As It Turns Out

A little good news–for me, anyway–to start the post. HarperCollins’s marketing folks have approved Ogre Enchanted as the title for the Ella prequel. This is lucky, because I’ve never felt as strongly about a title. So, hooray and woo hoo! And thanks to all of you on the blog who’ve helped me with titles in the past.

On June 4, 2017, Samantha wrote, My work in progress is about ice hockey. In a nutshell, my MC’s parents died a year before the story takes place and he has to struggle with life, adolescence, friends, and… well, his life. Anyway, in the end his team ends up wining the series in the finals. I’m wondering if it is too dramatic to make my MC score the winning goal.

Christie V Powell responded. I don’t think it would be too dramatic, but it is a touch predictable. I love how Pixar’s ‘Cars’ played with the archetype–you expect McQueen to win the race, when instead he wins in a different way. There is a whole subgenre of sports stories, but I’m afraid I’m not very well read in that genre. You might want to try to check some out and see how they end. The last couple I’ve read (about dog agility and 4H) both ended with the main characters being disqualified but reaching some personal goal or important character growth. Maybe that’s become cliche now and delivering the winning goal is new again.

I agree with Christie V Powell that it doesn’t sound too dramatic. If there’s going to be drama in a story, the ending is the right spot for it.
It’s been decades since I watched the movie Rocky (the original–I haven’t seen any of the sequels), but my recollection is that, in the end and against all odds, Rocky Balboa wins, and the audience is delighted. I think the reason the ending works is that so much is stacked against him. Since victory seems impossible, when it comes, we’re surprised. In my opinion, there’s a trick here that our minds play on us. We go to the movie pretty sure it’s going to come out okay. We may even choose it for that reason, but when the action starts, we drop the belief and abandon ourselves to the unfolding story.

So a complete happy ending can works if the route to it is full of surprises. In some cases, we’re disappointed if the happy ending is at all tarnished. Some of you may have seen the musical Into the Woods. I confess to loving the happy first act and hating the unhappy second act when everything falls apart.

In a way, most plots are like sporting events. Something important is at stake, and, in the end, the MC either succeeds, utterly or to some degree, or fails, utterly or to some degree.

Take Hamlet, for example. ***SPOILER ALERT*** It’s a tragedy. However, Queen Gertrude and King Claudius’s successful conspiracy to kill Hamlet’s father is exposed. They die, and the ghost is avenged. In a grisly way, those are positive outcomes. Hamlet’s death isn’t.

Or take my beloved Pride and Prejudice. ***SPOILER ALERT*** again. The main romance ends happily, but Lydia has to suffer the consequences of her disastrous flirtation. Even Elizabeth and Darcy in their married bliss have to put up with that bounder Wickham forever.

We may–because anything is possible in writing–be able to write a satisfying, unpredictable, believable ending in which everything goes right and there is no shadow. Try it as an early prompt. Your MC is a member of a team (you decide the sport, which can be a real or a fantasy sport) that has lost for ten straight seasons. His grandmother is very ill. His dog has bitten someone and may have to be put down. He is failing biology in school. His best friend isn’t talking to him. Write the story, or the final scene, and make every single thing come out well.

After those spoiler alerts, I want to mention this interesting report I heard on the radio that is at least tangentially related to predictability. Research was done that shows that people enjoy a story more if they’re told in advance how it ends. Turns out, those of us who peek ahead and turn pages in books are really heightening our pleasure.

I don’t know if the study can be replicated, so it may not be true, but the way I understand it is that a spoiler doesn’t spoil the details, the character development, the flow of the story, and readers still have the delight of discovery–untainted by the anxiety of not knowing how it will all wind up. I get this. Sometimes I’m tense enough about what will happen that I don’t take in a lot of the story in my desperation to reach the outcome. That’s why a second read is often rewarding, because I slow down and really pay attention.

We certainly don’t want our endings to feel improbable. No matter how much  luck contributes to success or failure in real life, in fiction, it can’t. Luck can come in earlier, but not at the end. If Samantha’s MC scores the final goal because, as luck would have it, the opposite team’s best athlete is injured late in the game, the reader is going to bellow, “Foul!”

So we’re going for believability. Our MC’s character has to justify the end. If Samantha’s MC, again, is so lost in depression that he doesn’t drag himself to practice very often, the reader isn’t going to buy his win.

He can be depressed! He can finish practice every day and wonder if it’s worth his effort. But he has to practice. He can even throw a game, or his part in it, earlier in the story, so that the reader can fear that he will throw this final one, too. She can believe that throwing the game and really going after it are equally possible. She’ll be stiff with suspense.

If we’re not sure about an ending, we can bring in my favorite weapon: the mighty list. As I said in an earlier post, lists are predictability poison. We can list possible endings, including scoring the final point. We can decide to list at least twelve options. And we have to remember that no possibility is too stupid to go on our list. Our brains can be exploding from effort by the time we reach number seven, but we must soldier on, because, after we exhaust the obvious, the surprises pop up. The ending that appeals to us most may arrive as number eleven, and we’d never have gotten to it if we hadn’t slogged forward.

Here are two more prompts:

∙ Shannon, your MC, has the job of guarding the crown prince against both the enemies of the state and his own bad proclivities. Problem is, Shannon, a staunch patriot, doesn’t think much of the prince and is convinced he’ll make a disastrous king. Matters come to a head at a reception for the queen of the neighboring kingdom, with which relations have lately been tense. The prince often behaves badly during ceremonial occasions, and there’s intelligence of a plot against him. Write the story or the final scene.

∙ Pick one of these: “Sleeping Beauty,” “Snow White,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and rewrite it as a tragedy. Moreover, make the sad ending come from something in the character of the heroine or hero. I don’t mean they have to be evil in the slightest–their own goodness can do them in. Or some other character trait that’s neither good nor evil. (This can, by the way, be comic-tragedy, if you prefer.)

Have fun, and save what you write!

What’s next?

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.