I'm always fascinated by how people proclaim a story to be predictable. Most often this is classified as an objective shortcoming. This conclusion is understandable, but also reveals a certain degree of myopia as it never occurs to the individual that they are not the only audience.
This isn’t a rant. I’ve declared movies and books to be too predictable, too. Everyone does it, but it wasn’t until I wrote novels and received reviews that I noticed the unexpected phenomenon that objectivity can’t be applied to artistic ventures. In retrospect this seems like a no brainer, but when you’re trying to learn how to do something, it’s easy to believe there is a right way. Fact is, the Halls of Success are filled with people doing things the wrong way.
When watching a movie or reading a book and you figure out the plot early, it’s easy to make the assumption that the creator did a poor job of hiding their intentions. This ignores two huge possibilities: a) the author wanted you to know. b) most people don’t figure it out.
When I started writing novels I knew I wanted to surprise my readers. The problem with this is that if I went too far in hiding the clues or made my points too subtle, readers were left confused or oblivious. Too obvious and the reader thought the story too predictable.
My solution was to include everyone. I made puzzles in my stories of different levels of difficulty. Some plot twists were put up on story-highway billboards with flashing neon lights and giant arrows. Others were more middle of the road, where I guessed most readers would travel with the intent that these folks would figure out the puzzle just before it was revealed. Still other puzzles are deviously hidden with hints so subtle that you really need to study the books to even notice they exist. Most of these I never explain nor draw notice to. You either get them, or you don’t.
The trick to this approach is that I never put anything truly important in the last category. That stuff is extra credit. As for the middle of the road puzzles, I do a lead up. I drop subtle hints, then more, then less subtle hints, and finally come right out and tell you the answer to ensure everyone is still with me.
What I found is that some will write me to say a story was way too predictable, and that they knew what was going to happen from the start (this is always a hyperbolic statement that upon closer scrutiny always proves untrue. Readers often figure out some things, never all things, and never are they convinced all the way through the story.) Others will write to say how they failed to anticipate anything, how every twist was a shock and a surprise. Then there are some who remain so oblivious they write to ask “I don’t understand. What happened?” These folks don’t even figure out the big neon sign freebies. I could write inscrutable stories for those who are skilled at connecting the dots, or I could aim for appealing to the vast majority of my hoped for audience. As I make my living doing this now, I hope you understand that I might target the later.
So the next time you assume a story is predictable, remember, it was predictable to you, but maybe not so much to another person, or even the majority of persons. And that this isn’t necessarily a failing of the story, but a compliment to your intelligence, and or experience. And if you think about it, this same principle can be applied beyond the scope of entertainment. If you realize that not everyone reacts or perceives the same things the same way, it explains a lot and might help you to extend an extra bit of patience for those who aren’t as adept at connecting the dots.
So now this post about predictable stories has become a philosophical metaphor for society—but I bet you saw that coming, too.