Q&A

How Predictable Should a Story Be?

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Should a story, by and large, be predictable? Like should the audience more or less know what direction the story is going in, or should the story be more plot twisty and unpredictable?

-Tucker

Hi Tucker,

That’s a complicated question. In general, audiences like surprises, but it’s not as simple as assuming that more twists and turns are better.

How predictable a story should be depends on several factors:

  1. What exactly is the audience predicting? If the audience is sure the hero will save the day, that won’t spoil much. Even discounting how most stories end that way anyhow, there’s a lot of room within that to do unpredictable things. So if they know the general direction your story is going in, it won’t hurt anything. Whereas if what they’re predicting is a specific answer to an important mystery, that’s not so good. The pull of the mystery depends on uncertainty, and so an obvious answer is dissatisfying. Keep in mind though, that there’s a difference between an obvious answer to a mystery and one an audience member has figured out. People can get satisfaction from figuring things out, too.
  2. How invested is the audience in the outcome they are predicting? If the audience is invested enough in a particular outcome, it won’t really matter how predictable it is; they’ll just want to see it happen. Romances are the most common example, but audiences will often feel the same about the hero saving the day or other events that are emotionally satisfying.
  3. What are the costs of staying unpredictable? The problem with twists is that they are difficult to write well. A twist that feels contrived, creates plot holes, or reduces emotional satisfaction is worse than no twist. And in some cases, the story can’t stay unpredictable without sacrificing satisfaction at the end. This is common with popular TV shows – it’s simply impossible to foreshadow sufficiently but also keep the internet hive mind from catching on. Game of Thrones would have actually done better if they’d just chosen a character that everyone knew was likely to end up on the Iron Throne.
  4. Does knowing what’s coming raise tension or offer other benefits? If your protagonist knows they’ll have to fight a villain that out-matches them, like Harry Potter does with Voldemort, that will raise tension in the story and help keep it entertaining. For this reason, knowing that bad things are coming down the pipe can be a valuable storytelling tool. Even when something isn’t bad, knowing the general direction of the story can give it a sense of momentum that helps readers stick to it.

Twists add novelty to a story, but they aren’t the only thing to consider, not by a long shot. And for any writer who’s still learning to put together a solid plot, I would recommend against lots of twists because they can go wrong in so many ways.

Whatever you do, best wishes!

Chris

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    It depends on what you mean by ‘story being predictable.’ If you just mean that the audience knows how the story will end, what the outcome will be, it’s usually not a big problem. The middle is the biggest part of the story and that can still be quite surprising to the audience. If, however, you mean that the audience can tell what will happen in every scene of the story, then, yes, the story being predictable is bad.

    People will presume that at the end of a romance story, the two main leads (not matter their respective genders) will come together. People will also presume that at the end of a mystery story the mystery will be solve. People will also presume that Team Good will win in an action movie. And usually people are right in these cases, but that doesn’t destroy the fun for them. How the story comes together and how the outcome is achieved are far more interesting than not knowing how it will end.

    • Bellis

      I agree. There’s definitely a difference between, say, following basic genre expectations (as mentioned wrt romance or action) and telling a story that comprises only of overused clichés the entire way through. Breaking stereotypes and subverting a trope every now and then usually enhance stories (although of course subversions can be done badly as well).

      I guess there’s often a trade-off for subverting some expectations without making the story too jarring for your audience by playing others straight. It depends on how niche you are willing to be, but more people will stick with a book to the end when there’s a balance of familiar and unusual/subverted tropes.

      At least my approach to writing a story with the intent of subverting a trope I dislike (say, “The hero gets the girl”) would be to reign in experimentation and expectation-breakage in other aspects of the story at least to some degree (I wouldn’t let the hero accidentally destroy the world in an action story).
      On the other hand, if I wanted to have a classic story like like “heroine goes on journey to save the day”, I’d ask myself what new ideas I bring to it, possibly in the form of subverting a bunch of tropes or expectations related to characters, setting, subplots etc.

      Of course very predictable stories that are basically a bunch of clichés strung together can get super popular and critics can praise ones that break all expectations on all levels and shower them in prizes. And there are reasons for either extreme. But my preference would definitely be a balance of predictable (with the potiential of being familiar or boring) and unpredictable (fresh or disorienting), because otherwise the bar would be very high.

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