How many times have you tuned into a murder mystery television show, such as Murder, She Wrote, and within the first 10 minutes, been able to ID whodunit…sometimes even before the murder occurs? I bet a lot of you are like me – you can spot the murderer right from the beginning, and your only interest in the show from then on is in watching how Jessica Fletcher figures out his/her identity.
That’s because Murder, She Wrote is predictable.
While I’m sure some viewers never guess who the murderer is, and are genuinely surprised when Jessica Fletcher accuses the guilty party, I’ll bet most writers spot him/her early on. If you have a storytelling mind, it’s easy to spot such a predictable outcome – which is why you really want to avoid being this transparent in your own writing. On the other hand, you know you have to provide the reader with enough information and clues so you don’t just drop the resolution to your conflict on the reader at the end of the story totally unheralded. If solutions to problems, and resolutions to dilemmas, come out of left field, readers feel – rightfully – cheated. It’s like watching Bobby Ewing step out of the shower. (Does anyone remember that “great” moment in network television? Clumsy, contrived, and extremely annoying to the fans doesn’t even begin to cover it!)
Before we get to some practical suggestions on ways to avoid predictability, let’s discuss “satisfying the reader.” We’re talking about genre novels. Literary novels aren’t written to fulfill the same expectations as genre novels. In literary novels, you do have endings where everyone winds up dead, or miserable, or failing utterly. Not always, but sometimes.
In a genre novel, it’s easy to avoid predictability if you have your protagonist lose and die a horrible death at the end of the story. Or to have your protagonist give up and let the antagonist be victorious in order to save his own life. But think about what that would be like for, say, a romantic suspense novel. The heroine finds her soul-mate tied up by the bad guys and being tortured. He sees her. She sees him. Then, panic-stricken, she turns around and runs out into the night, leaving him to his horrible fate, and lives the rest of her life alone and embittered.
An ending like this is not at all satisfying to the reader…but it’s sure not predictable. And, for the sub-genre of romantic suspense, it’s probably not salable, either. And if we’re talking a mystery novel, it would certainly not be predictable to have Hercule Poirot or V.I. Warshawski announce, “Okay, I give up. I don’t know whodunit, and the killer will probably kill again, and I don’t care. I’m going on vacation.” Not predictable, but not satisfying, and probably not a novel you can easily sell.
Readers buy romance novels to watch the heroine wind up with her soul-mate. They buy mystery novels so they can track the clues and watch the detective solve the crime.
Romances and mystery novels are genre novels. Readers buy genre books because they have a certain element of predictability built into them. The heroine winds up with her guy, the detective figures out whodunit. The reader wants to go along for the ride to see exactly how it all happens.
Would you have enjoyed The Lord of the Rings trilogy as much if the One Ring had triumphed, Frodo had become a minion of Sauron, and all of Middle Earth had been turned into Mordor?
Okay, so now we’ve established that simply doing a totally unexpected thing in a genre novel is not the best way to avoid predictability, because that may well make the reader dissatisfied with the story.
It’s true that sometimes genre novels do end on a sad or poignant note. Science fiction and fantasy is considered a genre, and sometimes the protagonist does die. (Heck, I’ve killed off a protag myself.) When the writer does this at the end of a book, however, generally the protagonist sacrifices his or her or its life to achieve some kind of victory over evil, or the antagonist. When the reader closes the last page, he or she is sad, but satisfied, because the protagonist succeeded, even at the cost of his, her, or its life. This also happens at the end of spy novels, or thrillers…sometimes.
Editors tell me that books with happy endings sell better than books with sad endings. Personally, I often try for something along the lines of bittersweet, because it seems more realistic than having the protagonist achieve total victory. I’d call the ending of The Return of the King bittersweet, wouldn’t you?
(And then there’s A Song of Ice and Fire – which breaks all the “rules.” If you can write as well as George R.R. Martin, you can break them as you choose. And I have NO idea why you’re reading this essay!)
