Why Predictability Is Not Necessarily Bad

Erased opening theme screenshotRecently there was an episode of a show where it was obvious that one character was going to die. The signs were there: focus on said character, flashback scenes… and most of all, when the name of a character is used as episode title = that character will die.


I can’t for the life of me explain why most writers, while very creative with the tales they write, are unable to imagine chapter/episode titles that are subtle. It’s not that hard!

Anyway, the outcome was clear as day.

But is being predictable always a bad thing?

All consumers of fiction are good at predicting outcomes

If you have been consuming works of fiction for more than a decade (as is the case for most of us) then you have developed the ability to detect patterns. Someone is going to come at the last minute to turn things around, or a betrayal will happen, or death flags are raised. We have seen tropes like this a thousand times already.

There are also universal concepts that we find throughout all ages and media. Revenge, oppression, friend turned foe, sacrifice, the desire for a higher social status, etc.
Those themes and tropes are presented each time in a different way, through different settings and different characters, but their core remains the same.

Those topics are part of humanity, and fiction is about people.

Because we are familiar with said topics, we can make good guesses about how the author is going to address and resolve them.

You can’t expect a story to be surprising from start to finish. Or do you want some silly twist?
What if the culprit was the four year old boy in the background?
Ha! I bet you didn’t see that coming!

But is creating surprise only for surprise’s sake a viable approach?
You tell me.

Anyway, there are people who are always trying to outwit the writer just to feel smart, and they make fun of him when they succeed in predicting his choices.
Personally, that’s not my cup of tea.

Sometimes a narrative choice, while not the most original or surprising, makes sense in regard to the chosen themes and the intended character development.

I’d take a tried-and-true resolution that ties everything together any day over a shocking twist that feels out of place and is just the writer’s desperate attempt to wow me.

People don’t want to be fed the usual clichés over and over. That’s a legit demand.
But learn the difference between:

  • Storytelling that is trite and boring because it was done a thousand times before;
  • Storytelling that you managed to guess correctly because, well, you are knowledgeable about storytelling in general.

Some people are smart and can see things coming from miles away. Good for them!

Predictability doesn’t necessarily ruin a story. In fact, there are cases where it can add value…

Sometimes predictability adds to the enjoyment of a story

So there is this anime series that started last month: Erased.

For a reason yet to be explained, the protagonist finds himself traveling back in time, to the era when he was a 10 years old boy. The protagonist must prevent the first murder in a long series that extends to the present time. He has to protect a classmate from an unknown criminal. For a while, he seems to be succeeding…

But then episode 4 ends with a predictable, yet terrifying cliffhanger: the classmate disappeared.

Because it’s obvious something bad is going to happen, it was interesting to try to guess what it is before it happens. Also, every outdoors scene had a sense of impending danger. I was stressed and near-paranoid. In other words, Erased kept my interest at every moment and stirred strong reactions within me. I say it – or should I say the author – did a great job.

It’s clear that a problem must occur for the story to continue. If all is good, it might as well end.

Erased is a great example of predictability being engaging.

(Besides, it’s not like it’s always predictable. In fact, the first episode is a total jaw-dropper.)

A writer who can keep surprising even the most genre-savvy fans is a rarity. Let’s be realistic, most writers haven’t reached that level yet.

Just because you saw a plot twist coming – thanks to your rich experience with fiction – doesn’t mean you have to be disappointed.

Maybe this story wasn’t written for you.
Maybe it was written for the younger generation, who is not familiar with what was already done before.
Honestly, what were you expecting?

Sometimes people create their own disappointment and then bash the writer.

Can you enjoy a show that scores only 6 out of 10, without complaining at each writing misstep?

Or is everything either a masterpiece or garbage?

The writer is trying his hardest to write something good. Sometimes he will succeed, and sometimes he will fail. That’s life: up and downs.
Expecting him to write the most perfect, flawless, innovative story ever only betrays a mentality of entitlement.

Look, he doesn’t know you, and he certainly doesn’t owe you anything.
Maybe he’s not an excellent storyteller. Too bad! Why care so much? Just move on!

A writer has the right to make mistakes.
Of course, you have the right to point out his mistakes and explain what you think is wrong. But if you attack him personally, you need to rethink your attitude. How many times have we read things like “he’s a lazy writer” or “they should fire his ass and hire a real writer”?

There is enough hate on the internet. And people often confuse criticism and plain hate.

Criticism works when you offer a solution. Tell us what you would’ve done instead.

A show’s writer must make a choice, take risks. And he probably has a deadline, too; he can’t just patiently wait for a sudden insight to strike.

That said…

People abhor predictability, which is why writers must be careful more than ever

Generally speaking, I don’t like to take sides and try to stay neutral as much as possible. I’m not 100% objective—no one is, but I temper my biases by looking at the situation from each side’s perspective.

On one hand, the audience often sets up its own disappointment with wild expectations.
But on the other hand, the writer has a job of knowing his audience.

He will almost always make mistakes without realizing it, which is even more of a reason to plan his story prudently.

He needs to study previous works, assimilate what has been done before in order to determine how he can add value to the genre and not just rehash old content.

Freshness is a quality everyone acknowledges, so you have to deliver it.

Read reviews, join discussions, analyze what the public likes and dislikes, and spot the unmet demand that is begging to be met.

Understanding your audience’s desires and frustrations will allow you to surprise them with a story that dodges the overdone patterns.

You could even base your entire work on subverting expectations. Make it seem like your plot is going to be predictable, then turn familiar conventions on their heads. Build up expectations of clichéd storytelling and surprise your audience with an unexpected execution. That wouldn’t be surprise for surprise’s sake; it’d be a valuable contribution to the genre you write in.

Whatever you do, be careful not to drop blatant hints that give away your story. Setting up major developments ahead of time is necessary in order for the outcome to not feel like a convenient last-minute addition. But at the same time, subtlety goes a long way. How foreshadowing is used affects how predictable a story is.

And when you read/watch something, keep your expectations in check and don’t blindly follow the disappointment culture.

You saw something coming? Cool! Why so vehement?

Just relax and enjoy the ride!

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