I don’t think storytelling should be viewed as a contest between the writer and the audience. By that, I mean I don’t think it’s my job as a writer to try to outsmart you, and I don’t think it’s your job as a reader to try to figure out what I’m doing. The whole notion that I should be one step ahead of the audience is often contrary to good storytelling, and if the only point of a story is to surprise the audience, then it rarely works beyond that initial surprise. More importantly, it sets up a strange competitive dynamic between the storyteller and the audience, and that is so often terrible because storytelling is a shared experience. It relies on the storyteller and the audience to be working together, not as opponents.
This is why I am not a fan of the BIG REVEAL, where the author suddenly shows that everything you thought the story was about isn’t about that at all. It can work, sure, and some stories need it. But just as often, it only confuses and irritates me. It’s also why I have a hard time when someone dismisses a work of fiction as “Predictable” because good stories usually are predictable by their very nature.
Predictability is a byproduct of consistent logic, tone, and characterization. To make a story unpredictable often requires violating one or more of those elements. That often feels like cheating. Anyone can create a surprising story if they withhold information or simply change the rules at the last minute. “Oh, you thought this guy was the hero? Well, it turns out he’s not the hero. He’s the bad guy. And this story isn’t really about a bank robbery. It’s about time traveling ninjas who want to save JFK. Pretty surprising, right?”
Yeah, but not in a good way.
This is why, even when good stories are built on a twist, they’re also loaded with foreshadowing. Good foreshadowing tells us something is not quite what it seems, and so when the surprise comes, it’s really not a surprise at all. When I think of a movie like The Sixth Sense, I realize how utterly unsurprising it was in its “twist”, but then, how could it be? If it didn’t take the time to foreshadow that twist, then it would’ve just felt hollow. Yet even with that foreshadowing, a story built on a reveal is usually only good for one or two viewings. Because once you know, you no longer have a reason to be invested.
Meanwhile, my favorite films tend to be spare with the surprises. Instead, they rely on telling a predictable story well, trusting that it isn’t the twists that keep me interested. It’s the story itself that makes it worth revisiting. I can watch The Incredibles any time. Really. I’ll watch it right now if you want. And while there are mysteries in its story, the characters and their motivations are laid out quickly and efficiently, not as some special little secret the viewer has to earn, but as an essential part of what drives the story.
Stories can certainly be too predictable, but a story where the good guy wins or where the world is saved isn’t “predictable” because you knew that from the beginning. And a story where everything you learn in the first few minutes is wrong are more irritating than anything, more flash than substance.
There’s an old axiom that storytellers lie for a living, and while I used to think it had some merit, I think instead that BAD storytellers lie for a living. Good storytellers tell you the truth. They aren’t trying to deceive. They’re just trying to give you some interesting characters doing something interesting. When you think of the classic stories we tell over and over again, be they myths, fairytales, etc., they are almost all incredibly simple narratives that don’t try to twist their premises. They stay exactly true to them.
Little Red Riding hood walks into the woods and runs into a hungry wolf. Here comes the conflict.
Odysseus refuses to honor the gods for helping him conquer Troy. Here comes the conflict.
Elmer Fudd is hunting a very clever rabbit. Here comes the conflict.
So often, attempts at nuance and mystery work against the basics of telling a good story that I, as a writer, find it especially frustrating. I’ve learned to be less surprising, less “clever”, but to just tell an engaging story. My goal is never to have the reader close the book and say, “Oh, my, what a clever fellow, that Martinez is.” Instead, I want them to close the book and say, “Wow. I really enjoyed that.” If I’m really ambitious, I’d like them to add “I’d love to enjoy that again.”
Perhaps this is part of my problem with movies like Skyfall, Tron: Legacy, and Star Trek: Into Darkness. More than their rather joyless executions, perhaps I find their attempts to be mysterious more frustrating than enjoyable. In Skyfall, the villain wants to kill M and then we find out why about two thirds into the film. And rather than finding it fascinating, I wished he’d just be out to blow up England in some strange plot to conquer the world. I always liked that about Bond villains. There were a mystery, but the mystery is how will stealing nuclear submarines allow Blofeld to take over the world? It wasn’t why is Blofeld bald and why does he want to kill James Bond for it?
In the original Tron, the hero’s goal is to escape from the computer. Tron’s goal is to defeat Master Control. Master Control’s goal was to defeat Tron. All very obvious. All very simple. Meanwhile, in Legacy, everybody’s goals are kind of vague and the villain’s master plan is to attempt to take over the world with what looks like barely enough soldiers to take over half a city. But it’s not really important that he can do it. It’s just important that there’s a reveal.
I won’t even get into Into Darkness, a movie who is entirely built on SURPRISES to the point that it doesn’t even care about those surprises once they’re revealed and is quickly onto the next SURPRISE before the previous has had time to sink in.
Stories can be too predictable. And surprises are a valuable asset in telling a good story. But predictability doesn’t equal poor storytelling. Surprises don’t equal good storytelling. Good storytelling is nothing more or less difficult than telling a story well, following the logic of your setting and style, trusting the audience, and having that trust returned.
I know this might sound weird from a guy who has an average number of .75 slime monster battles per book, but it isn’t about flash. It shouldn’t be anyway. And when the storyteller and the audience understand this, things are just a hell of a lot more satisfying for everyone. It’s the difference between a satisfying surprise created via carefully laid groundwork OR a cat jumping out of the shadows just because it’s time for something surprising to happen. The former takes a hell of a lot more work, but it’s worth it.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,