Tuesday, June 14, 2016

I Saw That Coming

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.


  1. I can drink my favorite bottle of wine and know how it finishes with every glass. Pleasant surprises are good but predictability can have its place, too. How its received, perceived and appreciated is up to your audience.

    If you think about it, everyone knew how Titanic ended but they still made it the highest grossing movie of its time.

  2. Exactly. Some people I know go so far as to make a habit of learning how a story ends before reading or watching, because they find it more enjoyable to know how things will turn out before starting in.

  3. Great post Mike!

    I used to be more of a critic but the more I have studied story structure, be it movies or novels or short stories, to more respect I have for creators.

    For example, the newest Xmen movie didn't do so well according to critics. But when I watched the movie, though it was flawed, I did feel like they were trying to accomplish something great. And I think that's what most critics' problem is with "predictable" stories is that they do not realize that the creator(s) were trying their best to let you in on a great story, and they want you to have a good time. Not sure if Xmen was the best example, but you get what I mean.


    1. I do see what you mean (although I've not seen the latest Xmen yet. Too busy writing. But once I get done editing the last book of the new series I'll have a lot to look forward to.

  4. Authors can take the reader to well-known destinations, yet do so via creative and unexpected routes. We like the fantasy genre because it fits into a certain category of tropes that we find enjoyable. What we look for in an author is a new way to express it. Sometimes it's a challenge to write a story that is both familiar in terms of the genre we're reading, yet unpredictable in terms of the creative details. If the author adds too many twists, what the reader was hoping was AC/DC starts to sound more like Phillip Glass.

  5. Goodreads: Krzysztof Kramer

    I feel like there is a big neon sign pointing at me when you wrote this haha. I think I mentioned this a few times in my reviews. I definitely think you're right, that it isn't a shortcoming in general. Also I really think reviews are completely subjective. So really when I write a review I do not want people to take anything I say to heart and if they do hopefully it's with a grain of salt. I just want to get my feelings out about a book for myself I guess.

    For me unpredictability seems to be important because I have some of my fondest memories from big plot twists. But again that's me and I can see your books were not aiming to do that.

    Also I have to say one of the most predictable parts, was one of my favourite parts in the entire Riyria Revelations series was the last few pages of Percepliquis. I saw it coming from a mile off but maybe I was just hoping for it to end that way. That's the way I would have wrote it (Nimbus). It was just beautiful and one of the most satisfying endings I have ever read. It just felt right!

    1. I'm glad you were rewarded with the satisfaction of an ending that felt so right. Based on emails I've received, you may be in the minority (or at least in the minority of people who send me emails). I like that some figured it out and others had their "minds blown" by the last revelation. Both work for me!

  6. Excellent post Michael. I so identified with it that it made me ponder things for an hour afterwards...

    My observation is that being "intellectually superior" is so important for many people; it is a source of self-validation.

    I personally enjoyed many of the surprises, and some of them (e.g. the 'love' aspect of one lady, who I'm not mentioning her name to avoid spoilers) where you danced around it and hinted EITHER way, was a lot of fun! And let's not talk about the ending; it was perfect in every aspect.. an ending where you tied all the loose ends and was fully satisfying (something very rare to have in a series).

    I also agree with many posters above who said it is OK to expect. Many of us enjoy 'Marvel' movies in which we all know how the superhero is going to win anyway (most action movies are EXTREMELY predictable) but they are still good and are enjoyable anyway.

    Most importantly, I had a takeaway from this post! I didn't know you even weaved stuff so subtle that it would require a re-read! Something to look forward to when I get to that someday.

    On a more selfish note, I wish you'd post your 'thoughts' more often. It is really a good read and one of the reasons I follow your blog (nonetheless, I am following you everywhere xD).

    Thanks again!

    1. It's summer, so I have a bit more time to ramble about nothing in particular. So thanks for the appreciation to this bit of nothing. And I hate you now because I see that I'll have to write more of these things. Honestly, I always assume no one reads this stuff.

    2. Thanks =) I'll be holding you to your words! Cannot wait <3

      There are tons who read, but not everyone 'comments'.

  7. Had one reviewer tell me that my story was "on rails" a term I'd always related to video games. (a "rail shooter" is a game where there is only one path to take like Half Life, as opposed to an "open world" game like Skyrim) Turns out he was talking about exactly what you discuss here. He saw the ending coming a long way off. He didn't like that the ending was predictable.

    Why would anyone follow the long walk to Mt. Doom if they actually thought Frodo was going to fail? LOL Why watch James Bond? or Star Trek? The question isn't really who will win, but rather, HOW? There's no reason we can't enjoy the ride, even when we know where we are going.

    But it does sound like some readers want their plot to twist. I like your solution of dividing those aspects into easy, moderate and hard to spot plot pieces. Going to use that myself.