Today we're talking about unpredictability. Defining what it means seems a tad ironic, but here's the thing...
I don't think it means what some people think it means.
To illustrate the point I found this pic of an apple with an orange center and it got me thinking. Surely if you pick up an apple you do so because you want an apple? I know I would be surprised if I got an orange, but not necessarily in a good way.
It could be argued romance novels have been around for so long there is no new way of telling a love story-two people meet and fall in love and they either get a happily ever after or they don't-but I don't think that's entirely true. At the very least it's an extremely simplified version of events. Fact is all stories have similarities but it doesn't mean they're all the same.
Let's look at another example. My latest TV obsession is Once Upon A Time. For anyone who hasn't seen it the quickest way of describing it is to say it's a fresh take on our favorite fairytales with a twist or two along the way-some more 'out there' than others. Personally I'm a Snow and Charming fan. Not so much a Mary-Margaret and David fan, but that's a whole other blog. The point I'm trying to make is the heart of the story remains the same. Snow and Charming still meet and fall in love but if we think this is the same Snow White and Prince Charming we've met countless times before, we'd be wrong. When we first meet Snow she's a thief-then we discover the prince isn't a prince after all. Doesn't stop us from expecting them to fall in love though, does it? Having said that when I went to see Snow White And the Huntsman I'd have been happy for Snow White to end up with
Thor the huntsman instead of the 'prince' but again, that's a whole other blog.
The one thing we know for certain is readers pick up a book with an expectation of what they'll get. What we writers have to do is fulfil that expectation while at the same time supplying the one thing which keeps them turning the page into the wee small hours (or in the case of Once Upon A Time, tuning in each week to find out what happens next). With that in mind I want you to remember what we said in the last blog about the hook.
'In simple terms the hook leaves unanswered questions'.
If the reader can predict the answers to those questions, they don't have a reason to keep reading. Make the answer something they didn't expect or were made unsure of along the way and we have the required element of unpredictability. In the words of lovely M&B editor Flo Nicholl:
'...it’s about taking the reader on a journey they haven’t been on before – even though the ultimate destination of a happy ever after remains the same, an unpredictable story offers an unexpected alternative route to this climax. '
For my money Snow and Charming are doing that in Once Upon A Time without being so far removed from my expectation it makes the story unrecognizable. That doesn't mean there aren't people who prefer something more traditional or some who would like to go even further outside the box. What it means is there's room for several different 'versions' and-hopefully-a market for them all. By inviting unpredictability the editors are encouraging us to be creative. As Flo says:
'What we’re interested in is how to deliver books that surprise you, thanks to thought-provoking, unanticipated characterisation, an unexpected story line or an amazingly different emotional conflict. '
In the last blog I talked a little about my thought process with this latest WIP, how the hero is an undercover cop and the obvious theme is identity. I said he has spent his life lying to people and pretending to be someone he’s not so I found myself asking how difficult that was and whether or not he’d got lost along the way. The obvious answer to the latter would be yes, he did, so guess what I'm going to do? But if it's not his problem then what is and is the theme still identity? I think it is. I'll leave it to you to guess why.
Bottom line: The outcome of the story may be exactly what we expect but the journey to get there and-more importantly-the characters taking it, aren't. We've got to mix things up a little. How far you decide to take it or how much you'll accept as a reader is up to you but as far as I'm concerned, make the characters unique and the story is too. I have to ask myself what makes them different before I begin to write. In the case of the pic above the reason it's pretending to be an apple=character motivation. What stops it from revealing it's an orange=inner conflict. If it's an apple that looks like an apple, smells like an apple, tastes like an apple and when we get below the surface it is an apple, there isn't much of a story to engage the reader.
Thoughts on why the orange is pretending to be an apple are welcomed in the comments, as are any questions you might have on the subject of unpredictability. Right now I have no idea what next week's topic might be, so feel free to make a few suggestions! And for those who haven't seen it, this is how Snow and Charming met in Once Upon A Time: