Is “predictable” always bad?

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Writers shouldn’t read reviews of their work.

It’s excellent advice. It’s also incredibly difficult to stick to when you see that someone has written a new review. I suspect it’s even harder for new writers than it is for the ones who are old hands at this. Curiosity can just get too much. Because writers thrive on feedback too. And I care what my readers think…I want to listen, to learn, to improve…I don’t want to to disappoint people who do me the honour of buying and reading my book.

So I just read a reader’s review of my first novel, Truths (published April 2010 from Bold Strokes Books), on Amazon.com (you can read the review here). It’s mostly a very good review and I’m very grateful indeed to the lady called Beth from LA who wrote it and gave me 4 stars out of 5 and said I was a “promising” writer. However, in her last paragraph, she describes my novel as “predictable”.

"Truths" (from Bold Strokes Books, April 2010)

Which got me thinking. I’m not going to debate the question of Truths being predictable. I guess that depends very much on each individual reader. I’ve had other readers tell me that certain aspects of the way the novel concludes took them by surprise. And, honestly, I would agree that some parts of the book are predictable. You know–more or less–how it’s going to turn out, from at least half way through.

That’s not really what I’ve been thinking about. What I’ve been debating with myself is this: Is “predictable” necessarily a bad thing for a novel to be?

I constantly read reviews on the backs of books and in the front matter proclaiming how “unexpected” certain plot twists were…how wonderful it is that the reader is kept guessing…how shocking the ending of a novel is…how clever for being so surprising. Clearly readers–at least those who write reviews considered worthy of reprinting–enjoy a novel that twists and turns and takes them by surprise. I’ve enjoyed novels like that myself. One of the best is Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith. The twists in that novel are real shocks when they come and it’s a delight to read.

But sometimes I like the comfort of a “predictable” read too. Fingersmith isn’t my favourite of Waters’s books precisely because the twists startle me so much. I don’t necessarily mean I need a simple story. I don’t mean one without any twists or unexpected happenings at all. But isn’t it sometimes nice to know what’s going to happen? To get the happy ending you’re hoping for? It’s comfortable and unchallenging perhaps. But does a book always have to be a challenge? Does it always have to shake you up to be a good read? Some of the classics of literature are really predictable. I knew Lizzie Bennett and Mr. Darcy were going to get together from the time they danced together at the Netherfield ball. Jane Eyre was going to end up in the arms of Mr. Rochester from the moment they met on the road to Thornfield. The events of the novel–a younger sister’s elopment or a mad wife in the attic–we can’t forsee. But we know how we want the novel to end…and it’s a good feeling when we get what we want.

I’m not comparing myself as a writer with Austen and Bronte. I’m actually talking about my experience as a reader. I’m not a fan of most mystery fiction or crime fiction because most of it goes out of its way to keep me guessing. Sometimes it feels like a plot twists just for the sake of it. Sometimes I don’t want to be a detective. I just want some entertainment. That doesn’t mean it can’t be thought provoking or touch my heart. It can be intelligent and unusual. It can be educational and stimulating. It just means I don’t always need to be surprised to enjoy a good read. A plot can keep me guessing what I’m going to discover in the next chapter, even when I sense I know where those chapters are leading to.

Knowing the destination doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the journey.

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6 responses »

  1. It’s interesting too to note when a novel becomes ‘predictable’. With some it’s almost from the first page but, with others, there is a slow dawning of realisation about where the plot or a particular character is going and this may not reach its denouement until much later in the book; sometimes not until the last page.

    In fact, this is surely the experience offered by most novels.

    Does this therefore qualify as ‘predictable’? I don’t know, but I agree with you that predictability isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

  2. Hi Rebecca,

    I know this post is a few years old, and it doesn’t look like this blog has been too active for some time, but I still wanted to comment on this post of your to say thanks for writing it. It’s good to know I’m not the only person who thinks some degree of predictability can actually be a good (and in fact intentional on the writer’s part) thing.

    My wife just released her second novel and at first it was getting some great reviews, which in my (totally unbiased, I swear..ha ha) opinion it totally deserved.