Okay, so I’m going to presume we’re all on the same wavelength here, and we understand the concept of “satisfying the reader.” So how do we avoid writing “predictable” stories?
The best way I know to do this is by the rejecting the easiest solution, and effectively foreshadowing what happens.
Let’s use the ending of The Return of the King as an example again. J.R.R. Tolkien could
have had Frodo march (or crawl) through that crevasse in Mount Doom, pull the One Ring off his neck, and chuck it into the flaming lava below. Since that was the stated intent of Frodo and Sam’s long, arduous, miserable quest through Middle Earth and horrible Mordor, that would have created an end that was reasonably satisfying – but it would have been predictable. They did what they’d come there to do, ho hum, okay, good story, but not remarkable.
But instead, Tolkien was clever. He had Frodo FAIL.
Frodo succumbs to the power of the One Ring. He puts it on and is going to head back out into Mordor, presumably to sink into total evil and ally himself with Sauron. Middle Earth would be doomed if he’d actually done this. This is NOT predictable.
And yet the One Ring gets tossed into the lava anyway, despite Frodo’s best efforts to make away with this. Tolkien rejected the easy solution, and chose Gollum, all unknowing and unwilling, to be the savior of Middle Earth.
And yet…both Frodo’s failure, and Gollum’s actions, were so well foreshadowed that we, the readers, accept these actions on Frodo’s and Gollum’s part. We know that the One Ring is a deadly seducer. We hope Frodo won’t succumb to it, yet we believe it when he does. And we have watched Gollum’s growing obsession and madness for hundreds of pages. We, the readers, have no difficulty in believing that Gollum would attack Frodo on the brink of the chasm and try to get the ring, using any means at his disposal…including his sharp, raw-fish-eating teeth.
When you write a subplot into a book, such as Gollum’s subplot, it must have a major impact on the climax of the book. Both Gollum’s subplot and Aragorn’s subplot (learning to accept that his fate was to become King Elessar Telcontar, High King of Gondor, etc., and thus rallying and leading the armies of Middle Earth to the Gates of Mordor in order to distract Sauron from discovering Frodo and Sam), majorly influence the climax of The Return of the King.
Some writers can write stories without plotting them out in advance. Somehow, instinctively, subconsciously, they foreshadow and reject the easy solution. Two such writers I’ve known were Roger Zelazny and Andre Norton. I have no idea how they managed to do this…but they did.
Personally, I have to plot out a story, and consciously figure out all this stuff before I can write it.
You should do whatever works best for you.
I hope this has been helpful. Feedback?
My WIP is a romantic suspense and right now I'm struggling with it. Your post was very informative and a reminder to me not to make my villain too easy to spot!
I found this article very helpful. I am a new author with my first book coming out this month. I decided to go with self-publishing because of all the negative PR about new authors not being considered by traditional publishers.
So here I am now starting the next book in a series of four, looking for an agent and gaining a new perspective.
"Lord of the Rings" is one of my all time favorite books and I realize now that "The Hobbit," which is a prequel is also another sub-plot for "Lord of the Rings." The reason I say this is because the real ending was of Bilbo and Froto sailing off with the elves. It was Bilbo who started the story by finding the ring when Golum had lost it.
I am a genera writer who stumbled upon a new idea about an old idea, if that makes any sense; and I picked up my pen and started writing. When the old way didn't work I decided to plan out my characters. I gave them names, physical descriptions,and how they would interact with my main character. Every characters name is an anagram from my name; I have a lot of characters.
My story is character driven, so when I sat down to write I had no idea what I was going to write that day; I let my characters guide me. I was so deeply involved with my characters that I couldn't wait to find out what would happen that day. It wasn't until many chapters later that I found out I was doing something that other writers did as well.
Outlining has always worked for the technical books I have written as well as a non-fiction story I have partialy written, about my family and how we dealt with Alzheimer's. That one is on the shelf temporally.
