Monday, April 18

Surprise! Being Unpredictable, Even When You Don’t Know Where it’s Going

 By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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.

Adding Unpredictability 

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.

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book 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.

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  1. Great advice! Probably muuch easier for a pantster than an outliner :) My characters keep dropping all kinds of bombs in the last few chapters which is making my rewrite difficult :)

  2. This is when a good beta reader is absolutely essential. I tend not to see these kinds of issues in my own work. Great post!

  3. I love this post. This has totally happened to me, so much I often don't worry about planning ahead for parts of my book and just let the characters have at it. I love when a WIP starts to come to life and tells me how things are meant to go.

    Incidentally, Janice, stop by my blog tomorrow. ;-)

  4. This happens to me and I'm an outliner. :)

  5. *gives standing ovation* I've been struggling with this lately, so this post comes at a great time! Thanks!

  6. You know what I loved the most about this post? It demonstrated unpredictability in itself. When you said something else would happen, I stopped and came up with a few scenarios and then your explanations for them. And then you surprised me with a grouchy old man. Thank you; I burst out laughing.

  7. I wish I could put all your posts to memory. It'd sure be handy. Great stuff.

  8. Great post! One that got me thinking in new delicious ways. Mmmm...

  9. Loved the old man who went thwack. Weird what things lurk in our..twisted..I mean amazing minds. This happens all the time to me but the craft is knowing how to weave it all in.

  10. thanks so much!! In my last attempt at novel writing, I think this was my problem...When someone was missing, they were always found in the next sentence, or when the train wrecked, no one was boring and predictable. I was too nice to my characters!

  11. I have recently tried doing this, and it works like a charm. I will just randomly throw something out there. Then, before I start writing for the day I go over and highlight any details I didn't originally plan. Then I do some quick brainstorming to prod my self conscious, and it's back to writing.

    Many times my subconscious will weave these threads together seamlessly. And if for some reason I can't make a detail work I can always cut it out.

    I will definitely add these questions to my brainstorming. Thanks!

  12. Roberta: I can see that, though it works for both. I'm an outliner, myself. When this happens I just update my outline :) End bombs are tough, but that might be when your subconscious is putting all the pieces together.

    Lydia: They're essential for so many reasons, hehe. But yeah, some stuff I totally miss and my crit group catches them. Thank goodness.

    Paul: Ditto. Seeing what the characters do is half the fun for me. Will do (and done, thanks!)

    Stina: Me, too :)

    Amparo: Most welcome!

    Alex: Awesome! I guess I picked the right thing then :)

    Jared: Luckily it's all here for future reference :) But eventually you'll know it all solid and have all kinds of tips of your own you've learned.

    Chicory: Love when that happens :)

    Anon: Oh totally. As writers we can't help thinking things up.

    Clara: Most welcome. Plenty of writers suffer from NWS (Nice Writer Syndrome), so you are not alone. Be mean! Be evil! Once you get past the first few time you'll see how much fun it can be.

    Elizabeth: Ooo, I like the highlighting tip. I've never dome anything that premeditated but I bet that works great. Even if all you do is keep track of them for later bolts of inspiration.

  13. Oooh I LOVE this!! I suppose it lends a tad more credence to my "pantser" ways. I am often surprised by my characters actions, but I absolutely go with it, and more often than not it ends up being better for the book.

  14. John Green is really good at that. I never know what to expect from him, except that everything will be okay.

  15. Lisa: I'm not a pantser but I suspect pantsers are really good at this, which is why pantsing works for them so well.

    McKenzie: I so have to read him. I keep hearing wonderful things and I just haven't had a chance yet. I've got to add him to my next book shopping trip.