Thursday, December 11, 2014

Predictable Unpredicability

Readers seem to like being kept on their toes.  A story that's too predictable is one where interest is quickly lost, for no one likes to know exactly where a tale is headed.  However, in our zeal to keep people off balance, I think that we, as writers, try a little too hard.

M. Night Shyamalan has become a running joke for his overreliance on the twist ending.  Rather than allow a strong story to stand on its own, Shyamalan seems to feel it necessary to head off in a totally bizarre direction, undermining the storytelling he has engaged in.

We need to remember this as we write our novels.  A certain amount of unpredictability helps keep readers coming back, but there is also a modicum of security in a story playing out as the reader feels it can or should.  As a reader myself, throwing me for too big a loop actually pisses me off, taking the emotional investment I've made and playing it into something purely for the purpose of being out there.

Further, when such twists become a habit, readers start looking for them.  That's the great thing about a real twist ending or unpredictable moment - the reader should never see it coming.  If they look for it all the time, it loses impact, and it decreases the impact of the story when it doesn't happen.  Readers feel torn between "I got robbed" and "Thank God they didn't try that stupidity again."

Unpredictability doesn't always have to engage in the most overarching parts of the book.  While impactful, it can be applied more subtly, such as a character having an unexpected relationship to others, or perhaps a trail being followed leads to an unanticipated destination.  It needn't result in something that totally upends the story and makes the reader roll his or her eyes.

Stories need to, usually, make sense in the end.  And an unpredictability that folks look for means it's more of a shock effect that can be anticipated instead of something truly unpredictable.  Resist the urge to always go for the big shakeup, and look for other ways to surprise your audience - you'll be surprised by the way that creates anticipation.

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