As I read this article and the comments, my mind was already thinking about how I would apply the information in my next book which is a sequel to my first.
Thank you so much for caring enough about writers to share your knowledge with us.
Thanks for an interesting article. I'm still smiling at the idea of a woman seeing her soulmate tied and being tortured, and she runs away to save herself. But that's a different genre…wouldn't work for Jessica on Murder She Wrote. Thanks again.
Terrific post. All too often, predictability is the fall-back position. Writers must resist. Thank you for the reminder.
In response to Anonymous' post:
A couple of years ago I almost signed with a "publisher" thrilled about my work. Fortunately, I didn't allow my excitement and craving for publication stop me from conducting a background check on that particular publisher, which ultimately led me to Writer Beware. I sent Ms. Strauss a personal note thanking her and Writer Beware for saving me a lot of time, and it would have turned out, money.
Today my writing has taken a completely different turn from where I ever thought it would, and I'm very content with what I do now. I am fully aware Writer Beware played a part in that.
Sadly, yesterday I was contacted by a writer all excited he had signed a contract with a publisher – PublishAmerica.
It just goes to prove Write Beware's services and message continue to be relevant and necessary. And it is a message we all need to promote.
Writer Beware often hears about people that fell for a scam. I wonder if you hear much from people that you helped to avoid falling for a scam. A few years ago, I wrote this little quasi-semi-autobiographical account; now I've posted it on a blog at
http://hyperquake.blogspot.com/ The character in my story is not me, but what I could have been without the warnings I read about here and on WB, a kind of anonymous thanks… I could have fallen for it big time…
"Majorly"? That's wicked awesome writing.
Bittersweet endings are much better than ones where everyone lives happily ever after. Even if there's no reason for bitterness, I don't want everything to be resolved and tied up neatly in one perfect package – it's too obvious then that I'm reading a book.
Wow! Really liked this post!
Whilst all of the usual posts about literary scams and plagiarists are invaluable, those odd posts in which you impart writing advice are, to me, just as important.
I am still a fledgling writer and haven't yet really worked out how best to 'plot' a novel. I am trying a couple of different approaches on separate projects at the moment to see which works best.
Your advice on the subplot (having a major impact) is brilliant though. I wonder now if I was unconsciously aware of this or not, but it will definitely be in the forefront of my planning in the furure, thank you.
Agree completely with the reference to George RR Martin. His novels have unexpected twists that break the rules but he also is a talented writer who can break the rules without it feeling contrived or clumsy.
Funny you should mention Andre Norton, because I just finished reading Key Out Of Time. Although the early chapters could've been better (she treats the background info on the Time Agents project like a given and, in my view, glosses over their history instead of providing a more in-depth explanation. She also uses more "telling" than "showing" in developing Ross Murdoch's personality) I do like how the later chapters developed.
I guess you could call the ending bittersweet, though not in the usual sense. The conflict is resolved, but not all loose ends are tied up, and yet it still feels like a satisfying conclusion.
Nice article, thank you. My favourite thing about foreshadowing is that you can surprise yourself with a plot twist. . . then go back and carefully add foreshadowing so the twist works.
Foreshadowing is like humour – it must always have two functions, eg humour plus suspense (romantic protag approaches the girl and fails dismally, upping the stakes), or foreshadowing plus characterisation (Gollum's sharp teeth as he rips into raw fish).
Very interesting post, just tweeted it!
Yes, the idea of subplots that come back at the end, to wrap up the story, is one I've instinctively tried to use.All the threads in the story should come together for a satisfying end. Not easy to plan. Sometimes it just comes to you, suddenly, as you write the ending, hitting you out of nowhere – or rather, it's the logic of all the inter-acting characters that does it…
At least, that's the way it has worked for me, as something unexpected out of the mist, as it were. And I think your analysis of the Return of the King shows clearly how it works. It doesn't need to come out of the mist. You can pick your subplot and plan for it. Well done and very useful advice!
And that's something that clarifies the process for everyone, I'm sure. It certainly did for me!
