On Predictability vs. Surprise in Fiction (or, How The Force Awakens forced me to change my position on the matter. Slightly.)

 

Star Wars - The Force Awakens

**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:

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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.

I didn't know they had Pantene Pro-V on Middle Earth

I didn’t know they had Pantene Pro-V on Middle Earth

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.

My response:

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.

Star Wars - A New Hope(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.

One more picture of Thorin's glorious tresses, cuz why not?

One more picture of Thorin’s glorious tresses, cuz why not?

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.

(Image source #1, #2, #3, and #4)

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12 thoughts on “On Predictability vs. Surprise in Fiction (or, How The Force Awakens forced me to change my position on the matter. Slightly.)

  1. That person you debated with way back when sounds like a real jerk and I hope I never meet him/her. I might just punch him/her in the nose!

    Nothing in my life has held me in greater awe and rapture than the two hours I spend as a 9-year-old watching Star Wars in 1977. No movie changed cinema (or me) more than Star Wars did, and none ever will again. Without historical context, younger people who have been exposed to Jurassic Park and Avatar and any modern space epic might wonder why. All I can say to them is, “Watch a movie from 1976.”

    Sadly, I’m too jaded to feel magic in a movie theater any more. I did enjoy The Force Awakens while appreciating and agreeing with many of the criticisms along the lines of what you discussed above. Ultimately, for the fans, JJ Abrams and Disney likely felt it was necessary to recenter the franchise. Make it feel like Return of the Jedi Part 2, in other words. If it didn’t “feel” like a Star Wars movie, as the prequels did not, the backlash would have been intense. Now, one hopes, the producers are free to go in new directions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I never liked that guy anyway!

      I think one of the crappy parts about getting older is how that sense of wonder and magic found in simple things disappears. I agree with you that Abrams and Disney had to step lightly, but it annoys me in general when media is too “safe”. I too hope they delve a bit more in the remaining two movies, although again, I acknowledge I’m not exactly their target audience, so I’m not too fussed if my future reaction is largely unchanged.

      I will say, though, that reading your comments about the original Star Wars does encourage me a little more to watch it. Do you still enjoy it as an adult?

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      • Star Wars is just part of my existence at this point, though, when I evaluate the series critically, there’s really not much to it. It’s just a magical fantasy adventure that came at the right time for me. conceptually, I’m much more of a Star Trek fan, believe it or not. It’s very right brain/left brain. Each hemisphere practices its fanhood independently of the other.

        The Death Star attack run at the end of the original Star Wars is still the most bloody brilliant piece of visceral cinema ever, though. When Luke switches off his equipment and decides to finish the mission using The Force… still get goosebumps from that.

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      • I’m a Trekkie as well (so much so that I know better that “Trekkie” isn’t the preferred term within the fandom, but whatever). I’ve seen all the series (save the one with Scott Bakula; it just didn’t resonate with me) and am super stoked about the new series that’s being developed. Like Star Wars, I was introduced to Star Trek by my dad. The setting and situations of the latter makes it easy to see why I’d favour it, although it’s also possible that since I was a little older when I first watched it, I was better able to appreciate it.

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  2. I watched the original Star Wars movie (no nonsense about hope back then), halfway through grad school, with my new husband and my grad school colleagues – and it was awesome. Nothing like it had ever come out before (or since). The next one was pretty awesome. The third had ridiculous fighting teddy bears and zooming through the woods without hitting the trees ENDLESSLY. And a few good twists.

    The less said about the abominations with the prequels, the better.

    We haven’t been to see the new one, but will do so when we don’t have to fight crowds, during the daytime, because, let’s face it, a number of years have gone by and we’re older now, same husband and I, and we will probably enjoy the heck out of it.

    As for structure, by now you probably know I’m as extreme a structural plotter as it is possible to be (I use Dramatica) – and that I find knowing exactly what has to be developed in a scene the most freeing thing ever for writing. Structure is imperative in stories: it isn’t there, not really, in Life, and we somehow crave it.

    And all the pantsing in the world will not create a well-structured story; you have to put the rebar in the concrete in a plan before you start decorating the apartments, or they are likely to end up in a puddle at the first minor earthquake.

    It will be interesting to see the Star Wars movie – one of the things that attracted me originally to Dramatica was their analysis of Star Wars (the original), and how well the structure fit their theory.

    I haven’t seen Titanic – we’re even.

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    • At this point, I’m not sure if I’m a capital-P Plotter or not. For my trilogy, I made an outline (not even so much an outline – there were no chapter breaks, no scene breaks – as a very long bullet list summary of What Happens) that was almost 90 pages long. I followed it almost to the letter for the first book and maybe the first chapter of the second, then took a huge pantsing detour for the rest of book 2 and only just got back on the map for maybe the last quarter of book 3. Is one counted a plotter for creating the pre-writing structure or actually following it?

      In the end, it doesn’t really matter, for no one can tell when they read a book whether it was plotted or pantsed. Plotting vs. pantsing is one of those things people like to argue, like dark chocolate vs. milk chocolate*. Ultimately, whatever gets one to the promised land makes no difference to me.

