Avoiding 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


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.


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.

When to Break Literary Law


When to Break Literary Law

In the last post, I featured another author, Muriel Spark, whose novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie thumbed its nose at literary law. Having already discussed why to be wary of Breaking the rules, I now want to discuss when you might want to.

Unfortunately, I fear this post is going to be pretty wishy-washy. I can’t tell you with certainty when to take the plunge or what form it should take. I may not even be able to give you examples from other writers. Because this is an idiosyncratic and personal phenomenon.

But I am pretty sure of (maybe) that sitting down, thinking, Right, I’m writing an iconoclastic novel, doesn’t work. The result is likely to be forced and false

Breaking literary conventions

I think the time to break literary laws is when the fracturing is required because of the needs of the story or because it is the nature of your voice as a writer.

You may get to the point that following the normal story arc just doesn’t suit or support where you want to take the novel. You might want to interject fantasy elements in an otherwise reality based tale, the significance of which will only become evident at the end. You might have drawn a protagonist who is so out of touch with who he is that the most effective way to show it is to omit any kind of inner life. These might be times when you dump conventions and go with what best serves the story.

I also accept that some writers can best express who they are, i.e. their voice, through elliptical, non-linear, and even chaotic novels where the joy comes from going along for the ride and not from following a strict story line. So ignoring rules may be what is needed to truly capture your spirit on the page.

So, if either of these (and probably others I haven’t thought of) fit you, then by all means, give it a go.

Some caveats

There are, however, some issues which might arise from these approaches which are worth paying attention to.

As I have discussed before, in order to feel true and realistic to your audience, writers must know that the readers’ expectations from fiction which are largely unconscious but which you ignore at your peril.

You might decide that your ending should be vague and even confusing in order to fit with the rest of the novel. However, since readers by and large expect some kind of resolution, you may confuse and even anger them. While you might be going for the latter, do you really want to confuse them?

I’m not saying don’t do it but I think you need to be cognizant of the possible outcome. Because not only are you violating their normal expectations, you are asking them to conform to your new rules, however unspoken. Even if that rule is that there are no rules.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie


The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

One of the only silver linings in this historic period of social distancing is the chance to reread favorite old books. In my case, it is the novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. The book rather than the  1969 movie of the same name (although I liked it, too) is what I want to discuss.

Edinburgh of the 1930s is the setting for the novel. Miss Brodie is a teacher in a private girls’ school and her charge is the twelve-year-old class. She ignores the curriculum to introduce ‘her girls’ to her highly romanticized view of the world with its decided fascist leanings. The girls adore her and follow her teachings slavishly. Well, with one notable exception. Read the book—it really is worth it.

But it is Spark’s defiance of literary conventions which I find fascinating.

Brodie ignores literary conventions

Lack of internal thoughts

A novelist’s access to the thoughts of at least the protagonist allows we understand the character’s world view, her fears, her desires, and hopefully find her sympathetic enough to want to know what happens to her.

Spark never uses this technique. Absolutely no internal dialogue. And yet we have a perfectly clear image of who she is.

How does she do it? By having her girls, their parents, her colleagues and her various lovers be fascinated/annoyed/jealous of her. From those sources, we have a complete picture.

Normally, I would be all over this. It verges on tell, not show. Spark forces us to rely on the observations of others rather than our own. It should be difficult to ‘get’ the character if her thoughts are closed to the reader.

And yet, it totally works. I know who Jean is despite Spark writing with one hand tied behind her back.

Shifts of Points of View (POV)

Because of intense fascination of Brodie’s girls with her, we get lots of shifts into their POV. We are inside the heads of the non-major characters and it all seems perfectly natural. But multiple POVs are usually frowned upon, particularly, you would think, because there isn’t one for the main character.

Shifts of time

In addition, Spark casts forward into the future to talk about the fictional present. She depicts the Brodie girls as adults, discussing how they view Brodie now. Just fascinating..

Breaking the rules

You might think that Spark could get away with what she did as she was depicting an over-the-top persona. The flamboyance of the character makes it easy for others to know her and pass that knowledge on to us.

But other authors have used the same technique with much more taciturn lead characters. Cormac McCarthy, the author of, in particular, All the Pretty Horses features cowboys in many of his novels. Can you imagine a bunch less likely to admit to having inner thoughts, much less sharing them? And yet he also makes it work (also worth reading, by the way).

So, authors can and do break rules that are normally considered sacrosanct. In Breaking the rules, I discussed the danger of writers assuming that they can be as wild and crazy as they like, assuming that their readers will take it lying down. But news, the only thing they might lay down is your book. Next post: When to Break Literary Law.