Back in the dim reaches of 1969, I was preparing to graduate from high school. As often happens at a recognizable turning point, I was perplexed about what came next and found myself in conversation with my employer at the time, Harold Shief, who owned Lodgen’s Market in Hyde Park.
I’m not sure how we got onto the topic, but I must have expressed dubiety about how meaningful the upcoming graduation ceremony was going to be. I have a lifelong abhorrence of fuss and pomp and would have, absent my parents’ disappointment, skipped the whole damned thing. I remember him saying this to me: “So what you’re saying is that anticipation exceeds realization?” It seemed profound to me at the time, a little less so now, though it’s a philosophy that’s stuck with me.
As a member of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen at Lodgen’s, I could always anticipate a discount on my steaks and the occasional package of rib eyes that fell off the truck altogether. I didn’t always feel great about that, but it didn’t strike me at the time that my reaction was a perfect distillation of his philosophy. The realization I was stealing somehow made the steaks I stole less pleasurable than the ones I paid for myself.
I did get a writing lesson out of this, however. I saw how the ideas of anticipation and realization could encapsulate a way to build scenes.
A scene starts with a desire, a character wanting something. The character anticipates either getting what he or she wants or not—usually the latter for the sake of fictional tension. The writer wants the achievement, the realization of the desire, to be difficult or even impossible.
It’s anticipation that gives the scene its forward motion. Any realization is the endpointof the arc. If it’s not the last scene in the book, it’s probably unsatisfying to boot, in that it’s only setting up the character for the next difficult challenge, the next anticipation.
So the scene gives movement and energy from the character’s anticipation to the temporary stillness of realization. But it’s the anticipation that holds interest for the reader. Will the character achieve or not achieve what they desire? The realization itself is usually binary: success or failure.
Harold Shief is gone now, as is Lodgen’s Market. My membership in the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen has long since lapsed. But I’ve realized that useful gifts sometimes comes from unexpected places, and we don’t always recognize them at the time they’re offered. You anticipate free steaks, you get free guilt, and sometimes you learn something you didn’t already know.