Predictability in Books

Isn't it great when a muse shoots an arrow of inspiration into your brain which makes your thoughts go all sparkly with ideas? This morning, my muse is Raimy, from Readaraptor. Earlier today, she posted about the idea of predictability in books. Go and check out her post and see if it sends your thoughts whizzing like it did mine. Maybe you'll want to get involved in the discussion too! If you decide to blog an answer, as I have, be sure to link back to her post!

So. Predictability in books. Here goes. 

I think that all books (all films and TV shows too, for that matter) are predictable, but I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. Can you think of the last book/film/show that made you think, "What the fu...dge?! I didn't see that happening!"

I'm going to go back to A Level media studies for a second. Those of you who took it might remember the name Todorov well. Those of you who didn't might have heard of him anyway, but here's a quick refresher. 

Todorov said that every plot consisted of five stages:
Tzvetan Todorov

1. A stage of equilibrium
2. A disruption to the equilibrium occurs
3. The disruption is recognised by the protagonist
4. An attempt to repair the damage is made by the protagonist
5. A state of new equilibrium is reached

Even if you've never heard of Todorov, you can probably apply this structure to most narratives. We know this structure, we like this structure and we expect this structure. So in that much, pretty much all narratives are predictable. 

I had to wrack my brains to think of my own example of a book which ended (as far as I was concerned, at least) in an unpredictable way. To do so I had to go back eight years to 2004, when Stephen King released the conclusive book in his The Dark Tower series. I'm pretty sure that was the last time an ending really knocked my socks off, and you know what? I didn't like it, at least not at the time. 

With the final book of a series I'd followed with love and devotion, Stephen King broke my heart. And you know what? He knew he was doing it. Before the epilogue of the book, Stephen King inserted an authorial note which basically said, "If you really want to know how this series ends, then read on. But, I'm warning you, you probably don't want to know how it ends..."

Well I, along with everyone else, promptly ignored his warnings and turned the page. Only now, after nearly a decade, am I able to see that King's ending  was, like Baby-Bear's porridge, just right. But a lot of people still haven't gotten over those final pages, and King has been repeatedly slated for basically not ending the tale the way everyone hoped and expected

NaNoWriMo, an event hosted every November where writers all over the world pledge to write 50,000 words in a month, is where I first came across the terms "plotter" and "pantser". If you're a plotter, you like to outline your stories. Yoou have the end in sight before you even type the words "Chapter One". Pantsers write according to the "hold on to your butts" rule and fly by the seat of their pants through their works. 

Stephen King is (by his own admission in On Writing) a bit of a pantser. He begins his stories with a "What if?" situational idea. Then he lets the characters go wherever they want. Fellow Stephen King fans will know that he likes to disappoint people who are looking for a happy ending. But he says that the characters take him to his endings, not the other way around. Sometimes, this leads to some unpredictable events. Don;t believe me? Go and read The Stand. You'll follow the book and love the characters and then, when things are getting cosy and going just how we want them to, King will break your heart, too. If you don't like predictable reads, King's early stuff is what you're looking for. 

But...there is something reassuring about predictability, isn't there? In Raimy's original post, she discusses different types of predictability. In some books, you know what will happen from the start, the characters are two-dimensional and you end up putting the book down in favour of something less "predictable".  The next book you pick up might have an equally transparent plot, but the characters are full and dynamic so you stay involved. Then there's the third type: the book where, as Raimy puts it,  “I know what’s going on but I don’t actually care because seeing X work it out is the best bit!”

I think this can be true of many books, particularly those which involve an element of romance. We all know, almost as soon as the future lovers set eyes on each other, even when that first glance is filled with hate or annoyance, that at some point they're going to get together. And we keep reading because that was exactly why we picked up the book in the first place! We want things to turn out how we expect them to.

I am a huge advocate of the YA genre. I defend it at every opportunity and can't abide people who slate it without having sampled a few of the books on the premium menu. I particularly hate it when people judge YA based on movie adaptations. I'll go into this in more detail in tomorrow's post on "teams". For today, I'm sure a lot of you know what I mean. For too many people out there, YA is now synonymous with sparkly vampires. Sigh.

However, I think that YA is sometimes more predictable than some other genres. But then, I'm an adult. I've read thousands of books and seen thousands of movies. I've watched too much TV, too. People like me, and you too, perhaps, have spent our lives immersed in narratives and so of course we might be able to spot the next not-so-shocking "plot twist" on the horizon, without even having to shield our eyes or reach for a pair of binoculars. But young adults? For even the most avid young reader, there are still plots to be explored and narrative arcs which are yet to be admired. 

I wonder if predictability comes with age..? Are younger people more able to be surprised by the books that people of my age find predictable? At my ripe old age of 27, am I fine with books being ultimately predictable (as long as the writing is good, characters rounded and situation gripping) because I crave stability? He he. I don't know, but I'd love to hear your thoughts.

I think, over all, as long as the situation is intriguing and the characters are full and engaging, it doesn't matter if a plot is a bit on the predictable side. We read to escape, to read stories about others. And when you're invested in a character, you want things to turn out a certain way for them. Is it really a bad thing when just that happens?


  1. loved reading your thoughts on this Laura!

    I kinda think it might have something to do with age/experience too as I've read a good few books where I saw the plot twist coming a mile off and yet younger or less avid readers have been completely shocked. similarly my sister says she sees things coming that I didn't so you may definitely be on to something here!

    1. In pooling our collective genius we have come up with a solid theory: the older you get, the less surprising things are.

      We are epic.

    2. though apparently in my epic-ness I cant spell! (truly* sorry!)

    3. Bourbon + cola = I didn't even notice!


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