Avoiding Predictability

Predictability

Avoiding Predictability

In the last post, I said that I hated Downton Abbey because of its predictability. I want to spend this post on how to keep your stories fresh.

But isn’t all fiction about predictability?

So here is where it gets complicated. Kurt Vonnegut, author of many iconoclastic, often sci-fi, novels like Cat’s Cradle and Slaughter House Five, maintained there were only six basic plots. Boy Meets Girl, Cinderella, etc. So readers, however unconsciously, are looking for your novel to fall into one of these formats.

If you buy this idea, and perhaps surprisingly, I tend to, then you’ve gotta think that it’s one for predictability and zero for freshness.

However, I don’t think that’s true. As Vonnegut also points out in A Man Without a Country, it is the unique perspective you bring to the writing which makes the work exceptional and worth reading.

So my writing should be unpredictable

Not that either.

Not if it means that your calm, cool and collected protagonist suddenly grabs a kitchen knife and stabs her calm, cool and collected husband. Because one of the annoying things about readers is that they also have unconscious rules for your characters. And one of them certainly is that what they do has to make sense in the context of the personalities you have already established for them.

Otherwise, the reader will find the action puzzling, erratic, and even unbelievable. And if so, you kick them out of the continuous dream you’re trying to create.

Creating surprising/fresh stories

Now, I’m not trying to suggest that your characters can’t or shouldn’t do surprising things. Not at all. But they can’t come out of the blue. One of the most convincing ways to do that, I find, is to imbed clues in your narrative which might not be noticeable to the reader. Then when the character does something startling, the reader should be able to remember those non-obvious moments so that you can retain the element of surprise while still making it consistent with the traits established thus far.

I know that’s a bit wordy but here’s an example.

The spouse of an abusive husband seems to just take it and even, in that sickening but common tendency, does all she can to please him. A friend comes over when she is doing the dishes. The friend urges her to leave him but she maintains she loves him. Right about then, she drops a plate which breaks. You might have the wife be terrified of her husband’s reaction to mask this clue.

Later, the wife notices that her husband’s suit jacket is split at the back. She widens it. He makes an important presentation without realizing the problem. He returns, boasting of how well it went. That evening, she quietly repairs the jacket and rehangs it.

So, if she eventually stabs her husband, while it might be surprising, it doesn’t come out of the blue nor would it seem unbelievable.

A unique perspective which keeps your writing fresh doesn’t mean erratic.

A final note

The problem with writing is that there are almost always exceptions to prove the rule. While generally, readers expect continuity in the story, techniques such as stream of consciousness have worked, James Joyce’s Ulysses being an oft-cited example. The movie Moulin Rouge starring Nicole Kidman is another example where a coherent story is lacking and it totally works. That’s writing for you.

I Hate Downton Abbey

Downton

I Hate Downton Abbey

I know I lay myself open for a lot of hate mail by declaring my dislike of Downton Abby. But you can’t accuse me of just watching one program and writing it off. Nope, I watched every season.

Why?

Self-defence. Invariably, someone would ask, “Did you see Downton Abbey last night?” If I said ‘no’, I invariably got a retelling of the whole program in excruciating detail. So I watched and developed my stock answer: Yes, wonderful setting. Yes, great costumes. Good acting, too.

All of which was true. But I still hated it.

Why do I hate Downton Abbey?

Let me give you an example from the first season. So the heir to the estate shows up. The oldest girl of the family resists falling in love with him, but eventually succumbs. There is a scene of them dancing together to establish it. One wrinkle—the heir is already engaged to someone else and she sees them waltzing.

Right at that moment, I knew the fiancée was toast. And sure enough, she conveniently dies of influenza shortly thereafter, paving the way for True Love.

The whole series had that quality. When a character stood in the way of the advancement of the story, a convenient accident or death whisked him or her out of the way. It was like watching a train barrelling across a prairie towards you and then being asked to be surprised when you had to jump out of the way.

In short, Downton Abbey was predictable.

Isn’t predictability good?

Okay, I’m not saying that predictability is totally and invariably unacceptable. Take mystery novels. As I’ve pointed out in a previous post, they have a well-accepted format which readers expect and enjoy. Murder, suspect, detective, resolution. Same for Harlequin romances. Poor but worthy girl falls for virile but flawed male after series of tribulations.

