Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Predictably Lost

Maven Lacey KayeIn the last week or so, I've been watching Season 4 of LOST (at Maven Darcy's urging; she couldn't believe I'd let an entire season go by when it's on the internet), reading Julia Quinn's The Lost Duke of Wyndham, and gossiping incessantly with my girlfriends over men friends who have lost their minds. I've come to a conclusion.

Unpredictability is where it's at.

So now I'm wondering how we generate unpredictableness ourselves. In the romance genre, in particular, there are certain expectations our readers have that we are [required] to meet. There has to be an HEA. There has to be a love story. There has to be something about the heroine our readers can identify with, and true beta heroes are a tough sell. But within those basic (and arguable) confines, we have choices. Maven Darcy's outstanding post yesterday got me thinking [as I was watching an incredible and shocking episode of LOST], while we're busily and creatively ruining our characters' lives, should we also be looking for the most surprising way to do it?

At the same time, the reader also needs to feel like they can predict the book, to a certain extent. I think this is a cross between keeping the story realistic and logical and helping the reader feel smart. So no space alien babies, and the villian needs to make sense, at least in hindsight. But still. When we're plotstorming, it probably wouldn't go amiss if we asked our critique partners to fill in the blank. As in, "Can you guess what happens next?" If they say, "Yeah, he falls into the same cellar where she's being held captive and they make hot, sweaty under-the-ground love," then maybe that's not the answer. Maybe we should ask, "What's the last and/or craziest thing you would expect to happen next?"

But maybe, by virtue of them thinking it, that is the expected thing.


YOUR TURN: Surprise or reader intuition? (That's code for predictable.) If you think you keep the reader jumping, how do you do it? Would you rather have a man you can predict or one who's constantly keeping you guessing? Oh, how'd that get in there...


Courtney Milan said...

As a general rule, I think the reader should be able to predict at least the big problems (emotional conflict, what's brewing on the horizon) but not the solutions.

It's like, you want the reader to see the anvil dropping from far above, but you don't want to show them the net that'll catch it.

That being said, there are aspects of the anvil that are awesome if they come as a surprise. For instance, the reader may know who the villain is, but might not know that the villain is in league with the heroine's brother.

Erica Ridley said...

I like CM's idea about readers predicting the big problems (but not necessarily the solutions.)

As a reader, I at least want to see the train wreck coming (he's a fireman, she's an arsonist, or whatever) even if I'm wrong about what the train wreck actually is (there's a serial killer targeting firemen and her ex-husband kidnaps her baby).

My mom and I were watching a movie (Sin Dejar Huella) and at around the 1-qtr point, my mom says, "Oooh, I bet they get attacked by a serial killer." We both lean forward. They do end up attacked, but not in the way we anticipated, nor by the person we anticipated. But the thought of the serial killer offing them kept us watching.

Okay, that's big stuff. Conflict-level stuff. How bout the small stuff, like scene disasters? I personally love that stuff to come as a surprise/twist. It can't every time, of course, but when it's possible to do so... why not?

Hellie Sinclair said...

Okay, I have to comment, because you brought up LOST, which makes me feel dumber than a bag of hammers. I don't think any book should be this complicated; and if I did accidentally buy this book, I'd never read another one by that author. It feels like a jerky way of saying, "I'm smarter than you"--and as you say, we like our readers to feel smart.

Granted I can't solve the simplest of mysteries, but in hindsight it is obvious...and I don't feel stupid about it. But LOST is some great "showing-off" and I don't think writing should be about showing-off. It should entertaining. It should make you feel included and part of a comraderie--and you can't feel that if you're with someone who makes the attention all about them by pointing at you as an example of stupidity.

Exactly as CM said. I think we should be able to predict the problems, though not necessarily the solution.

Hellie Sinclair said...

P.S. Twists are good. But LOST has had to one-up the TWIST and be a TWIST with a lime in it or a TWIST with a tornado and polar bear attached. It's just retarded.

So do the twists. Just don't throw a freaking polar bear in it.

Darcy Burke said...

I agree, half the fun of reading a book is being "in" on the impending disaster with the author. Those poor characters don't see it coming! Love that.

Jackie Barbosa said...

Like Ms. Hellion, _Lost_ makes me feel dumb as a bag of hammers, mainly because I've never watched it and have no idea what the fuss is about ;).

As a reader, I like a combination of seeing the anvil coming and then being surprised by the size and shape of said anvil. In other words, it's fun to feel one-up on the characters at certain points (you KNOW what's coming, and it AIN'T gonna be pretty) and at other points feeling as gob-smacked as they do by what happens next.

Tricky line to walk as a writer, though!

Keira Soleore said...

As far as books go, the element of surprise is key. As far as personal life goes, I'll trade unpreditability for mundane any day.

CM says it best. Doesn't she always?

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