The ups and downs of predictable plots…
Some books give readers a tip-of-your-toes, gut-curling-with-anxiety, where-the-frick-is-this-going experience. And others – typically those in genre fiction – are written so that the reader has a basic idea of the route the plot will take, but only the scenery might be a surprise.
Lately, I’ve been debating myself on the value of both. Note: I’m not here to tell you why one is better than another, but rather, to share some of my observations. As always, I’ll be direct and brief.
If you’re a fervent reader, and especially if you’re a writer, you’ve probably heard the “there’s only X types of stories in the world, and they’re all one of those or a combination of those.” The “X”in the equation might vary, but the number is usually quite surprising. I most often here it pinned at seven (such as outlined in The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker), though I have heard it pinned in the low twenties as well. Even if that number was set at 1000, that still seems pretty darn low given the billions and billions of people who have lived and the fact that they all have a story. Some, several. But the reality is, when we’re embracing the narrative, plot-driven format, there’s only so many plot rivers for the water to flow to the ocean, and all water flows to the ocean.
One of the things that makes a book unpredictable, a “page-turner” so to speak, is it’s ability to fool the reader into thinking they’re reading an original story. QUIT, y’all. I hear you already. “Killian, are you saying that authors are openly plagiarizing their stories?” And, no, of course not, that’s not what I’m saying. What I am saying is that, according to the widely-accepted arguments above, there is no such thing as an original plot. That doesn’t mean an author can’t create an original experience in their book. Experience and story are two totally different elements of the craft, but like binary stars,they circle each other, obligated by the gravity they share. [It can also be that a reader has simply never experienced a given plot before reading a certain book which uses it, and hence, the reader experiences a new-to-them plot of something that’s actually already pretty established.]
Now, if you are a fervent reader, you’re familiar with most of these “alpha plots.” In fact, if you’re a reader who sticks inside the same genre or limits themselves to a few, you’ve probably adapted the ability to be able to tell where a story is going early on in the book. A few details might be fuzzy, but you know who the real villain is, who’s a rogue, and which seeming enemy will turn out to be a friend, or at least an ally. But it doesn’t stop you from reading, does it?
That’s because there are some books which are openly modeled on existing or popular tropes or scenarios, specifically because they want to provide a similar experience to one the reader has already had and is looking to replicate. For example, during the last few years in YA, dystopian stories featuring a smart, tough, but reluctant young leader who emerges to through over the oppressive authorities has been extremely popular. Examples: The Hunger Games, The Divergent Series, and The 5th Wave Series. The reason that the market can sustain so many books with such similar alpha plots, however, is because they aren’t trying to be original stories. What they are trying to do is to replicate an experience the reader enjoys. I mean, if I’ve had really good sirloin before, and I get a craving to experience good-tasting sirloin again, I’m not going to go to a vegan salad bar, am I? (Let’s get this straight, this is more than an analogy. I’m never going to go to a vegan salad bar.) I’m not going to find the meat I crave there. If you want to replicate the experience you already had, then get thee to a choppery!
So, too, with predictable plots. Why do you think Sylvia Day’s Crossfire Series exploded? Yes, it was writing the readers loved, but had it not been for the epic metric ton of 50 Shades of Grey readers salivating for a similar experience, it probably wouldn’t have been the huge, huge hit series it was. This, in fact, is the basis of the “If you like this, then read this” shelves you see in brick-and-mortar bookstores. (Yes, they do still exist!) Because the plot isn’t the thing, it’s the way it makes you feel.
Now back to the debate I’m having. This week, I’m finishing up the last book in the Pure Souls series. My writing is going in a slightly different direction for a while, and other than perhaps a small novella, I probably won’t be publishing another work for at least six months if not a year. This is so I can finish several books in a series prior to release, and not repeat the Pure Souls experience where Book One and Book Four are releasing four years apart. So, I’m in plotting mode, trying to think of new characters, and doing market research to see what is selling these days, and trying to figure out why. As I make these studies, I see some who complain about a book’s similarity to others, and some who revel in it. An unpredictable plot is one that tends to fool the reader into thinking they’re reading one type of story, and then reverses it, queuing the reader in on the fact that they’ve actually been reading a very different type of story the whole time. (Think M. Night Shamalan, though as we saw in The Village, the mechanism can sometimes backfire if the bridge you crossed to get the reveal turns out to have had no water underneath it.) Some readers, however, hate when they experience something unexpected. Some really, really love to curl up with a new book with an old story.
As I said, I’m not hear to defend one style of writing over another. Just thinking out loud, via the little voice that pronounces things in your head as they leak in through your eyeballs.Would be delighted to hear your thoughts as well.