Advice for Authors: Is Your Story Predictable?

“All your bad guys die, the good guys survive. We can tell what’s gonna happen by page and age five!”

There’s a popular YouTube series dubbed “Epic Rap Battles of History”, in which famous people from all corners of the world and throughout time are pitted against each other in a battle of wits. The above line is one of the insults from George R.R. Martin, directed at J.R.R. Tolkien (you should check out the video, it’s really well done and a favorite of mine).

That’s a popular critique of Tolkien’s works: it’s predictable. There is never a doubt in anyone’s mind that the Ring will eventually be destroyed and that Good will triumph over Evil.

And yet, despite the ending never being in doubt, it’s one of the greatest stories in human history. In fact, many of the greatest stories ever written have endings that are fairly predictable. So is predictability in a book inherently a bad thing?

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Now of course there’s some caveats here. Predictable shouldn’t describe the entirety of your story. Even Tolkien wrote in some plot twists and surprises, like the death and return of Gandalf, the fracturing of the Fellowship, and the betrayal of Sméagol. So if every scene and conflict is foreseen by the reader, then that might be a problem.

But being able to guess the overall resolution of your story doesn’t make it bad. Because reading (and writing) is an adventure, and like any other adventure it’s about the journey, not the destination. So if your writing is good, the story is fun, the characters lovable, and there’s a couple of unexpected detours along the way, who cares if you arrive just about where you thought you would?

Furthermore, by trying too hard to keep the reader guessing, you run the risk of losing them completely. The easy target here is M. Knight Shyamalan. He’s widely known for his movies being full of bizarre twists and unexpected turns, and sometimes criticized for it.

You may even lose yourself in the story if you try too hard to be crafty. It becomes very easy to write yourself into a corner and having to make significant rewrites or resort to a deus ex machina device.

So, as with most things in life, you need to find a happy balance between predictability and mystery in your writing. It’s not the end of the world if your ending can be guessed at, nor is an amazing plot twist guaranteed to make your book a 5-star thriller. Write from your heart, pour your soul into your story, and it will unfold exactly how it must.

Published by Peter Martuneac

Marine, Boilermaker, husband and father. I'm here to share my thoughts on all things political or philosophical.

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