Predictability stems from familiarity. You know what’s coming next before because you’ve seen it before and you know where it’s going.
But familiarity is also a basic part of storytelling.
Good versus evil, boy meets girl, monsters in the dark — these sorts of stories have been told in one form or another since we developed the ability to communicate.
So, how do we write stories that satisfy our need for certain types of narratives, and at the same time make them seem fresh and original?
There are many books on writing that break down the structure of a novel into individual building blocks.
If you strip down a bunch of stories to their basic components you will notice a lot of similarities. The patterns you’ll find in one type of story will be repeated in a different story in a different genre.
This could lead you to believe that most stories have a common underlying structure. Which is a reasonable assumption since it happens to be true.
However, this knowledge alone isn’t necessarily going to help you write your novel, and in many cases it can lead to obvious and predictable storylines.
Just as every person has pretty much the same skeleton, and that skeleton is an essential part of what makes them them, it takes a bunch of other stuff on top to create a fully-fleshed person. And it’s the variation in those layers that makes each of us a unique and beautiful snowflake.
The problem with a lot of how-to books and blogs on writing is that they’re often very good at pointing out where the bones go, but not so clear on how to attach the muscles and blood and skin, or how far apart the eyes should be or when is a nose too big. Which is understandable since they are just explaining the basics, expecting the writer to work on the more advanced stuff themselves.
But in some cases the template can sound so definitive that the writer never goes beyond the basics, so that ideas like The Hero’s Journey or Save the Cat produce cookie-cutter stories that feel obvious and predictable.
It’s important to keep in mind the difference between a character’s goals and how they go about achieving them. While humanity’s goals have changed little throughout history (to be happy, to be well regarded, to have love, to have power, and so on) how we’ve gone about getting those things has changed a lot.
What you believe it means to be a man, to be a woman, what’s the right thing to do, what’s worth dying for, everything that happens in your imagination and where it leads is shaped by the time in which you live.
And since writers that came before didn’t live in this time, if you allow your sensibilities to infuse your work it will automatically create a new approach to even the oldest premise across all genres.
A sci-fi story written in the 60s may be set in the far flung future, but it resonates with the concerns and events of its own time. Historical fiction about the War of the Roses will be coloured by the authors views on patriarchy, monarchy or some other socio-political facet that we view differently now from then. And new research is constantly changing our perceptions of the past, just look at how our view of Christopher Columbus has changed from plucky adventurer to brutal invader.
Allowing your modern view of the world into your fiction may seem anachronistic at times, but it’s what writers have always done and it’s what has enabled each generation’s take on classic narrative structure to speak with an original voice.
You can of course deliberately try to negate that. If, for example, you wanted to write the book Jane Austen never got round to, written in her style about her characters, that is certainly possible and I have no doubt there would be a market it for it, but it would be considered a pastiche or fan fiction because it’s impossible for the writer to match the authenticity of someone actually from that period.
Similarly, no one can authentically speak in today’s voice unless they happen to be living now, whether it’s how we view society, how we communicate with each other, or how we view the past or the future. Rather than rely on books and movies to inform your view of story, just by considering what you and the people around you think about the themes and issues in your story you’ll immediately be on a less well trodden path that will help differentiate your stories from those that came before.If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.