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Keeping Things Unpredictable: The Don'ts

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Fri Dec 24, 2010 9:18 am
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RacheDrache says...

You know those really annoying people who could, after the first fifteen minutes of a movie, tell you exactly how it’s going to end? And, not only that, but can approximate what will be said at the big moments, and by whom? And predict which characters will die, sometimes in what order, sometimes even how?

Who, despite all logic, will correctly guess the twist behind the twist behind the twist?

The one more or less always right about plot matters, and rarely surprised?

Well, I’m one of those annoying people, and quite proud of it. Only, after years of knowing twists ahead of time, of sniffing out answers long before the characters, of numbering expendables…

Perhaps it’s just easier to say that because of my experience of figuring out things (sometimes I don’t even try that hard) far before I’m supposed to, I’ve more or less partially dedicated my writing life to writing stuff that people like me can’t figure out.

And I figured I might as well share some of what I’ve learned about keeping things unpredictable with other young writers, partially in hopes that I’ll be thoroughly and completely stunned and/or shocked one day. (And partially just because I love talking about plot. It’s a highly underrated literary mechanism, if you ask me.)

I have so many tips I want to share—and many more that I won’t—that this Keeping Things Unpredictable will be in a series for reading ease, with the easiest and simplest first and the wacky and crazy ones later.

Without much further ado, here are the first of the basics—the “Don’ts” of Unpredictability:

1) Don’t have a predictable plot or plot element in the first place

This a surefire why to make sure Average Joe reader doesn’t figure out the entire thing far ahead of time. It’ll also save you a lot of cover-up work. Because, let’s face it. If you have a cliché plot, the reader will be familiar with that plot unless he or she’s been living under a rock, and it’d take some mighty skillful deflecting and distracting to hide the fact that:
--Your ragtag group of heroes will end up being the perfect team to overthrow Evil Overlord Dude
--The girl who hates the boy oh so much secretly loves him
--Your hero with the mysterious past is either the lost son/daughter of the Really Good Now-Dead Guy, or the Ultra-Evil Guy, thus cueing Destiny Crisis problems
--The underdog team will either win despite all the odds, or lose that epic end battle but it’s okay because of all they’ve learned along the way.

Etc, etc.

And, that’s just the clichés.

Predictable plots minus the typical clichés abound in the world. But, I think I’ll just write another tutorial about this topic and leave it at the clichés, with one sub-tip:

1a.) Don’t have a plot or plot element with only two possible outcomes, one good and one bad

This is what I call “binary plot branching” and from this point forth, consider it a capital evil in the art of plotting. Because what you’re doing when you create a situation in which there are only two possible outcomes… you’re giving the reader at least a fifty-fifty shot. And that’s only if you’re really good at other elements of keeping things unpredictable.


Your main character is a spy. He has to save the world by diffusing a massive nuclear bomb. The options are obvious: either he diffuses it, or he doesn’t and we all die.

Your reader—or at least your Western one—is going to have some degree of confidence to begin with that your main character will, in fact, diffuse the bomb. Happy endings are more preferable than dark, sad ones, generally speaking, so that’s a heads up there.

And what if the character’s James Bond or Jason Borne or Jack Bower? You know what even if things are absolutely crazy and seemingly impossible, JB is going to accomplish the mission. Granted, the fun is in watching JB get out of the mess, and, most of the time, you’re not actually concerned ‘bout JB accomplishing the mission…

But in terms of keeping things unpredictable, a plot like his is predictable and most likely doomed.

Now back to the main tips.

2) Don’t use absolutes

Absolutes are words like ‘always’ and ‘never’ and ‘all’ and ‘none.’ And, when you use them around important plot points or information, you are drawing attention to that information. Which means readers are apt to remember it, or realize that that absolute might not be so absolute.

Even if Character A mentions offhand to Character B that Character C “never loses” at chess, you can bet your bottom dollar that your reader will remember. And so, with some supporting information, I could in fact extrapolate that your Character C here is going to have a showdown with Evil Dude that comes down to a chess game, which Character C will win. Because he never loses. We were told so in Chapter 1 by the very Character A who died heroically a few pages ago.

Or, alternatively, Character A might offhandedly mention to Character B that Character C “never loses” at chess, and since we as the readers know that Character C is Evil Dude, we’ll know that in the confrontation between Hero and Evil Dude will culminate in a chess game which Evil Dude will lose with cries of, “NO! I NEVER LOSE!”

Or, for another example, A mentions to B that C is positively awful at basketball. In fact, he always loses, and that’s why he’s just the towel boy. Which is just an invitation for the reader to realize that, in a crucial moment when Star Player is inevitably kicked out or injured, Towel Boy will take his place and score the winning point.

I don’t think that could happen in basketball, but you get the point.

So, avoid sticking absolutes around crucial pieces of information. They attract a lot of attention to themselves.

