How many times have you tuned into a murder mystery television show, such as Murder, She Wrote, and within the first 10 minutes, been able to ID whodunit…sometimes even before the murder occurs? I bet a lot of you are like me – you can spot the murderer right from the beginning, and your only interest in the show from then on is in watching how Jessica Fletcher figures out his/her identity.
That’s because Murder, She Wrote is predictable.
While I’m sure some viewers never guess who the murderer is, and are genuinely surprised when Jessica Fletcher accuses the guilty party, I’ll bet most writers spot him/her early on. If you have a storytelling mind, it’s easy to spot such a predictable outcome – which is why you really want to avoid being this transparent in your own writing. On the other hand, you know you have to provide the reader with enough information and clues so you don’t just drop the resolution to your conflict on the reader at the end of the story totally unheralded. If solutions to problems, and resolutions to dilemmas, come out of left field, readers feel - rightfully - cheated. It’s like watching Bobby Ewing step out of the shower. (Does anyone remember that “great” moment in network television? Clumsy, contrived, and extremely annoying to the fans doesn’t even begin to cover it!)
Before we get to some practical suggestions on ways to avoid predictability, let’s discuss “satisfying the reader.” We’re talking about genre novels. Literary novels aren’t written to fulfill the same expectations as genre novels. In literary novels, you do have endings where everyone winds up dead, or miserable, or failing utterly. Not always, but sometimes.
In a genre novel, it’s easy to avoid predictability if you have your protagonist lose and die a horrible death at the end of the story. Or to have your protagonist give up and let the antagonist be victorious in order to save his own life. But think about what that would be like for, say, a romantic suspense novel. The heroine finds her soul-mate tied up by the bad guys and being tortured. He sees her. She sees him. Then, panic-stricken, she turns around and runs out into the night, leaving him to his horrible fate, and lives the rest of her life alone and embittered.
An ending like this is not at all satisfying to the reader…but it’s sure not predictable. And, for the sub-genre of romantic suspense, it’s probably not salable, either. And if we’re talking a mystery novel, it would certainly not be predictable to have Hercule Poirot or V.I. Warshawski announce, “Okay, I give up. I don’t know whodunit, and the killer will probably kill again, and I don’t care. I’m going on vacation.” Not predictable, but not satisfying, and probably not a novel you can easily sell.
Readers buy romance novels to watch the heroine wind up with her soul-mate. They buy mystery novels so they can track the clues and watch the detective solve the crime.
Romances and mystery novels are genre novels. Readers buy genre books because they have a certain element of predictability built into them. The heroine winds up with her guy, the detective figures out whodunit. The reader wants to go along for the ride to see exactly how it all happens.
Would you have enjoyed The Lord of the Rings trilogy as much if the One Ring had triumphed, Frodo had become a minion of Sauron, and all of Middle Earth had been turned into Mordor?
Okay, so now we’ve established that simply doing a totally unexpected thing in a genre novel is not the best way to avoid predictability, because that may well make the reader dissatisfied with the story.
It’s true that sometimes genre novels do end on a sad or poignant note. Science fiction and fantasy is considered a genre, and sometimes the protagonist does die. (Heck, I’ve killed off a protag myself.) When the writer does this at the end of a book, however, generally the protagonist sacrifices his or her or its life to achieve some kind of victory over evil, or the antagonist. When the reader closes the last page, he or she is sad, but satisfied, because the protagonist succeeded, even at the cost of his, her, or its life. This also happens at the end of spy novels, or thrillers…sometimes.
Editors tell me that books with happy endings sell better than books with sad endings. Personally, I often try for something along the lines of bittersweet, because it seems more realistic than having the protagonist achieve total victory. I’d call the ending of The Return of the King bittersweet, wouldn’t you?
(And then there’s A Song of Ice and Fire – which breaks all the “rules.” If you can write as well as George R.R. Martin, you can break them as you choose. And I have NO idea why you’re reading this essay!)
Okay, so I’m going to presume we’re all on the same wavelength here, and we understand the concept of “satisfying the reader.” So how do we avoid writing “predictable” stories?
The best way I know to do this is by the rejecting the easiest solution, and effectively foreshadowing what happens.
Let’s use the ending of The Return of the King as an example again. J.R.R. Tolkien could
have had Frodo march (or crawl) through that crevasse in Mount Doom, pull the One Ring off his neck, and chuck it into the flaming lava below. Since that was the stated intent of Frodo and Sam’s long, arduous, miserable quest through Middle Earth and horrible Mordor, that would have created an end that was reasonably satisfying – but it would have been predictable. They did what they’d come there to do, ho hum, okay, good story, but not remarkable.
But instead, Tolkien was clever. He had Frodo FAIL.
Frodo succumbs to the power of the One Ring. He puts it on and is going to head back out into Mordor, presumably to sink into total evil and ally himself with Sauron. Middle Earth would be doomed if he’d actually done this. This is NOT predictable.
And yet the One Ring gets tossed into the lava anyway, despite Frodo’s best efforts to make away with this. Tolkien rejected the easy solution, and chose Gollum, all unknowing and unwilling, to be the savior of Middle Earth.
And yet…both Frodo’s failure, and Gollum’s actions, were so well foreshadowed that we, the readers, accept these actions on Frodo’s and Gollum’s part. We know that the One Ring is a deadly seducer. We hope Frodo won’t succumb to it, yet we believe it when he does. And we have watched Gollum’s growing obsession and madness for hundreds of pages. We, the readers, have no difficulty in believing that Gollum would attack Frodo on the brink of the chasm and try to get the ring, using any means at his disposal…including his sharp, raw-fish-eating teeth.
When you write a subplot into a book, such as Gollum’s subplot, it must have a major impact on the climax of the book. Both Gollum’s subplot and Aragorn’s subplot (learning to accept that his fate was to become King Elessar Telcontar, High King of Gondor, etc., and thus rallying and leading the armies of Middle Earth to the Gates of Mordor in order to distract Sauron from discovering Frodo and Sam), majorly influence the climax of The Return of the King.
Some writers can write stories without plotting them out in advance. Somehow, instinctively, subconsciously, they foreshadow and reject the easy solution. Two such writers I’ve known were Roger Zelazny and Andre Norton. I have no idea how they managed to do this…but they did.
Personally, I have to plot out a story, and consciously figure out all this stuff before I can write it.
You should do whatever works best for you.
I hope this has been helpful. Feedback?
-Ann C. Crispin
Chair, Writer Beware