Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Today's topic of choice, inspired by Marybeth, is . . . Predictability!

Marybeth posted a book review on her blog (and her Facebook page) of Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code. As a reader of this book, I made the following comment . . .

Read the book . . . good premise, good story, bad plotting. I mean, seriously, 1/3 through the book and I could actually predict what was going to happen to the MC. Picture it - MC in dire situation, MC miraculously escapes dire situation, MC in dire situation, MC miraculously escapes dire situation, MC in dire situation, MC miraculously escapes dire situation . . . that was the entirety of the book. Every single time the MC was in a dire situation . . . he miraculously escaped the dire situation. Other than that one little qualm, I did like the book.

Marybeth's response . . . must be better at predicting than I am. Maybe you are a writer or something??? ;)

My response . . .

Maybe. Seriously, by the middle of the book I always knew that every time the MC was in danger he would escape from danger . . . oh, and always just before the police arrived also! : )

Her response . . .

LOL...very true...but isn't that true for all books? :D

My response . . .

To an extent yes. Take Lord of the Rings - the nine companions didn't always escape the danger unharmed. Gandalf was lost in Moria. Boromir was killed. Merry and Pippin were captured by Orcs. Yes, they were rescued, but not miraculously, and not unscathed. I think that's what I didn't like about the DaVinci code - the miraculously, unscathed ... escapes. : ) Since I always knew the MC would escape, there was a dramatic loss of tension. Tension is important, and without it, well, what's the point of reading? : )

Her response . . .

I can totally see that. I guess all the lingering mysteries kept me going. I wanted the questions answered so I wasn't too worried about how they escaped. LOL I HATE unanswered questions!

My response . . .

I agree that the mystery was great . . . and that's why I kept reading. I wanted, like you, the answer to all the questions. I just think the lack of tension diminished the impact of the book. : )

As you can see, her little book review prompted quite the conversation . . . and this blog post. I think, as writers, we need to avoid the predictability demonstrated in The DaVinci Code because, at least in my opinion, it lessens the dramatic impact of the book. I mean, I got to the point where I would skip through the dire situations. There wasn't any dramatic tension because I knew the MC would always, always, always miraculously escape from the situation.

I don't want predictability in what I am reading. I don't want to get bored because the main character is constantly in a dire situation in which he/she is going to miraculously escape. Yeah, I know, he/she is the main character and all that jazz. As I pointed out in my comments, you can have bad things happen to your characters. They can be captured by Orcs, bitten by a giant spider, fall into an abyss with a Barlog, and tons of other stuff. That is all part of dramatic story-telling . . . as is the survival of the characters. The fact is, Tolkien had the uncanny ability of leaving his readers hanging by a thread. OMG, he killed off Gandalf! OMG, what's going to happen to Merry and Pippin? OMG, Frodo is dead! The tension was incredible, as was the relief when they survived . . . though not unscathed, and not without a deeper appreciation of life.

Tension is one of the keys to drama. If there isn't any tension, if the character miraculously - time and time and time and time again - escapes from a dire situation, why would I want to keep reading? What's the point? Boredom sets in at some point.

Now, thankfully, The DaVinci Code had a great premise/mystery, so I kept reading. If the premise/mystery hadn't been great . . . well, I probably wouldn't have finished reading the book.

So, dear readers, don't let your books become too predictable. Don't let your readers suddenly become members of the psychic friend's network and know what is going to happen every time your characters are in a dire situation. Surprise your readers (and possible yourself). Have the mighty wizard fall into an abyss with a Barlog. Have two adorable hobbits, best of friends, captured by Orcs and face a horrible ordeal. Have the ring bearer stung by a giant spider. Have a stalwart companion slain by Orcs defending the hobbits and trying to redeem his moment of insanity!

I'm just saying . . .



Marybeth Poppins said...

So that's what my books missing! The two hobbits and an Orc! Why didn't I think of that :)

I have to admit I skipped the entire conversation between you and I because it was too predictable...oh...wait...that's probably just because I'd already read it before :)

Great Post and Great Point! Glad we could have that conversation yesterday!

MeganRebekah said...

Excellent post, I loved it!

I also agree with it. In my family, we laugh at my dad because he can predict almost every movie he watches. One movie he always talks about that "got" him was Scream. Why? Because there were two killers. We are so trained to look for the one killer, it totally threw him off to have two. He loved it!

The same in our writing. Try to think outside the box to create more tension and unpredictability.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Excellent point, Scott. Since I'm revising now, I'm going to keep an eye out for places I've made it too predictable that my character will escape a dire circumstance. She is harmed on her journey but she could suffer more. Well, that's evil of me!

ElanaJ said...

Great points, Scott.

I think there is a fine line between predictability and making sure your readers react (or act) to their dire situations with authenticity. It would be bad, for example, to have your characters do something they would never do, just so the novel isn't predictable. Does that make sense?

I think we want to make sure the plot is unpredictable, but that the character's thoughts, emotions and actions are always in line with who they are. I've read some books where the MC does something they would NEVER do, just to make the book unpredictable.

And I don't think that's good.

What say you?

Rebecca Knight said...

Awesome post, and I love that you used Lord of the Rings. I think it's one of my favorites because of the tension you described.

I've been trying to do that in my novel Legacy of the Empress, because I agree--if you know everything will be right as rain, then why read on? There have to be real world consequences, prices to pay.

That's why I love reading George R. R. Martin, too. NO ONE IS SAFE, and his Song of Ice and Fire series has made for some of the most intense reading of my life because of that tension.

Robyn Campbell said...

I totally agree with you Scott. I don't want to be predictable and I certainly don't want my characters to be that way either.

I mean that makes for a reader putting down the book and never picking it back up again. I always thought readers loved unanswered questions. Hmmm :)

Scott said...

Marybeth - you can now tell people you actually inspired someone to write a blog post.

Megan - we definitely need to think outside the box. Predictability is on the FBIs most wanted list!

Tricia - best of luck with the revising!

Elana - I agree totally. The problem with DaVinci Code is that the characters always, always, always, escaped from the dire situation. It just wasn't a totally enjoyable read after I figured out what was going to happen EVERY time! I also agree about the main character doing something totally off the wall that is totally out of character - see my post on Contrived endings. : )

Rebecca - I'm a LOTR fanatic. I read the entire series every other year, plus the Simarillion. You're right about George R. R. Martin. No one is safe. He totally shocked me with the bloodbath in one of the books. Now, if he'd only finish the next book of the series sometime before the next century I'd be happy.

And, since I said that, there is a lesson for all writers to learn from George R. R. Martin - don't take years between the books. Don't poorly split what was supposed to be one book into two, and do a not so good job of it at that.

Now, I love George R. R. Martin's writing. He's totally unpredictable. And, who in the heck am I, an unpublished writer, to talk bad about him? Well, I'm one of the people he has to please if he's going to continue selling me his books! I want quality for the money I spend. Normally, he provides such quality, though not so much last time. I'm almost afraid to buy the next book in the series since it's the second half of the book he split in two because the book was way, way, way too long! : )

Angie Ledbetter said...

I especially notice it in movies when I can just about write the script. Blah.

Bravo for sneaky plot twists and turns!