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How to Prevent Predictable Plots

Categories: Brian Klems' The Writer's Dig Tags: Brian Klems, online editor blog.

Okay, I admit it. I plan my day around favorite night-soap television shows. But the longer I’ve been writing, the more I find myself almost involuntarily critiquing what I watch.

Even though I’m not consciously “working,” I can rarely turn off my EIE—Exacting Internal Editor. So, instead of trying to tame her or put her to bed early, I decided to yield and learn from her.

My EIE always catches one characteristic of so many shows—the predictability of the plot. I offer you her wisdom so we both can become more alert to the signals of those groaningly predictable plots and avoid them in our own stories and novels.

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Noelle Sterne, Author, Head ShotThe guest post is by Noelle Sterne, author, editor, writing coach, and spiritual counselor. Sterne writes fiction and nonfiction, having published over 300 pieces in print and online venues, including Writer’s Digest, The Writer, Women on Writing, Funds for Writers, and Transformation Magazine. Her monthly column, “Bloom Where You’re Writing,” appears in Coffeehouse for Writers. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, for over 28 years Noelle has helped doctoral candidates complete their dissertations (finally) and is completing a psychological-spiritual handbook. In her book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books; one of ten best 2011 ebooks), she draws examples from her practice and other aspects of life to help writers and others release regrets, relabel their past, and reach their lifelong yearnings. See Noelle’s website: trustyourlifenow.com. With Trust Your Life, Noelle appears in the Unity Books 2013 “Summer of Self-Discovery” on Goodreads with two other authors of positive messages for discussions and free webcasts: goodreads.com/group/show/100799-unity-books  In addition, one of five featured authors on Author Magazine’s ongoing blog, Noelle explores writing, creativity, and spirituality: authormagazine.org.

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An Example: Love

Take love, a timeless, universal subject. In a recent movie, the young woman with great hair and tight jeans from the city goes West to sell the ranch her father left her. She encounters and battles instantly with the gruff foreman, who’s loyal to the ranch, the land, and the legacy. He’s adamant about not selling and responds to the city intruder only in disdainful monosyllables. Of course, he’s handsome and tall in the saddle.

Count on it: the more it’s hate at first sight, the more you can bet they’ll end up in an open-mouthed clinch.

Settings may change:

  • In city department store at Christmas, lonely saleswoman (with great hair and conservative tight suit) and bitter out-of-work-executive Santa.
  • In the newsroom, novice idealistic newspaper reporter (with great hair and tight slacks and sweater set) fresh out of women’s college and cynical veteran, chain-smoking Pulitzer winner.
  • In the pits, impassioned first-time female race driver (with great hair and tight jumpsuit) and multi-Indie-winner misogynist team lead driver.

Can you write the scenes between them already? From big angry sparks to grudging acceptance to grudging amusement to big passionate sparks.

How Many Plots Can We Think Up?

Experts vary in citing from 1 to 3 to 7 to 20 to 36 basic plots in literature. I like nineteenth-century French writer and critic Georges Polti’s chronicle of 35, with multiple literary examples and sub-situations and extensive, entertaining commentary. (My translated edition is 1945, Boston: The Writer Publications.)

This classic book, with many later imitations, is a gem for ideas, intertwining of subplots, and cliché-checking. My love examples above are variations of Polti’s Number 28, “Obstacles to Love,” and (E) “Incompatibility of Temper of the Lovers.”

So, how can you use them freshly?

Unpredictable Plotting

Love, in all its exasperating twists, is certainly worth writing about. But when you do, although you’ll inevitably be using one or more of Polti’s variations, the trick and challenge are to freshen it and make it relevant to your time and your experience.

How? Several ways:

1.    See Polti for different perspectives. Or other books: Christopher Booker, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories; James Scott Bell (nine), Plot and Structure; Ronald Tobias, 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them.

2.    Look at Shakespeare, both comedies and tragedies. Study fine films. “The African Queen” (1952) portrays a masterful mismatching gone sweet. “An Officer and a Gentleman” (1982) shows us clashing environments, social classes, and lifestyles. “When Harry Met Sally” (1989) illustrates the terror of letting love in. And “Gran Torino” (2008) shows us a broader kind of love, of humanity, beyond prejudices, and between generations.

3.    Explore ramifications and consider different approaches. For example: Is the choice college or marriage? Is the location the small town you grew up in near your grandparents’ homestead or an island in Melanesia, with unknown languages and no cable?

4.    Ask yourself provocative questions that can shape your theme: How to balance love and its responsibilities and follow one’s bliss? How to overcome lifelong discrimination and let love in? How to triumph over past poor relationships and take the heady leap? What hard choices have you or others made? How have they resolved them . . . or not?

5.    Talk to family members. You may get astonishing surprises. Often grandparents, great aunts, and other relatives have had remarkable experiences of love they never shared in prison camps, wartime, poverty, or other dire circumstances. They would probably would welcome an eager listener.

Yes, love is one of the most timeworn of plots but it deserves to be written about always. With your immersion in the story and deepest honesty, you will write a love story in which the ending can’t be predicted by any regular TV watcher.

Kiss and Make Art

Not fighting our Exacting Internal Editor, we can learn from television watching almost in spite of ourselves. When we study the story arcs of most popular shows and movies, we sharpen our sensitivity and editorial savvy. Our analyses show us what not to do and challenge our ingenuity to make our story or novel stand out above the pap. Then an editor or agent won’t quickly predict our plot but will instead fall in love with our work and ask us to continue the relationship.

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Follow me on Twitter: @BrianKlems
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8 Responses to How to Prevent Predictable Plots

  1. I agree that a little predictability goes a long way and a lot makes a story boring and sometimes irritating. However, just to play the Devil’s advocate, I’d also argue that the opposite is also true. As writers, we need to keep things fresh and exciting for our readers, but at the same time, we need to avoid unpredictability for unpredictability’s sake. Nothing spoils a story more than characters that do things that don’t make sense or an author that throws a twist for no good reason than to mix things up. Unpredictability needs to have a purpose and it needs to fit the story.

    Personally, I think that the key is to focus on characters. Make them real and interesting and throw them into interesting situations. That will make a good story, even if some of it is a little predictable. But maybe that’s just me.

    • Jeffrey–

      I agree! You’ve probably seen shows, or movies, with so many unpredictable intricacies that you can barely follow them, much less make sense of them in any coherent way. Agree also that character development-deepening is a major goal. We can describe famous characters in summary cliches (Hamlet grieving prince, Jean Valjean struggling parolee, Holmes eccentric detective)–but look how they live on.

  2. juststory says:

    Thank you for this article, it is very timely. I’m currently working on my first novel; it’s a thriller, and one of the themes is love and relationship. I do have a female (secondary) character who is seductive, and the situation is similar to the ones you describe (she is attracted to the protagonist). However, I’m trying to make her a complex character instead of the stereotype. I am also making the story with her and the protagonist different, which will form one of the sub-plots. The information you have provided have given me valuable insights that will allow me to steer clear away from the predictable.
    I checked out the book by Georges Polti and will be ordering it soon. I’ve also checked out your website. Keep up the good work. Thanks again!

    • juststory–

      Appreciate your use and application of this post–responses like yours give great gratification. The Georges Polti book is, if you can imagine it, entertaining reading in itself, not to mention the plot variations he catalogues. Thank you for your words of support.

  3. Indigo–

    I do the same with (guilty) watching of chick flicks or chick-mystery-in-life-threatening-danger flicks. What would make this story less predictable? A great exercise in which we can show off our imagination. Too, non-predictability should be integral to the plot/characters and feel natural to them, rather than novelty for its own sake. Thank you for your brave sharing!

  4. IndigoCCCob says:

    Thank you for the article; and how very true the predictablility! In the beginning all my little stories-romantic & mystery fiction, were extremely predictable. Why? I was just beginning and now laugh at my beginning writing endeavors. I re-read one I first ever submitted to anyone, Good Housekeeping, and laughed so hard when I read it. I still cannot believe I actually had the nerve to submit it. Hard Lesson Learned. I will admit to watching some chic flicks, predictable as so many are, and then trying to put my own spin on it, being a hopeless romantic; but in writing always striving to give it a twist or new spin, if that’s possible. I approach my mystery writing the same way. New twist, different spin. I try not to make it predictable.

  5. Silver Queen–

    Thank you for your like-minded comments–refreshing! Your novel sounds intriguing and important. The Very Best for its beautiful birth.

  6. Silver Queen says:

    Finally someone who shares my distaste for generic predictable plots! I refuse to watch or read anything if I can predict how it will progress. Your observance about the female always being a showpiece is spot on. Doesn’t anyone besides you, think for themselves?

    I just finished a novel for young adults and believe me, no one can predict what will happen next and there is not one sexy, alluring female or ruggedly handsome male in it. All the characters are true to life, with their foibles along with their good qualities. It also demonstrates that their were good people on both sides during the Civil War. Neither side is portrayed as evil. I hope someday to have A Picture in Time published and see a review by you. The book was heavily researched to make the incidents and people more true to life. It is not, however a history book: it’s about three young people who go back in time and interact with historical personages.
    Keep up the good work!

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