Is Predictability A Good Thing In Stories?

2013 Artwork Predictable Stories Sketch

I started watching season three of “The A Team” recently and, although the dialogue is as funny as ever and the main characters are as eccentric as usual, it still has one of the main problems which the last two seasons had. The stories are very predictable. Every episode is basically just the same story with a few changes to the locations and the secondary characters.

A television classic like “The A Team” can get away with recycling it’s storylines because it’s more of a tongue-in-cheek action show than a serious drama, but predictability is a subject which any storyteller should be aware of. If you’re writing a story or a comic for a series that someone else has created, then you might have to follow a formula or a pre-arranged structure. But, if you’re writing a story or a comic on your own, then it’s a lot easier to avoid being too predictable.

Yes, every writer has probably written something very predictable before (I certainly have) and, when you’ve got writer’s block, coming up with a formulaic story is less worse than coming up with no story at all. Ideally, predictability is something you want to either avoid as much as possible or use to your advantage when you’re setting up a plot twist. But….

In a way, every story is at least slightly predictable. Apart from flash fiction and plotless stories, virtually everything follows the classic “beginning, middle and end” structure. Even though it’s predictable, it works. It’s the skeleton which helps your story to stand on it’s own two feet.

However, if you want to, you can change this structure slightly. For example, you’ve probably seen films or comics which start at the end and then show you everything which led up to the ending (if you haven’t, then check out a film called “Memento” as well as an old “film noir” movie from the 50s called “D.O.A”). But, even with a small change like this, it’s still a classic “beginning, middle and end” story in all practical terms.

Predictability is, unfortunately, an inherent part of storytelling. In fact, it’s probably part of who we are in general. As quite a few articles and documentaries have probably pointed out, knowing how to spot patterns and predict danger were extremely useful skills for early humans. If we didn’t know how to do this, then I wouldn’t be writing this article and you wouldn’t be reading it because our distant ancestors would have become extinct.

So, yes, prediction and predictability is part of being human.

Not to mention that, when someone comes up with a new type of story or a particularly innovative plot twist or story element, then everyone and the dog ends up copying it until it becomes an extremely predictable cliche. To give you a modern example, look at how many films used “bullet time” slow motion effects after ‘The Matrix’ came out.

By their very nature, unpredictable things can only be unpredictable once.

And, to be honest, most people don’t like truly unpredictable things in stories. This is why, for example, it is always a good idea to foreshadow any plot twists you add to your story (in other words, leave a few small clues before your plot twist).

A truly unpredictable story can be kind of childish, like the writer doesn’t really care about whether or not the story follows a logical series of events.

In a way, a moment of true unpredictability is like a “jump” moment in a horror movie. Yes, you might be shocked the first time a ghostly face suddenly appears in a window or a mysterious hand smashes through a window or something like that. But, if the whole film relies on nothing more than “jump” moments, then you’ll probably feel slightly cheated or, at the very least, you won’t really be interested in watching it again.

So, I hate to say it, but your stories have to be at least slightly predictable. You can’t write a serious historical novel set in the middle ages and then, at a random point, have a velociraptor jump out of nowhere and eat the main characters. This could work in a comedy story or possibly as a plot twist if the story later turns out to actually be a fantasy or sci-fi story. But, for “serious” stories, it would probably just make most of your readers laugh out loud and/or stop reading.

But, just because you have to be predictable doesn’t mean that you have to be predictable. Even though your story should still follow a logical series of events, there are no real rules about what those events have to be, apart from the fact that they have to follow on from each other and seem “realistic” in the context of your story (so, you can do a lot more in sci-fi/fantasy/comedy/horror stories than you can in, say, historical fiction).

Likewise, the premise of your story can, and should, be fairly different from other stories in the same genre. The setting of your story can be somewhere new and interesting or you could show a familiar type of setting from a totally different perspective. You could make your main characters very different from the main characters which typically appear in the type of stories you’re telling.

There’s a lot of stuff you can do to make your story less predictable, but at least a small amount of predictability is usually a good thing.

Anyway, I hope that this article was useful šŸ™‚

One comment on “Is Predictability A Good Thing In Stories?

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