And I don’t wish to imply that some authors aren’t very inventive in sticking to the expected while still weaving an enjoyable story around it. (Okay, maybe I’m just talking about mysteries.)

But where there is not a well-established path, where you aren’t supposed to know where the story is going—i.e., the rest of fiction—too much predictability is boring.

What should we be aiming for?

Fighting predictability is a constant battle. It’s not that you are aiming for it, but it is often the easy way out of a writing predicament. If your characters have become stock, then when the villain makes a choice, it takes little effort to have him act more evil than possibly explore some other option.

Even when you are striving for more nuanced characters, it is so alluring to have them act in predictable ways. The concerned mother, the feckless teenager, the embittered old man. These tropes aren’t bad in and of themselves, but good fiction aims to help the reader see the world in way he hadn’t before. Not with alien landscapes necessarily, but more with a perspective or insight which is new.

It’s harder to do that if you are using tried and true actions, feelings, or values from tried and true characters. Next post: Avoiding Predictability.

The Difficult Middle

middle

The Difficult Middle

Rosabeth Moss Kanter is a famous Harvard management guru. She wrote:

A basic truth of management—if not of life—is that nearly everything looks like a failure in the middle…persistent, consistent execution is unglamourous, time-consuming and sometimes boring.

In my last post, I’m Stuck, I recommended getting out of being stuck by creating a list of tasks (less description, more tragic heroine, more atmosphere, etc.) to fix the problems with your novel. It is probably a daunting catalogue. Like the swimmer in the picture, it doesn’t look as if you will ever reach land.

That’s where Rosabeth comes in.

Recognizing the difficult middle

It will be worth it when you succeed. Take that as your mantra. Having said that, it is also true that the road to nirvana will have some tough patches. This is one. You are far enough in to know the outline of the story but not far enough along to identify its true shape. You have already invested an enormous amount of time and effort and you’re not sure whether it’s worth it. But instead of doing the artist thing of throwing your hands up and the manuscript out the door, just accept that this is the difficult middle. It’s not a comment on the quality of your writing. It is just the difficult middle that all worthwhile projects have to go through. You have reached yours.

Getting through

What I am going to suggest is pretty mechanical but it can get you home.

Step 1. Elaborate on your list.

  • For each of the items, flesh it out a bit. How could you do it? What scene would illustrate it? Could I stick a bit in an earlier scene to accomplish this? Any main points that I want to make sure I include?
  • If at any point in doing this, you get excited about the possibilities and have to urge to write the scene, do it. No need to finish your broccoli before you get dessert.
  • But do eventually eat your broccoli and finish the list—again stopping to write if/whenever the spirit moves.
  • If you don’t have the skill/knowledge to accomplish a particular item, identify who to ask for help. Skill/knowledge is not the same as talent. You can have oodles of the latter and still need to learn the tricks of the trade.

Step 2. Prioritize

  • With your annotated list, re-order it. Not in order of what is most important for the novel or the hardest, but with the ones you are most interested in.
  • Work through from the most motivating to the least.

Step 3. Dump

  • Sometime as you are working your way out of the difficult middle, stop to ask yourself, do I really need this scene?
  • Often, especially near the end of the list but it can happen at any time, you realize that the passage is unnecessary because:
    • You’ve made the point elsewhere
    • You can tweak an already written piece to include what you want
    • The reader already knows this
    • You can just stop the last scene and open on the new one. You don’t need the transition scene. Like getting the protagonist from home to downtown.
  • Dump these. Not only will it give you a thrill but it will get you home that much faster.

Accepting that there is a middle, that it is difficult, and that has nothing to do with your talent or creativity will help you get through to The Promised Land.

I’m Stuck

stuck

I’m Stuck

One thing writers are unfailingly good at—finding reasons not to write. Whether it’s lack of time, fear of hurting someone, being convinced every word is junk, blanking, experiencing writer’s block—you name it, we can come up with it. And here is another variant: you are writing but are stuck. That is, you faithfully put bum in chair but the results are discouraging.