      I hope you enjoy The Force Awakens; it seems to have been made for fans like you. My folks and I went during the daytime as well; much less crowded and irritating.

      I saw Titanic and liked it, but it wasn’t the seminal piece of media that inspired my hopes and dreams and future creative aspirations the way Star Wars did for many. For me, it was Xena that did that.

      *For the record, milk chocolate. Only ever milk chocolate.

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      • I strongly disagree (but them I’m an extreme plotter) that you can’t tell at the end if something was plotted or pantsed. I avoid certain writers because though I used to like them, I soon realized that they had plot holes big enough for aircraft carriers to swim through – because they pantsed (and they boasted about it).

        To me (and this is my opinion only), lack of structure shows. My first novel has that ‘this happened, and then this happened…’ quality to it – and it is never going to see the light of day, even indie, unless I replot it from first principles and then take what I can from the story that works with a solid structure, and write new for everything else. and I LOVE that story and its characters.

        Which is why I’m putting weeks into the structure for PC 2 and 3 now, before I start trying to do anything with the notes and the rough draft – and that HAD structure when I wrote it.

        A solid structure knows where the end is going to be – and decides what to keep and what to discard that will contribute to the end. When things meander all over the place, the writer had no idea where he wanted to go when he started – and then it was too much trouble to retrofit something that would make sense.

        IMNVHO.

        I’m only going to write a few books in my lifetime – I can’t afford to wander.

        Nice arguing with you.

        Many people think structure=handcuffs. I think structure=architectural drawings.

        Note: Everyone gets to write exactly how they want – I just don’t read the ones I don’t like – and we’re all happy.

        We STILL haven’t gotten to the movie. Sigh. I’ve been plotting – and it makes me tired.

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      • Not too opinionated; I can take it. 😉

        I agree, I can definitely tell if something has plot holes in it, but I’m not convinced that can be attributed solely to pantsing vs. plotting. Case in point, take movies: nothing is more structured, more outlined, and in possession of as rigorous a writing and story format as a movie script, yet I’ve seen some films whose logic seems to have taken a long walk off a short pier. I think that plot holes can occur as much from misattribution of character motivation and a misunderstanding of how certain things in the world work as from pantsing.

        That said, I personally don’t think that structure = handcuffs, I’m just more open about when the structure can develop. A lot of writers seem to like to free-associate or discovery write to see what sort of story takes shape before planing it into proper shape. To me, it does seem like a lot of extra work, but then so too is putting in a ton of plotting only to intentionally go off-road midway through the story.

        In actual fact, though, I don’t believe there’s such a thing as wasted writing, as it all has some benefit in the end. It’s rather like prayer in that regard. 🙂

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      • YMMV of course, but I did one plotting with Dramatica, wrote the whole rough draft with what that gave me. Then I took everything I had, did the grand reorganization of 2007 in three weeks, divided the whole into three books, plotted the first with Dramatica – and didn’t deviate except in minor ways from the structure until I finished the first volume and published it last year.

        I’m doing the tweaking of book 2 right now (and hoping to do book 3 at the same time). Then the structure is locked down, and I can go write until it’s finished, knowing everything connects, and discovering all the fun details of HOW along the way.

        Dramatica helps you think out characters, and their motivation/purpose/means of evaluation/methodology (why, what, how, and way of knowing when they’re there), character relationships and why they’re in the story, sequence and kinds of events, and the inner and outer stories (it’s complicated).

        This would drive many people nuts to do at once, but they usually have to answer those questions sometime – and answers that happen at random as you go do not necessarily work well as a team.

        I don’t recommend it – long learning curve. And I won’t know if it really works until the end of book 3, but I like how I write with it, and book 1 had many problems (me learning to write, mainly) but none of them were structural.

        It’s a style of writing – but I think the holes in the plot, characters, etc., show up much earlier, and get filled in holistically (hehe) before you start.

        I love your analogy to prayer: it’s exactly like that. Do it on a regular basis, with an intention of developing your prayer life and relationship with the Almighty – or paddle like crazy each time you hit a hole.

        It may even be an age/maturity thing. I believe my first novel was pantsed: it follows the main character figuring things out (it sort of felt like Sue Grafton’s alphabet novels), and reached a satisfying end (I thought), but is FULL of things I only considered later – and which keep me from just fixing it up a bit and publishing it. It goes from a regular mystery in academia to a spy thriller by the end. Very messy.

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  3. I don’t mind SOME predictability, I like knowing where a story will take me. However it’s when I can see a plot twist coming a mile away that I get frustrated. The element of surprise when done well can be one of the biggest “oh shit” moments – and those are great.

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    • I’ve always been pretty good at guessing plot twists, or at least sensing the discrepancy that precedes them (during The Sixth Sense, I kept wondering why they were always taking the bus; while reading Gone Girl, I kept saying to myself, “I thought this girl was supposed to be some kind of genius.”) This doesn’t bother me because I’m still interested in how the twist happens. Plus, I am often caught off guard by the degree of this twist (it ends up being more sad/violent/scary/etc. than I anticipated), which makes me go “Oh shit!” as well (I just finished a great book where this happened).

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