Fostering Unpredictability

Similar to unoriginality, there is a certain amount of automatic backlash when something is predictable. This is mostly critical backlash, as opposed to mainstream backlash, as predictable stories like romances and action films can still be hugely successful.

But someone, somewhere, is going to sniff and say, “I knew what was going to happen.” And they’ll ooh and ah over a story with a twist they “never saw coming.”

Again, I’m not necessarily disagreeing with the value assessments here—but I am wondering why that is. Why is predictable bad and unpredictable good? And how do you create an unpredictable story?

Plenty of people have said that there are no new stories, usually as a way of reassuring young creators that unoriginality is inevitable. This same fact applies to predictability—though you can have an original story that’s somewhat predictable, and an unoriginal story that is unpredictable. Unlike originality, which often sits in the crux of the idea itself, predictability is a matter of execution.

So, first, what creates predictability?

I think there are two primary sources of a predictable storyline. The first, and most common, is that your story follows a familiar pattern—in a romance, we assume the couple will get together (or demand it, depending on the exact niche genre); and in an action film, we assume the hero will defeat the villain. Though specifics may vary, and a story can be even more predictable (the mentor will die here, etc.), we know the general outcome because that’s the way this type of story works. And for the most part, great stories can still come out of these patterns, because we fall in love with specific characters or worlds, or we are interested in how the story resolves.

The second source of predictability is an element of the first, and that is the existence of obvious clues. Ever since Chekhov talked about his gun—that is, if a gun goes off in the third act, it should be visible in the first—writers have known to lay the groundwork for upcoming plot elements. Sometimes, though, the groundwork is a bit obvious. Most people can pick the love interest out of the lineup immediately (sometimes because it’s the only girl in the movie, sigh). Or they can predict who the secret bad guy will be based on the not-so-subtle signs.

So how can you create unpredictability?

  1. Use predictability against itself.

This technique turns the above sources of predictability against themselves, by making the reader think one thing is going to happen and then going a different way. Set the signs for one love interest, then twist to another. Make us suspect one villain, then reveal another (this technique is pretty much entirely what mysteries are made of). Have us expect the hero to live, but then kill him off in the first book.

The challenges to this technique are threefold.

The first is the simple difficulty of doing this technique with the right touch. Because as Chekhov’s gun stipulates, you still have to set signs for the right answer—you just have to drown them out with signs for the wrong one. And if you don’t layer these signs well, the “twist” will feel cheap and unearned, or be sighted a mile away.

The second is that you have to know what you want—and what your reader wants, and whether they really want what they want (wait for it). This all depends on your genre, ultimately. A classic romance novel will be disappointing if the couple doesn’t get together, even if it would be unpredictable—but your audience will not be happy, and the romance audience wants to be happy, unlike, say, the literary audience. I’ve heard advice about figuring out what the reader wants in that moment, and then doing the exact opposite; and this can work really well, but it can also feel upsetting or anticlimactic or just wrong for the type of story you want. Ultimately, it’s about the story you want to tell—and if you’re writing in the genre you like, then chances are you’ll hit the right tone based on what you like.

The third is kind of silly, but if the story is “predictable” all along and then changes tack at the very end… is it satisfying? I mean, those that make it to the end, and those that appreciate a big twist at the end, will probably like it—but you run the risk of either turning people off by the predictability up until then (especially if the idea/summary sounds predictable), or like the second problem, leading people on expecting one thing and then getting another. Again, it all depends on what the audience really wants, and the skill of execution. Use yourself as the initial audience—it might be a great twist to have the epic villain win in the end, despite all the signs that this will be a traditional epic fantasy, but would you like to read an entire series of big novels and then have the heroes lose? Sure, a great twist, but only for the right audience.

  1. Violate story conventions.

This technique is almost entirely based off of Game of Thrones (I’ve only seen the show), and the fact that I don’t know what will happen. Because of the show’s willingness to kill off anyone at any time, and its overall bleak tone, I don’t know what kind of ending to expect. Will the White Walkers come in and kill everyone? Will my favorite characters triumph over the gritty world and emerge victorious? Will the villains win, or get what’s coming to them? Basically, I don’t know if George R.R. Martin is telling a traditional epic story that just is a little more realistic/painful along the way, or whether he’s intending to bury us all in bleak.

And this means the story is very unpredictable.

He achieves this by not following traditional story conventions. The “protagonist” dies at the end of the first book, and there are enough characters of every group and morality that we just don’t know exactly who the hero and who the villain is (and who the endless side characters are).

This is similar to the first technique, but uses more generic story conventions (rather than genre-specific ones), and it usually means going off the track early on. As opposed to setting up predictable elements and then twisting them, this type of story refuses to fall into a predictable framework at all. By not identifying clear villains, or clear heroes, and by killing off main characters at random, the reader/viewer can’t form a clear idea of the story’s type—and so they can’t guess where it will go.

I would add antiheroes into this category, in that they generally defy predictability because they aren’t going to act like traditional heroes do. That said, enough antihero stories and we might start to catch on. I think the most unpredictable heroes, in this case, are ones who have a fluid or evolving morality—so they might do the good thing, or the bad thing, at any given moment. The danger there is a character who doesn’t make sense or feels like a puppet of the plot, but if done right, I think they could be a very unpredictable character—because they violate the story convention of the “good” protagonist.

  1. Create a new story.

I realize now all of these techniques are variations on the same idea, but that’s okay. This one is a slight extension of the one before, which is to simply tell a story without pre-established story conventions by telling a kind of story we haven’t seen before.

Obviously, this is easier said than done, but if your story avoids easy categorization, readers won’t know how to predict it. Nonlinear narratives, new types of heroes or villains, combining genres in new ways, plots that defy understanding in some fundamental way.

In relation to this, any plot that sustains a mystery that is relatively new or unique will pull this off. This works with a lot of speculative novels, because we don’t know enough about the rules or backstory of this new “world” in order to predict how it will play out. For example, in the show Orphan Black, we simply don’t know what’s going to happen because we don’t know what’s happening now. Same with any novel by China Mieville (seriously, his brain is amazing and weird in the best and scariest ways).

Contrast this to stories about doctors, or cops, or the mafia—we might be able to guess, based on what we know about real-world institutions, what could potentially happen. That’s not to say a realistic story or one about familiar elements is necessarily predictable, but it may be easier to predict than one about glow-in-the-dark aliens (although, follow a traditional invasion storyline, and it will be predictable).

This technique can definitely fall prey to predictable signs, if the author shows their hand a little too directly, even if what they’re working with is unusual.

So, to differentiate—

The first technique pretends predictability until the “twist.”

The second technique avoids predictable story elements by violating our expectations early on and continually.

The third technique avoids any sort of predictions by being completely novel in some way.

So, does it matter?

Well, ultimately, it’s a matter of taste. If you’re the type who can read a thousand romance novels where the couple gets together in the end (as I am), then predictability doesn’t really bother you. A story can still be entertaining, fun, and even good while following predictable patterns.

I mean, it wasn’t exactly a shocker that Harry Potter defeated Voldemort, but watching the journey as he went was still immensely satisfying.

And sometimes the heroes we bond with most are the ones we know will do the right thing.

So, as always, tell the story you want to tell without shame! But, if you want some unpredictability, these were some ideas I had for how to get it. 🙂

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About J. Sevick

Just write.
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