Ann, nicely put.I don;t think it just applies to genre novels, but all novels. I'm halway through reading The Road. I don't think the man will survive it, and I think the kid will (DO NOT tell me, let me find out 🙂 ) but I've no idea of the path the plot will take from here. We all knew Jack was going back to piracy at the end of The Price of Freedom, but the plot was sufficiently open-ended that we didn't see how he was going to get there – many possible paths would have worked in the story.
I'm absurdly excited to read this post post – this is precisely one of the biggest difficulties I'm having in my writing, and I've been at my wit's end looking for some direct treatment of the issue.
I'm not sure I've understood what you're suggesting, though. What ending to a mystery or a romance would be "rejecting the easy solution"? I don't see how the LotR example carries.
I think what you're saying is: find a personal stake for the protagonists that they can lose. Something orthogonal to the binary success/failure question which is expected to turn out well. There, you can go wild. Is that your intention? But I don't see how that's done in genre novels, where the romance or the mystery is not only the plot structure, but also the emotional focus.
I'd love to hear more of your thoughts and responses on the subject 🙂
I completely loved this post! As a writer of genre fiction, this is something I always worry about. I thought your example of The Return of the King was spot on!
Excellent post with great analyses! Funny enough, I kept thinking of ASOIAF until you mentioned it. Tropes can be useful, but they're more interesting when they're subverted.
@Bill Peschel: That's good advice, although then you have to be careful and still come up with a good solution, rather than a deus ex machina. Especially easy to do in genres like SF or fantasy!
Oh, this is immensely helpful, thank you! That a subplot must have a major impact on the climax?? Why don't they teach this kind of novel-planning anywhere?
I personally find the ending of the Lord of the Rings the saddest ending ever. It leaves me empty, longing for something that doesn't exist. A work of genius.
Thank you so much, I'm off to tweak my subplot! 🙂
A screenwriter whose site I used to read suggested discarding the first three ideas you think of, because they're the obvious ones.
I read or heard somewhere that Americans like happy endings more than Brits. Over here in England we seem to be content with an ending which could be taken either way. The author has left us guessing a bit. I like those endings because like Ellen said, once you can predict, the interest goes.
For a long time I wouldn't watch Columbo because I didn't want to know whodunnit! but when I did watch it, I found I quite liked it. I liked following him around and watching him solve the cases.
Murder She Wrote is so light-hearted as to be ultra predictable. I watch that because I like to see what she's wearing. It varies considerably depending on which series they are on.
In my book 'Murder in the School' I have left the ending open slightly! Daren't say anymore dare I!
Interesting post, thanks.
I can enjoy books that foreshadow the conclusion. I've seen enough foreshadows that turned out to be red herrings.
Then there are books where I say to myself, in the middle of the book, "Somewhere in the next chapter, so-and-so is going to do such." The minute so-and-so does it, the book is dead to me.
The tricky thing with mysteries–whether books, TV, or movies–is that you don't want it so obvious that you can figure it out right away, but I hate when it turns out to be someone we barely met either. I remember this one Law & Order (not sure which version) where the bad guy turned out to be someone we hadn't even seen until that moment. What's the sense in that?
Of course Columbo mysteries were entirely different because you knew who did it; you were just supposed to see how he would figure it out.
And yes I think bittersweet endings are the best. "The Empire Strikes Back" is my favorite Star Wars movie because the good guys don't really "win." They don't really "lose" either because while Han is captured and Luke loses a hand, they at least escaped from the Empire to fight another day. Sometimes that's all you need.
It's tough to figure out, but I thought, as a reader, what works well is to get them into a situation in which you can't figure out how they're going to get out. Especially useful in genre stories.
Extremely helpful! I've been studying plotting a lot lately–and trying to find the balance between using a reader's expectations to my benefit and subverting them at the same time.
I haven't figure it all out yet. Not sure I ever will–but this post definitely added to my growing knowledge!