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.)

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Watching Netflix Made Me a Better Writer (and I bet I’m not the only one!)

Netflix

It was around this time in 2014 that I first signed up for Netflix.

It’s hard to believe I’ve only been watching Netflix for a year, unless you happen to know me well. I’m perpetually late to everything new and cool.  The last thing I adopted early was Gmail back in 2006 when you needed to be invited to by someone already using it.

As well, I went through a period of about six years where I stopped watching TV and movies altogether. Continue reading

Cities (and Stories) Are All the Same … Except When They’re Not

Flinders Street Station transit hub, Melbourne, Australia

Flinders Street Station – a major transit hub, Melbourne, Australia

In what seemed like the blink of an eye, I’d travelled more than half a day into the future; perhaps journeying more than half a day closer to my final day.

~

“I don’t feel like I’ve just come halfway around the world.”

These were among the first words I spoke on Australian soil to my Aussie-born friend and former Vancouver roommate who was the impetus behind my recent trip Down Under.  This after she’d retrieved me from a very crowded Melbourne airport and pointed out all her favourite cafés, restaurants, shopping areas and, walking paths during the drive to her apartment.

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Character Study: Sarah Manning from Orphan Black (and, yes, a hero IS a special snowflake)

I first learned of Orphan Black when it was just an obscure, homegrown program on Canada’s Space Channel.

And in my customary inability to pick a winning horse, dismissed it without watching a single episode, deeming it just another sci-fi show on Space – a network whose programming quality, let’s be honest, varies.

But recently, my blog-buddy Eric J. Baker wrote about Orphan Black, recommending everyone give it a try.  Plus, with the second season having recently started, news of Orphan Black and its success was everywhere in Canadian entertainment news.

So, I decided I’d watch a bit, and thus far am halfway through season 1.

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On Suspense in Storytelling, pt. 2 – Unpredictable-Unputdownable

Every story, by definition, contains suspense in one form or another.

The most common form is the Predictable-Yet-Still-Desirable (from pt. 1), wherein the reader/viewer already has a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen before it happens, but wants to see it anyway.

This may be either to feel the satisfaction of having been correct in his/her predictions, to see exactly how it happens, or to be already emotionally prepared to vicariously undergo a universal human experience.

Somewhat less common is a second form of suspense, which, ironically, is probably the form that more readily comes to mind when one hears the word “suspense”: the unpredictable-and-thus-unputdownable, which keeps the reader glued to the book, and still reading long after s/he should have gone to bed.

All stories by their very nature contain the precursors of this type of suspense.  How could they not?  Stories come to us described by blurbs designed to hint at the plot and its major turning points, but ultimately give nothing away.

They’re the very definition of suspense, for who knows what might happen between the lines of that enticing paragraph on the back of the book or DVD case?

Not all stories, however, retain that suspense.

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On Truth in Storytelling

I have one more piece of favourite writing advice I was unable to fit into my previous post on that subject.

It’s a writing tip whose source I unfortunately can no longer recall.  I’ve searched through all my writing how-to books, photocopied pages, and notes I’ve taken in various journals over the years, but I’ve been unable to find it again:

The job of a story isn’t to tell what’s true; it’s to tell what people believe.

It’s a rather bald statement, to say the least – one that’s stuck with me for years.  It’s yet another touchstone I’ve tried to apply to all my writing, ironically, without even knowing how it’s writer meant for it to be interpreted, for I can’t remember that either.

What does it mean?  I’ve spent the last year and a half since I started writing again searching for an answer to that question.

I believe I’ve found two.

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The Kelly Clarkson Method of Plotting: Throwing a twist in the tale

Have you ever heard Kelly Clarkson’s 2005 song Because of You?

The other day, I was trying to assemble a soundtrack for my novel-in-progress, and the song came up on my iTunes:

[Chorus] Because of you I never stray too far from the sidewalk / Because of you I learned to play on the safe side so I don’t get hurt / Because of you I find it hard to trust not only me, but everyone around me / Because of you I am afraid

If you want, you can have a listen to the whole thing here:

While this song didn’t make my soundtrack, I like it nonetheless, for whenever I hear it, it recalls me to an important consideration regarding plots and predictability.

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