3) Don’t break the consistency of style or tone

Doing either of those draw attention to whatever piece of information it is that you want to hide. Drawing attention to crucial bits of information—which you do in fact have to include somewhere—is a death sentence, and these are two areas published writers go wrong in. Don’t make the same mistake.

What do I mean by breaking consistency of style or tone?

Say your writing style in a particular piece is bare or minimalistic. You don’t describe a lot or use many adjectives. But suddenly you focus in on this necklace Character A is wearing. Readers like Yours Truly are going to know that the necklace is important. If you were trying to introduce the necklace but hide its importance, you just failed.

As for breaks of tone…these tend to happen because the writer knows the bit of information is crucial and wants to hide it, but gets all nervous and ends up doing the, “Is there a problem, Officer?” routine.

Tone changes can be large or small scale. Large scale would mean everything’s going along happily and then bam, there’s the necklace and the tone’s serious, and then it’s back to happy again---or something like that. Small scale would require a reader more astute with deciphering plot traces, but if the adjective you use to describe the necklace is in any way inconsistent with the adjectives you typically use, or just slightly off the tone of the section…

We the Diligent will note it and remember it. Sometimes for thousands of pages (true story.)

4) Don’t place crucial information at the end of a chapter or scene

Endings tend to be more poignant than beginnings, and many people—especially Americans—tend to consider endings to be most important. Thus, just because Crucial Bit is at the end, it is given an elevated level of importance, and is thus more likely to be remembered than the stuff toward the beginning of the chapter.

Also: the ends of chapters or scenes make good stopping spots for readers to, well, stop. Sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for a few hours, sometimes for days. Which means, that Bit of Crucial Information was among the last things your reader read. And, if the reader skims the last few paragraphs to refresh his or her memory, he or she will get that bit of information again.

Chapter and scene ends are dangerous spots for stuff you want the reader to take in but think nothing of.

5) Don’t keep mentioning the information you’re trying to hide

Really. Don’t. Your reader is not stupid and does not enjoy being treated as such. Thus, if you keep mentioning that C is really good at chess, or A has a really pretty necklace… we’re going to pick up on the hint. And if you want us to pick up on the hint, then that’s okay. But if you were trying to be mysterious and unpredictable, you failed. And, on top of that, you’re gonna aggravate the reader.

Once or twice is enough. Any more than that, and your reader is really going to begin to suspect something. Sometimes even twice is enough to cause suspicion. (And, as we’ve seen, once can be too, but you have to give the reader the information somewhere.)

This tip, note, doesn’t necessarily apply just to Crucial Information you’re trying to hide. The same goes for the previous tips, really.

It applies just as well to the actions of a character or a group of characters, or events. The more your character has a narrow escape with a gang of bullies, the more sure we’re going to grow as readers that there’s going to be a showdown between the reader and those bullies. If your character runs into them once, we might shrug and just take it as part of this character’s daily life, nothing major.

Twice, we’ll grow suspicious. And oftentimes, the third time is big conflict itself, and there’s nothing to predict after that, so you’ve possibly slid under the radar.

But any more than three, and you’ve overdone it.

6) Don’t try to hide the information…and fail

This one seems like common sense, I know. But while I’m in the Don’t section, I have to mention it, because the tricks I’ll be mentioning in the next section can go very wrong and leave you worse than you started in a variety of ways.

Your own ways of keeping things under wraps can also backfire and leave you worse than when you began. In either instance, your reader now will not only know the crucial bit of information, he or she will know for sure that you were trying to hide it.

If you aren’t sure about how to go about hiding something, it’s probably best to just let it be—and not do any of the Don’ts—rather than risk it and have readers knowing for certain that something is amiss with the chess or the necklace or the bully gang.


And that’s it for the basics. I guess you can sum them up into two:

1) Don’t have predictable stuff to begin with, if you can help it!
2) Don’t draw attention to information that can help readers figure out the twists and turns!

The rest of the basics and the more advanced tips are coming up in another post.

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Thu Dec 30, 2010 1:46 am
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Kyllorac says...

I have only one thing to say about the chess example: you don't always have to win to avoid losing. There's this lovely thing called a "draw" that I abuse to no end when it becomes clear that I cannot win. There is also the added bonus of watching your opponent become inordinately frustrated.

What can I say? Turning the frustration of not being able to win back onto your opponent is fun.

Okay. I lied. There are two things. The chess example/analogy/symbolism is so overused. Having such overused examples/analogies/symbols in your story is a dead giveaway as they've been used so much, you're practically waving a red flag and dancing rather awkwardly while dressed in eye-burning colors on top of a very visible mountain and telling your savvy readers exactly what's going to happen.

So don't use them. Or if you do, keep it to a minimum, more of a passing analogy that was only relevant to the immediate situation it was mentioned in.
Screwing with gender since 1995.

There are no chickens in Hyrule.

When something is broken, it can be fixed.
— Benjamin Alire Saenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe