I went on a little bit of a TV binge Friday. I didn’t have school so basically I woke up at ten, watched TV for five hours, and went to ballet. Mostly I caught myself up on Fringe, which is a fabulous show although if you’re not a sci fi person it’s probably not going to be your favorite.
Anyway, I was watching Fringe. Mind you, this show requires a lot of suspension of disbelief. It gets its name from “fringe science“, so…you get the idea (in case you don’t, click on the link). The point is that even with a show that’s totally weird, I could predict half the plot points. Oh, nothing major, nothing that would ruin the show. Little things. For instance, in one episode there’s this box which emits ultrasonic waves and fries your brain. In the opening scene we see it frying all these people’s brains but this one guy, totally unaffected, closes it up and walks away with it. The FBI agents are all confused as to how someone could have done that. I immediately think “he’s deaf”. They puzzle some more. Eventually they find the guy and it turns out he is deaf, but something so obvious to me totally baffled these characters.
The point is, and I do have a point, is that this got me thinking. Where is the line between familiarity and predictability? We like reading about similar plot lines: quests, guy meets girl or vice versa, murder investigation, some combination of the above, some combination of the above involving vampires…etc. But eventually, you know exactly what’s going to happen and there’s suddenly no point in reading the book.
On the other hand, if something is all twists then, first of all, the reader gets lost (and gets a headache), and second of all the twist starts to lose their impact. In order to surprise someone you have to lull them into a false sense of security first. When the rules are out the window from the beginning, the reader stops caring.
As a writer, you have to balance familiar plot and character tropes with enough twists to keep the story fresh and exciting. It’s hard, but it’s worth it.