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.