Friday, February 3, 2012

Predictability: Two-Edged Sword

This tickled my thoughts recently during one of my "feeding" sessions. 

That is, during a time when my current WIP (or WIPs as the case may be) is roiling in my skull but not passing through my fingers. I "feed" my muse by devouring books or movies that line up in some manner with the pesky project. This usually pushes my muse into cooperating again.

As it happened, I was watching the oldish movie Dragonheart since my current WIP involves dragons. Now I've seen about an hour and a half of the movie, and the ticker on Netflix says it has another 40 minutes to go. But, to be honest, I've no desire to watch any further. 

Not that the graphics are that bad (I mean, I like Bogart and Grant. Old movies don't phase me) Not because the characters are uninteresting. (Sean Connery as a dragon's voice? Bowen the rogue knight with honor? A near-Boudica maiden? Sign me up!) 

But the too predictable. Right now, having never seen the movie in my life before, I happen to know that a certain character is going to die in order to get rid of another, I have a pretty good guess how the remaining pair of characters will team up, and we are most definitely heading for a HEA (Happily Ever After).

Good, right?  Not exactly. Hence, the title. 

Predictability is something you can both avoid and embrace. And both options have their positive and negative sides. A fairy tale, fairy-tale retelling, and a few other plots can get away with and draw power from their predictability. 

Some examples: Howl's Moving Castle, Cinder, and Kingkiller Chronicles.  These have definite predictability. I know beforehand that certain things must come to pass-- beauty changes the beast, cinderella gets her prince, the narrator is talking about his past so clearly he survived whatever deadly challenges he describes from his youth. 

What makes these stories work is that, though predictable, the actual circumstances are more fuzzy. Take Cinder. (which you should have already read. If not, shame on you. Go buy it/borrow it/whatever. The first five chapters are FREE via Kindle, Kindle PC, etc. Go get it.  Right now.)

I knew that Cinder was clearly going to be mistreated in some manner per the fairy tale, but not how. I knew that Cinder would end up catching a prince's eye (again, but not how) and I knew she'd run away, leaving something behind that would lead to her. And would then have her HEA after all. (ad nauseam)

This predictability is soothing. I knew I could trust the author for that HEA ending. That the plot would flow in a way I could somewhat predict. BUT, that at the same time I'd be surprised and intrigued along the way by the how.

On the other hand, Dragonheart went the exact opposite for me. Readily apparent was the upcoming HEA, and the majority of the how behind its unfolding. The foreshadowing was not subtle enough, the characters not conflicted enough. Instead of soothing predictability, it was jarring boredom. Why? Because it was too predictable.

Here's the conclusion of the matter, to me. There are no new plots under the sun, as it were. You're going to have some predictability in your storylines, especially if you aim for a happy ending. (and you should, even if it's not quite HEA. That's a whole 'nother post though)  Don't fight the predictable side of things; embrace them. But remember to be careful in how much you reveal that expected end, in how you unfold the situations. 

Some stories lend well to a large amount of predictability, as I've said, fairy tales and their stylings. But many, and most, others fail miserably.