Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Drive Past the Predictable

Here's some good advice:  keep your plot unpredictable.  While that's easy to say, it's not so easy to do. 

I picked up a great tip on this challenge recently:  use your critique partners, not just for review, but for breaking through those tough plot bottlenecks.  

Try this exercise:  set the stage (your MC had a huge fight with her best friend), and ask your critique partners what might happen. 

Wait for the first answer (she storms off and refuses to talk?) and avoid this at all costs: the predictable plot. 

Delve deeper, seek alternatives.  Brainstorm more answers with your partner.  Does your MC tell other friends her side of the story, so that the basketball team shows its divided loyalties?  Maybe.   Does she cry on a badboy’s shoulder – the badboy her friend has crush on?  Or maybe she’s so upset, she steals her father’s car to get as far away from the fight as possible…  What happens then?  Where does she go?  That’s what everyone wants to know and where you should drive your plot. 

You’re the writer, the creator, the omniscient presence, the grown-up.  You drive. Drive your main character crazy.  Test her, push her, force her to learn through doing, just like real life.

Remember:  “Your main character is not your best friend.”  You are not only allowed to put this ‘person’ into uncomfortable situations, you are supposed to.  That’s your job.

Keep at it: tease, challenge and frustrate your characters.  That’s when you’ll see what they’re really about. At some point you’ll be able to take your hands off the wheel and let them lead you on their journey of self-discovery and change.

Then you’ll have arrived at an interesting story.


  1. Lots of good advice here, Julie! I am thinking and wndering a lot about your basic premise though: Avoid a predictable plot at all costs. While I agree that a predictable plot can be a bad thing, I wonder, can a super-unpredictable plot be bad as well?

    Recently I read a book (for grown ups), that went off in such an unpredictable direction in it's final section. As a reader, this really annoyed me (as it didn't seem to fit with the rest of the book).

    Also recently, I was watching a television program , I said, "Their car is going to get stolen". "What?" exclaimed my husband... but sure enough, a few seconds later it did. Being able to predict this (but not too easily) gave me a fun sense of satisfaction as a viewer.

    So, I guess I agree that you want to avoid being TOO predictable (but young readers can enjoy making a prediction that comes true too :o)!

  2. Thanks for an interesting post, Julie.

    Besides keeping your plot unpredictable, it's also important to keep your character imperfect. A quirk or habit will make your character much more believable and interesting!

  3. Good comments. I agree with you Brianna -- TOO unpredictable is also unbelievable. And it has to be believable to be a good story.

    And yes, Sharon, nobody's perfect, and characters should not be either!

  4. Another reason to be in a good critique group! Open-ended discussions provide the author with all sorts of choices/suggestions.

  5. I am guilty of "good" first impulses. I have to work at letting my characters be unpredictably bad. But, when I do let them make mistakes, it's so much more fun for me as a writer!