Has this ever happened to you? You’re working on a scene, it’s going along fine, but it suddenly hits you that it’s so darned obvious where it’s going. And even though what’s going to happen is going to be fun, and there’s stuff there to intrigue and hook and do all the stuff a scene’s supposed to do, it’s still as predictable as a sunset.
This was me recently. And I hate this feeling because I like to keep reader’s guessing. I also find it’s no fun to write those scenes. Even though I know what’s going to happen, it’s a struggle to get through it. It’s not even written and it’s already boring me.
This is a blinking red warning sign for me that I need to shake things up. I’m being predictable and it’s time to do what the reader least expects. (Or won’t exactly see coming)
In this particular scene, my hero is looking for my heroine. They’ve just had a “big moment,” emotions are high, and he’s supposed to find her by a waterfall late at night. It’ll be romantic, under the moonlight and everything, and there’s tension because things are not what they seem. But just as I write the line where he sees a silhouette that’s supposed to be her, it hits me.
It’s not her.
It’s someone else.
So instead, he finds an old man. Who turns out to be not very nice and hits him. Do I know who this man is? Not a clue. Do I know why he thwacks my hero and leaves him unconscious in the dirt? Only vaguely. But it was the right thing to do to shake up the story, and I'll figure out who this man is and what role he plays before long. Now that I know he's there, I'll look for clues and connections as I write.
When your instincts are telling you to do something crazy, go with them. I didn’t have this thing plotted, or planned, or even considered. But at that moment I knew it was the right thing to do. And I can see all the potential things I can do with it now that I have it in there. It added a whole layer to the story.
Naturally not every scene is going to throw the reader a curve ball, as seeing what we expect is also a fun reader experience. But keeping them on their toes makes for a more rewarding reading experience overall. Look at your scenes (planned or written) and ask:
1. Is the outcome of this obvious?
Check your goal(s) at the start of the scene. Is that resolved by the end of the scene? Was there ever a doubt that it might not be? A serious doubt, be objective here. Are there places where you could have written a different outcome had you tweaked one or two details, or did it all lead to this no matter what?
2. Is there anything that will surprise the reader?
The goals might work out as expected, but did some unexpected information come to your characters during this? A person they didn’t know about, a revelation of a secret, a clue to the next step in the problem? Maybe the plan unfolds in a different way.
3. Do the characters act as expected?
Characters need to be who they are, but people do things that are unlike them all the time. Are there places where your character can act unusual and still be “in character?” Can a fear or flaw surface to change things? Maybe that internal conflict comes into play and causes them to behave strangely. Maybe they act because of information that changes what’s really going on and only they know about it.
4. Were the characters right about what they assumed or thought?
If the characters discussed what’s going to happen (and often they do) then having it happen as they expected just steals all the tension from a scene. One of the easiest ways to be unpredictable is to have the characters make the wrong assumptions or just flat out be wrong. Mistakes happen, and when they do, anything else can happen.
Don’t Worry About the Plot
I know, “but that messes up my plot!” is top on the list of reasons why you might not want to try this. But look to see where unpredictability can aid your plot and tie it together in ways you never imagined before, because you hadn’t written the pieces that would make it work. The reason you thought about it in the first place might be because your subconscious sees where it’ll lead.
Stories aren’t about watching someone go through an experience. They’re about seeing if someone can overcome or survive an experience. It’s a subtle difference, but wanting to see how it turns out is a much bigger draw that seeing it unfold like we expect.
Keep the readers guessing and you keep your readers reading.
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound