Thursday, November 12, 2009

When do "suspenseful clues" give way to paint-by-numbers predictability?

I'm currently reading a book by an author who shall remain nameless ... (Can you tell this is leading up to a criticism? I'm trying to keep this blog positive, so I'll only name names with books I love. The cruddy ones will be granted anonymity.) Anyway, this was someone whose books I read during college (before I became a "serious" - and critical - writer.) I always thought she told a good story, so the other day I picked up one of her bestsellers which I'd never read.

As I began reading, I found the how-husband-and-wife-met set-up a little rote, and was not really taking to the protagonist-wife's character, as she didn't seem to have much character, other than being the guy's wife (argh ... I might be coming dangerously close to revealing the book's identity ... well, at least my heart was in the right place!) So I'm reading along, with the suspense around the central issue in the book building, when I come to page 100, where the protagonist's daughter randomly blurts out the fact that she had sex at 13.

Now, all along, the author has been dropping little clues about the protagonist's troubled marriage, like how her husband started to grow distant when their daughter was about 11. There are also lines about how close father and daughter have always been, while the protagonist and her daughter have had trouble relating, especially since the girl became a teenager. These subplots remain in the background, while the suspense around a tragedy involving the husband stays in the foreground.

So there I sat, only one-third of the way through the book, and all of a sudden, I knew exactly what I was going to read in the remaining 200 pages. As the mystery around the husband slowly unravels (thanks to a dashing, doting, divorced man assisting in the investigation), we the readers are going to learn that the protagonist's husband was molesting their daughter. Hence his depression, hence the tragic act on which the novel is centered. Protagonist and Daughter must come to terms with the horror of it all, thanks in no small part to Dashing, Doting, Divorced Man, who will end up becoming a permanent fixture in their lives. The End.

It's a complete cliche. I personally steer clear of pedophilia in my writing because I hate when it's reduced to a "big reveal" climax, which is what I'm afraid is happening here. (Compare this to a book like Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye," which treats this horrific subject with the depth and sensitivity it deserves.) But I digress ... this post is not an admonition against putting sex crimes in suspenseful novels. It's an admonition against paint-by-numbers predictability in anything one writes.

I hope it goes without saying that I don't consider myself an expert on avoiding predictability. And in all fairness, while my BEs complimented many of the twists and turns in the first draft of my current WIP, they also pointed out a couple of "I could see that coming"s. So how do we writers skillfully intertwine foreshadowing clues into our narrative without giving away the whole plot? I doubt there's a simple answer, but incorporating reversals into your work is a good start.

I have always been a big fan of reversals (even before I learned they had a name at Gotham.) Here's how I would define a reversal: you have your character(s) going along one path, and maybe the reader can sense by the too-good-to-be-true nature of the storyline that something's about to go awry, but they certainly have no idea what. And then BOOM! You hit your reader with a dramatic (but plausible) change of course. The reversal doesn't necessarily have to be a big "boom" moment - if you're writing a literary, emotion-driven piece, it could be as subtle as an overheard conversation, a letter which was supposed to arrive but didn't, etc. The key is to take your reader in a new direction, one that keeps them turning pages and thinking, "I can't possibly imagine what's going to happen next ... but I'm dying to find out!"

FIGURING IT OUT AS I GO: I think reversals are one of the best "weapons" against monotony and predictability that a writer can arm themselves with. Reversals should be frequently employed, and should vary in size and gravity. Most importantly, they should always be plausible, which is not to be confused with predictable.


  1. Ugh. Those are the worst, aren't they? And if you're like me, you have to finish it even though you hate it. Great blog! I found it through Natalie.

  2. Thanks, Amy. :-) And yup ... I'm gonna finish the darned thing alright ... won't it be funny if I was all wrong and this writer proves to be a master of faking out her readers?!

  3. On second thought ... I picked it up again the other night and almost fell asleep after a few pages. I have a ton of books on my ever-growing reading list just dying to be read ... so it looks like I may never know whether I was right or not about the outcome!