Monday, 7 May 2012

Unknown Outcome Does Not Lead To Unpredictable Story

Readers enjoy the unexpected. Not knowing what’s going to happen is part of the pleasure of hearing a story. But just because you don’t know something doesn’t mean you want to know.

If a man approaches a crossroad where he can turn left or right, you don’t know which way he’s going to choose. But when he does choose, you won’t be surprised. You knew it was going to be one of the two.

So a character going about his business, even though every action he takes is unknown to the reader right up until it is revealed, won’t be engaging purely on the basis of not knowing.

But you can’t have clowns with knives jumping out from behind bushes all the time to keep the reader on their toes (well, not more than once; okay, maybe twice). And assuming you’re writing something vaguely realistic, a lot of the time characters will be doing things within a familiar frame of reference. 

A high school student will probably eat something at lunchtime. A policeman will go to a crime scene. A poker player will win the hand or lose it.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t have normal things happen within a story, nor that you need to throw in a random clown to spice things up (not more than three times, tops). But  not knowing something and then finding out isn’t always an effective way to provide intrigue. If you just reveal which of the available options it is, that’s going to feel flat and predictable.

You have to guide the reader's expectations.

Here’s an example of what I mean. At the start of The Hunger Games there’s the draw for choosing who gets picked as tribute. The options are all the children in the district. It ends up being Katniss’s younger sister, Prim. Since it’s clearly established that she is in the draw for the first time, even though we don’t know who will be chosen, her selection is certainly a possibility. But it’s still a surprise when her name is drawn. Why?

What the story does is not only tell us the possibilities, it also guides us to a particular outcome. The emphasis is very much on whether Katniss or Gale will get chosen. Lots of details about how many tickets they have in play. How lucky they’ve been not to be chosen before. 

The author manipulates the reader into not just being aware of the options, but convinces them of which options are more likely.

This is down to skill and technique. Misdirection. But it’s very easy to be heavy handed and draw attention to the sleeve with the dove stuck up it.

What you get in a lot of WIPs is a character, options, an unknown outcome... and that’s it. The approach is left neutral. The story, like the reader, is left waiting to find out which of the obvious and predictable options will get chosen. No influence from the writer.

If Katniss, Prim, Gale and Peeta were all presented as equally viable choices for the games, Prim’s selection would have had far less impact.

In order for something to be unexpected, it isn’t enough for it to be unknown, another outcome needs to be expected. 

You have to convince the reader they do know what’s going to happen, and then have it not happen. Then they’ll stick with the story at a far deeper level to see what else goes against their expectations.
That’s all very well, but have you ever read a book numerous times (or a film viewed often)? And you still enjoyed it, even though nothing was unexpected or unknown? How does that work? In Thursday’s post we’ll be looking into it.

If you found this post of some small interest, and you think others might too, please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Jay Noel said...

Excellent post. I will say that the 1st person POV (which Hunger Games is written in) lends itself to misdirection much easier.

Many times if written in 3rd Person Omniscient, the reader feels overly manipulated, since the narrator is all knowing. So it can be a little tricky pulling it off.

Ted Cross said...

This is an area where I have no idea whether I do it well or poorly. I'm certain I have much to learn about it still. Nice post.

mooderino said...

@Jay-In omni you generally make the reader aware of something the character isn't to create suspense and tension. Although it isn't very common POV these days, and first person and 3rd Limited are pretty much the same.

@Ted-Don't we all?

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

I agree with you Moody. I guess us storytellers have to stay on our toes to keep people alert and having fun.

Christina M. McKnight said...

Great post. I've seen many writers who are heavy handed in misdirecting the reader...which isn't as fun :)

Nate Wilson said...

Excellent analysis, Moody. Hooking the reader is not just about making the unknown known. It's about skilled misdirection.

I'll have to look back through my WIP and see if I do that enough. If not, well... clowns in bushes!

mooderino said...

@Michael-there are some readers who enjoy getting what they expect, but for me the pleasure is in the writer taking me on a ride.

@Christina-as soon as you start suspecting the writer's setting you up I think it stops working. A lot of movies are really bad at that, you can see the double cross a mile off.

@Nate-you can hear them coming because of their squeaky noses.

Tara Tyler said...

i love writing plausible surprises =)
great advice and example!

Daisy Carter said...

such a great post! now if only i could get master misdirection...

Diane Carlisle said...

This is very true. This also happens in both Hangover movies. The unlikely happens, the tacky, god awful, then we realize why it happened or how.


Nice post!

Mina Burrows said...

I always find your posts helpful. The Hunger Games had a ton of misdirection, huh? Don't laugh, but I think I've done this on accident, not on purpose. Pathetic, I know. :(

Catherine Stine said...

I agree! In fact, if you're writing a thriller, or a piece where you want to raise tension and shock, you actually want to plant clues and foreshadowing BEFORE the thing happens, so that readers store those elements in their brain stems, and unconsciously dread/wait for them to happen.
Catherine Stine’s Idea City

mooderino said...


@Daisy-look! A puppy!

@Diane-actuslly that's probably more a clown in the bushes way of doing it.

@Mina-I'll take a lucky accident any day.

@Catherine-for building suspense you don't really need to use surprise. You can have all the information out there and it only makes things more tense.

Lydia Kang said...

I'm a serial book reader and movie watcher. There are some great moments that I love seeing over and over again.

The Golden Eagle said...

Three times, tops? I haven't used clowns once--I guess I'll have to go add those, or at least remember them the next time I'm stuck . . .

Great post, kidding aside.

mooderino said...

@Lydia-I'll be having a go at explaining why we love to do that on Thursday.

@Golden-doesn't have to be a clown. Mimes are also very scary.

Sarah Allen said...

I think the Hunger Games example is a perfect illustration of this. I hadn't thought of "unexpected outcomes" in this way, but its very helpful. Thank you!

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

Carissa Taylor said...

Great post! I have been thinking about this a lot in my own writing, but hadn't seen it explained so well! Love the THG example.

LD Masterson said...

I think subtle misdirection is great fun to read but very hard to write. Thanks for your insight.

Anonymous said...

I've nominated for the Versatile Blogger Award. I know you've received it before but you definitely deserve repeated recognition. Thanks for creating such a wonderful blog.

Vero said...

Excellent post on the importance of misdirection in creating surprises and even plot twists!

John Wiswell said...

I liked that you framed the predictable story with an unknown outcome as a positive. As in Hunger Games, it is, since expectation curation is one of the finer tools in helping a happy reader.

mooderino said...


@Carissa-THG examples always go down well.

@LD-I agree.

@Missy-thaks, always happy to be nominated.

@Vero-true. I do love a good plat twist.

@John-expectation curation, nice.

Carmen Esposito said...

Misdirection - don't think I know how to write this effectively. My stories are so transparent, I guess I am too. I can't even bluff at poker. I have no choice but to use the killer clowns from outer space.

mooderino said...

@Carmen - don't overdo the clowns (four times, max)

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