    But then, some reviewer who appears to have an agenda, put up a post basically slamming the story. She then went on to post similar negative reviews under different user names in several different review forums (I am 100% certain that 3 are from her, and I very strongly suspect that two others are as well.). One of her main negative points was to say how predictable the story is. In two of her reviews, she goes so far as to include plot spoiling details, basically saying “I totally predicted this and this and this”, thus ensuring the predictability of these plot points for anyone else who happens to read her review prior to reading the novel.

    The unfortunate thing here is that “Predictable” is such a loaded word. It’s almost like a death sentence for indie-published stories. From then on, anyone who reads that prior to writing their own review is likely to parot the word themselves. After all, who wants to admit that they are the stupid one who didn’t see some plot twist coming, when everyone else is saying it was predictable.

    The thing is, as you’ve alluded to, predictable isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Certainly, if I’m reading an Agatha Christie murder mystery, I expect the story to contain clues intended to misdirect me and make me guess incorrectly. Similarly, sometimes an action thriller may do similar things to shock and amaze the reader.That’s part of the fun. Not every story is a murder mystery or thriller though.

    Sometimes the author includes foreshadowing intentionally so that the reader starts to guess where things are heading. The whole point isn’t to fool the reader, but rather to allow the reader to watch the events unfold and see how the characters are affected and react.

    As an example, by the end of the first Star Wars movie, most of us already had a pretty strong suspicion about who Luke Skywalker’s father was. When it is finally revealed to us in the last movie, it’s not really terribly suprising to anyone. Does that mean the story is bad? Of course not. The whole point isn’t to fool us. The point isn’t that we (the audience) are supposed to be shocked when the truth is revealed. Rather, it is Luke Skywalker who is shocked when confronted with the truth. We are mearly spectators to this. Our entertainment value comes not from being shocked by the truth of Luke’s father, but rather by seeing how this truth is revealed to Luke, how it affects him, how he struggles and reacts to it.

    Can one say that Star Wars is “Predictable?” I suppose they can, but it’s still a great story with millions (billions?) of fans.

    Similarly, in the movie “The Sixth Sense”, pretty early on, most of us are guessing that perhaps Bruce Willis’s character is actually dead. The value of that story isn’t in fooling the audience about that fact. What makes the story moving and powerful is watchin the realization of his own demise finally dawn upon Bruce Willis. He, not us, has been traveling through the story completely unaware and not even guessing what the truth is or might be. The climax of the story is when he, not us, is completely blindsided by that truth.

    My wife’s story follows a similar pattern. The plot spoilers that the online reviewer reveal are in fact ones that the reader is fully intended to suspect. It is the protagonist of the story that is supposed to be completely surprised by them. The early reviewers seemed to get this, but once this bonehead posted her torpedo attack, suddenly there has been a string of similar reviews all using the same “Predictable” criticism. It is massively frustrating and dissappointing. I can’t even begin to adequately describe the ammount of time, effort, pain and passion that my wife put into that story over the course of several years in order to create a really wonderful story with a lot of deep insight and nuance. And then some online troglodyte comes along and just barfs on it, inciting similar barfing reactions in all who witness it.

    Anyway, I appreciate you addressing this concept in your post of a few years back. I apologize for my own rambling in response, but it feels good to get it off my chest.

    Cheers,

    Sam

    • Hi Sam,
      I wanted to say thank you for your response and for taking the time to write it. You’re right, my blog hasn’t been active for a while – I’ve been taking some time away from being very active online and I’ve not been writing very much. However, I have to say, you’ve inspired my to get back to blogging – so there might be more from me soon. I’m just about to sign a contract for a new novel too, so things are looking up!

      I completely agree with what you said. ‘Predicatable’ is a very loaded word. And that’s the problem when someone uses it in a review. A book that wasn’t at all predictable would defy logic – it can twist and turn but there’s always a part of you predicting certain elements of what you’re reading. And I think readers want to be right from time to time – to have understood the characters and the plot to the extent that they want to be able to guess what might happen next. But, put the word ‘predictable’ in a review and people start to look for it – ‘oh yes, of course those characters are going to fall in love, how predictable’…therefore how stupid of the author when actually the romance is one of the driving strands of the plot and it wouldn’t satisfy the demands of the genre if the characters didn’t fall in love. Etc.

