Erin Edwards asked me to expand on this from my post about revising: “Am I leading the reader along properly so that what happens is neither predictable nor too far fetched to believe?” Erin added, “I think this takes real skill and is ultimately what makes a book satisfying.”
Predictability happens to be timely for me right now. I just (ten minutes ago) emailed my mystery novel to my editor, who hasn’t seen a word of it. So I’m wondering if my villain is going to be instantly obvious.
Of course I want his or her identity to be a surprise, but I’m willing to put up with other writers’ predictability in some cases. I’m a great fan of the Adrian Monk TV series, for example, although sometimes I can spot the villain as soon as I lay eyes on him, before the plot has even been laid out. I’m okay with that because I’m there for the laughs and the poignancy of Monk’s sad life.
Readers of my fiction come to it expecting an ending that won’t leave them feeling hopeless. I may write a really sad book one day, and if I do, some people will be disappointed and even angry at me. We go to some books, especially series books, craving predictability. We want to enjoy again what pleased us before. There’s some of that pleasure in rereading books we love.
For tellers of old tales, like me, the story’s ending is known; what’s unknown is how the ending is achieved.
Total unpredictability may be randomness or experimental literature, not my thing but maybe yours. I’ve read that there are just a handful of fundamental plot lines, which writers recycle endlessly, dressing them up in exotic new costumes. I agree.
Having admitted this, there’s still predictability that’s too predictable for my taste, especially sentimental predictability: ghosts who can’t go to their final reward unless some romantic problem is resolved; children who are given up as uneducable until a young idealistic teacher comes along; a super-intelligent life form bent on wiping out humankind because of our base nature. And so on.
A few years ago I read a YA (young adult) book by an author I admire. I liked the book, but I saw the story’s major revelation coming from miles away, and I didn’t like that. I complained to a friend, who loved the book. She said young readers wouldn’t guess the truth, because they wouldn’t have encountered this plot twist before. Maybe she was right, but I didn’t agree. If we’re setting up a shock for the reader, we should aim it at everyone.
How to work within the inevitability of predictability and create the unexpected? Here are some ideas:
Drop in a clue that excites expectation and then go another way. I managed to do this in a scene in The Two Princesses of Bamarre. There are monsters in the kingdom of Bamarre, specters among them. Specters, in my conception of them, can assume any shape and even create fake landscapes. My heroine Addie is on a quest for the cure to the Gray Death. She’s been befriended by Rhys, a sorcerer in training. At this point in the story Rhys is away at a fantasy version of a training program. He’s promised to come to Addie when he gets a break, so when a specter shows up in Rhys’s form, the reader doesn’t catch on. Then I have the real Rhys arrive too and I hope I fool the reader into not knowing which is which. This legerdemain (look it up, kids) is one of my favorite bits of my writing in any of my books.
Surprise yourself. If you outline, be loose as you lay out the story. If you just write without an outline, hack away in semi-darkness. If you know your destination, don’t take the freeway. Explore the back roads. Visit landmarks that are off the beaten track. Ask yourself as you write, Is there another way to get where I’m going?
When you finish your first draft, and if you’re worried about predictability, take a look at how you figured out your plot. Can you scramble some of the steps that led to the ending?
Ask your characters what they want to do in a situation. You can interview them in writing. Ask them to consider their options.
Make lists. I love lists. When you’re at a plot juncture, make a list of what could come next. Don’t close down the list when you come to the first thing that will work. Twelve possibilities is a nice number, and eight of them can be stupid. Let the stupid ones have their moment. Elaborate on the ones that appeal to you, without deciding. A good possibility can generate more lists. Let them roll out.
Stay away from easy morals, and don’t highlight them. Let the reader draw his own conclusions. Some may object to moral ambiguity, especially for children, but grays make a story more complex and less ordinary.
If you’re in a critique group, ask your writer buddies if your story is predictable. Or show your story to someone you trust. Do not describe the plot and ask if it’s predictable. That question cannot be answered apart from the writing. The story may sound unoriginal and still be full of surprises.
Life itself is both predictable and unpredictable. Giant panda bears are unlikely to march into your bedroom tomorrow morning, but you could get an unexpected insult or an unexpected compliment; disaster could befall you or delight. So here is the difference between fiction and life, which has troubled philosophers through the millennia: In fiction, giant panda bears can crop up anywhere.