Varieties of being stuck

This one even comes in variants on the theme.

The story isn’t going anywhere. You know where you want to take the plot but your writing feels meandering and worthless. You can’t seem to make it as exciting and involving as it should be.

What I’m doing isn’t working. You want to put across a feeling, an action, a meaning and what you’re doing isn’t cutting it. Maybe you don’t have the skill?

The next scene turns out flat and boring. Your mind is numbing just in reading the scene over. You need this incident to move the plot forward but you’re sure the reader will toss the book at this point. If you can’t stand it, how can your reader?

Thoughts of junking the whole thing are raising their ugly heads.

Remedy to being stuck

First of all, you know, this can be a form of writer’s block, so reread that post and see if any of the suggestions feel right.

Luckily, although there are a variety of ways of being stuck, there is a remedy which can help all forms.

Choose something exciting to write.

Might be a later part of the novel which will be fun to write. Might be an action scene just to see if it works for your characters. Whatever it is, pick something which will entertain you.

Then write it. Fully engage your right brain. Suppress or ignore any demons lurking and go for it. Don’t stop until you have either finished the scene or gotten back your mojo.

This often works for me because it forcibly reminds me why I love to write. It has the added advantage of taking you away from drudging on with a tedious but necessary scene or even one which, in the edit, you decide you don’t need.

Bad news—sometimes you’re stuck for good reason

The remedy suggested usually works but sometimes you are stuck because the novel really isn’t working. But don’t throw in the towel immediately.

I know that you feel that it isn’t working, but feelings can be unreliable companions. Great for writing, not so good for analysis. You need to let your left brain kick in. Write down where the problems are specifically. Might be too much background, too little, too much build-up, not enough, etc. Actually write them down. If you just think them, the feelings may take over the exercise.

With the list, decide how to fix the issues, including getting help for techniques or approaches you don’t know how to do.

Look over list and remedies. If you did that, would the novel start working for you? Now, this is different from this is a lot of work. It undoubtedly will be. I’ll address that in the next post. Right now, stick to would it be good with the fixes?

The Mystery Novel Versus the Character Novel

mystery

The Mystery Novel Versus the Character Novel

Whether it be romance, mystery, fantasy, or character-driven fiction, getting feedback on your writing from those who are also in the same genre, can be useful. They understand the conventions of that genre. A friend once wanted me to read his murder mystery novel. I did my level best to get out of it because I knew that even though I would try not to, I would tend to use the rules of thumb I use in my own writing.

This post discusses the differences between writing a murder mystery and a character-driven novel. (At least from my point of view—there are lots of books on writing for your genre.)

The mystery novel

The plot is all and a very standard one at that. The required components of a mystery:

  • Murder
  • Suspects
  • Detective
  • Identification of murderer

Now, as you know, good mystery writers can weave their way around this formula to make entertaining fiction. But if you remove any of these elements, it’s not a murder mystery (or an unsatisfying one if the murderer isn’t identified).

The characters

The characters are in the service of the story. So you’ll always have a detective of some kind and also usually a sidekick (think Dr. Watson to Sherlock Holmes, Hastings to Hercule Poirot) to whom she can confide her amazing conclusions. There have to be at least two and maybe more people with motives to kill the victim.

Given this relatively rigid structure, character sometimes gets subordinated to plot so that characters get pushed around to show up at the right place and time so that the next step of the mystery can unfold.

Character-driven fiction

The characters

Character-driven narratives tend to take a character and let it roam where it may. Unless the deviation is explained, characters’ actions and thoughts usually need to be consistent with the personality given.

Typically, at least the main protagonist has to grow or change in some way before the end of the novel. He has to be different in some way at the end compared to who he was at the beginning.

The plot

The plot to some extent gets its shape from the needs of the character. So asking questions like Is the protagonist credible? is much more important for a character-driven novel than a mystery. If the main character isn’t credible, then the plot which unfolds is likely also to be incredible.

Character driven novels might not have endings which tie everything up and still be satisfying but mystery novels must get to the who dun it.

So, this is just an example of how different genres have different conventions which you violate at your peril. You need to understand the particular requirements of your genre to satisfy the readers of that type of fiction.