-rising popularity of superhero movies should be: the vast majority of them end the same and the vast majority of them (if we take MCU as an example) are structured precisely the same. But the audience does not come into the theater with anticipatory desire directed toward the resolution of the plot; the focus, generally speaking, is on the action and the journey a hero takes. They anticipate a new ability, a new suit, a new alliance – for all of this, knowing that a happy ending is all but guaranteed matters little, if at all.

The analysis of anticipation provided in this article is not breaking any grounds in the study of literature and movies. The premise of this article was to draw attention to an aspect of narrative art that must not be overlooked. Narratives vary in the nature and quality of storytelling, but no matter how great a narrative one creates, it will always fail with wide audiences if it does not consider this anticipatory desire and does not utilize it to grab the audience's attention. After all, keeping one’s attention has never been as difficult as it is today and it seems that the waves of easily consumable entertainment do not plan on settling any time soon.


Allen, R. (2003). Hitchcock and Narrative Suspense: Theory and Practice. In R. Allen & M. Turvey (Eds.), Camera Obscura, Camera Lucida: Essays in Honor of Annette Michelson (pp. 163–182). Amsterdam University Press.

Barzun, J. (1958). Suspense Suspended. The American Scholar, 27(4), 496–508.

Carroll, N. (1987). The Nature of Horror. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 46(1), 51–59.

Smuts, A. (2008). The Desire-Frustration Theory of Suspense. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 66(3), 281–290.

Visual Sources:

Cover image:

King, Leo. (2017). Simple illustration of suspense. [Digital Image]. English Update Blog.

Nosferatu creeping up the staircase. (1922). [Movie Still]. International Business Times. Kuper, P. (2018). Heart of Darkness. [Graphic novel book cover]

Mesh of Iconic MCU characters. (nda). [Digital Image].


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Dino Mušić

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