**No movie spoilers**
A long time ago on a blog that’s now far away from a regular posting schedule, myself and a buddy had a debate about predictability versus surprise in fiction.
Quite unwittingly, this discussion arose on the heels of an entirely different examination of pantsing versus plotting.
(For the record on that account, I like to know where my story is going before I start and to rough out as much of the journey as I’m aware of up front, but I’m in no way wedded to it, nor do I subscribe to the notion that plotting will rob a story of the joy and magic of actually writing it. But you can read more about all that yourself.)
In this secondary debate, the issue at hand was that of what readers (and viewers of movies and TV – in essence, consumers of any form of media that incorporates story) want and why they choose the media that they choose. I made three main points to that effect:
- That surprise such as it is doesn’t truly exist in fiction; that the clues and cues leading up to each reveal are always present regardless of whether the reader is able to recognize and interpret them ahead of time
- That a twist that’s astonishing by degree (e.g. the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones) or infrequency (e.g. the movie The Sixth Sense or the book Gone Girl) is not the same thing as surprise, and that the opposite of surprise is not banality and boredom, and
- That most consumers of media do so, not to be “surprised”, but rather to experience a satisfying conclusion to a story that re-confirms universal human truths they already know yet are being presented in a new (or not) way.
My co-debater didn’t agree with me, conceding that people do want predictability on a genre level, but that the familiarity of genre conventions isn’t the same as key plot points, and that readers won’t actually consider whether they’d been properly led to each point or not.
But a recent event has led me to double down on my position. I maintain that because stories have order and structure – because they’re a causal chain of events where everything that happens motivates everything that follows, plot twists included – they are, as a result of this, predictable.
Perhaps not the line-by-line details, but the overarching sweep of the narrative, for sure. Stories always telegraph their intentions: we know something is going to happen; we know approximately when it will occur; we don’t know exactly how, but we have a pretty good idea of what.
This idea gets clearer as each new event eliminates the possibility of countless others that could have happened instead, driving the narrative closer and closer to its inevitable conclusion with each turn of the page. Aiding this is the fact that we’ve already read a form of this story countless times over: there are no original ideas out there, and only 20 (or 7, or 3, or 2) so-called “universal plots”.
The event in question that’s brought all this up again for me: I went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Re-awakening my position
It was over the Christmas holiday that I saw it, for it’s become something of a tradition every December for my mom and stepdad and I to go see a fantasy movie together.
We started three years ago with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and have been going strong ever since (save the year they saw The Hobbit part 2 without me and forced me to carry on my love of Thorin Oakenshield – or at least his hair – on my own).
But we were all together this time – me with my own giant popcorn because popcorn is never something I share and the two of them looking like they were waiting for a bus with their coats and hats still on against the chill of the theatre.
Afterwards, on the way out, my mom asked me what I’d thought.
There were some great moments and great characters. I loved the diversity. I loved Finn – I found him so un-selfconscious and funny. Rey was pretty kickass and cool, albeit entirely too perfect at everything and lacking in flaws (but that’s a topic for another blog post). It was cool to see some of the actors from the original trilogy. The settings looked amazing. Plus, I totally dig the Finn/Poe Dameron ship that’s cast off within fandom.
But all in all, I found the story fairly predictable. Fun enough, but not especially memorable. No surprises at all* – nothing hinted at on the sly that was later revealed to be a diversion from the straight through line. Too much reliance on the Hero’s Journey as a plot device.
An opinion which, while I’m not completely alone in it, is certainly not a majority one, as the film has earned 93% on Rotten Tomatoes and to date grossed $1.76 billion and counting.
Also, an opinion which rather seems to contradict my earlier points – surprise doesn’t exist; predictability doesn’t equal boring; readers/viewers want a satisfying conclusion.
Expect when I look closer at myself in relation to the larger Star Wars fan base and target audience for the film.
(Already) liking what you see
Simply put, I’m not part of the Star Wars fan base at all. Star Wars: A New Hope came out in 1977 when I was -1 year old. Although I’m familiar with the basic plot and characters, I’ve never actually seen any of the original trilogy. I’ve just never had any real interest in partaking of that particular piece of popular culture.
(I did, however, watch two of the three later prequels, and while I liked the bit about the queen disguising herself as her own handmaiden and Darth Maul’s lightsaber staff, I didn’t care for much else.)
My dad took my sister and I with him to see Return of the Jedi when I was five and I fell asleep in the theatre.
So I went into The Force Awakens more or less a blank slate, my childhood un-coloured by the rosy glow of Star Wars phenomenon enjoyed by my elders. Neither had I experienced the love and thrill of the story in more recent years like so many among the younger portion of the audience.
As much as I disliked the prequels, nothing seminal and forever memorable had been ruined for me by midi-chlorians, Jar Jar Binks, and the nauseating courtship of Anakin and Amidala. I didn’t go into The Force Awakens hoping for a fix-it – for a return to the glory days of the Republic.
In short, I wasn’t the one whose notion of a satisfying conclusion to the movie mattered.
This movie wasn’t made for me. I can’t say the number of times I’ve heard or seen it referred to as a love letter to A New Hope. The movie was for the fans, and overwhelmingly, they loved it.
It was exactly what they wanted: a familiar story told in a slightly different way. An affirmation of what they already knew to be great about Star Wars.
And so I take this as further support of my points, which themselves could probably do with a bit of qualification: you probably have to already like that type of story you’re consuming to be accepting of predictability.
If you don’t like it, or it’s otherwise new to you, you might not care to discover how what you can guess is coming will play out. You mightn’t enjoy guessing what’s coming at all.
Me – I don’t like stories where the lines between good and evil are so cleanly drawn. I’m not really into prolonged action sequences with guns and aerial dogfights. I don’t like flawless, Mary Sue-ish female characters (I’m sorry, but missing one’s family is not a character flaw). But that last one really is a topic for a whole other blog post.
All this being said, I didn’t hate the movie by any stretch, and I do have a movie-going tradition to uphold with my mom and stepdad.
With two more new Star Wars movies in the works; they may succeed in making a fan of me yet.
*A/N: The biggest surprise for me was discovering that Stormtroopers are actually people. I always thought that were machines.
What are your thoughts on predictability vs. surprise in fiction? What did you think about The Force Awakens? Let me know in the comments.