      I think one ‘predictable’ review does spawn others – because people suddenly become aware of a process they usually internalize. As you said, we do it with movies too. We do it with every story we ever witness. Sometimes we want to be surprised but other times we want to be the external observer who knows more or less what’s going to happen but is intrigued how the characters will respond. Personally, I don’t like twists in novels and films that completely take me by surprise – because they challenge my understanding of and engagement with the characters until that point. It’s subjective though – other people like that challenge.

      Ultimately, the point is that ‘predictable’ is far too negative a word to throw at novels just because you worked out what’s going to happen.

      I hope your wife hasn’t taken it to heart and will keep writing what she wants to write – I’d be interested to know what the book is, if you’d like to post a link!

      I don’t read reviews anymore, by the way. At all. I will read positive ones if someone directs my attention to them but I stay away from Goodreads and Amazon. There’s no quality control, no accountability, people can say what they like. Yes, honest reviews are good and no writer should expect to avoid negative reviews entirely. But it doesn’t do any good at all to read them – those negative words can infect the creative process next time you sit down to write and they are, ultimately, just the opinions of a few individuals.

      Thank you again for your words – and sorry for rambling in response.

      And thank you for awakening my urge to blog again!

      All the best,

      Rebecca

  3. Hi Rebecca,

    Thanks for your reply. The last few paragraphs you wrote are particularly encouraging. Unfortunately, this is only the second novel my wife has put out, so she has a very hard time not reading reviews. She craves valuable feedback. When a review is of good quality, even if it is somewhat negative or contains criticisms (actually, especially if it contains valid and thoughtful criticisms) she actually takes that quite well. Obviously nobody enjoys hearing negative criticisms, but if they have some validity, then they help the writer to improve their work. My wife totally gets this. Prior to publishing her latest work, she hired several professional editors and beta readers and actively solicited criticism. She peppered them with specific questions to try to ferret out even the most minor problems, etc. She literally spent several years working on this story, writing and rewriting, and refused to publish it until she really felt it was truly good. It is. Again, I know my opinion is biased, but her work is really good. I’ve read it several times and it still moves me. It’s just beautifully written.

    No story is going to be loved by everyone, and her’s is no exception. Some people only like romance. Some only sci-f or thrillers or cowboys or whatever. Even if they aren’t a particular fan of the genre or the narrative style however, a skilled critic can still recognize quality. Sadly, as you’ve mentioned, with sites like Goodreads and Amazon, there is no quality control or accountability, and it shows in the nature of some (not all) of the reviews. That’s not to say that any review less than 4 or 5 stars is a bad quality review. Anyone who has read the story and then reads the reviews can certainly pick out the ones expressing valid thoughtful observations and opinions and those that are written by people who are only interested in being mean-spirited, or who obviously didn’t pay much attention when reading (or in the case of one gem, couldn’t be bothered to read the entire story before blasting away with snarky comments and giving it a one-star rating) as evidenced by blatant factual errors, etc. To the casual browser looking for a new book to read however, all they see is the overall star rating and if it isn’t high enough, they just move on, never even bothering to give the story a chance. That is sad, I think. For an already established writer like JK Rowling or Suzanne Collins, with millions of fans and thousands of reviews, a handful of snarky low ratings has essentially no effect. For an unknown indie writer with just a handful of reviews however, just a few of these can totally torpedo the overall rating average. They can break the fragile spirit of someone pursuing their dream. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and has the right to express it, but man people really ought to take just a second or two and think about what they are saying and the effects their words can have. At the heart of it, public reviews are a form of power and like all forms of power, there is an inherent responsibility that comes with it. Too many people don’t seem to realize this.

    Oh well, again it feels good to get this off my chest. I really do appreciate your kind words of encouragement. Oh, and by the way, congratulations on your pending novel contract!!! That’s awesome!!

    Cheers,

    Sam

    p.s. You asked me to post the link to my wife’s book, but I’m not sure how to put a link to it here. I did list her website’s address in the user details form however. Her new novel is The Orphan of Torundi, by J.L. McCreedy.

    Have a great day!

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