A hobby of mine, as well as a few other members of my family, is to try to predict events in the movies or TV shows we’re watching. It makes screen time a little more interactive (or competitive, depending on the night). I think we’re pretty good at it, and it’s usually fun to be right.
There are people who might not agree that this is fun. I’ve seen plenty of reviews that imply predictable only has four letters. The word is used to dismiss a book or show as having no surprises, no imagination and maybe no entertainment value at all. What’s the point, some people say, if the ending is obvious?
But for those of us who want a happy ending, a dose of predictability is a must. I want to know from the moment I learn the hero’s goal that he will eventually accomplish it. I want to know as soon as the bad guys are introduced that someone will stop them. I want to know that the unrequited love won’t stay that way. I maintain that it is the how and not the what that is important.
I need examples to explain myself. If, not that this has ever been part of a real plot, we were watching a love story and guess the girl’s conniving boss will lie to the guy to cause a split, we will be happy when we’re proven right. (We will be. I said we were good.) But our opinion of the movie will change based on how the scene plays out. If the guy walks off in a huff without even talking to the girl, we’ll groan at the ridiculous development and care very little about what happens next. But if the writer manages a clever conversation where he thinks she’s confirming what the boss said, and she’s actually saying something else, we might root for them to figure out the truth and start guessing what will tip someone off. The fact that we saw the misunderstanding coming matters less than how the characters handle it.
For another example, let’s imagine a side character assures the heroine that she won’t have to leave the vacation early because her sister’s baby isn’t due for another three weeks. We don’t have to be good to know the baby is coming early. Anyone who read that sentence guessed it, too. Right? This is where predicting plots isn’t just a hobby. I’m trying to learn. Imagine if the same character ran off for a birth and we didn’t even know anyone was pregnant. That kind of left field event isn’t better. How could the writer work in enough details to make the incident seem natural but not completely expected? Hint: It usually has to do with not explicitly saying something won’t happen.
I’m pondering all this because I’m working on the fourth and final book in a series. People who have read the first three probably have a guess at which two characters are getting together in this upcoming book. If they want the happily ever after that I want, they’ll be kind of mad if they’re wrong. I need to consider how to write a story that is predictable in a sense but not completely void of surprises. Hopefully, a few laughs will help. It can be hard to see those coming.