If you’ve read a book and guessed what was coming, or if you’ve seen a movie and guessed the outcome way before it finishes, then it’s generally a sign that the plot is predictable.
Perhaps you’ve read a book that seems quite similar to another book you’ve read. The same happens with movies; some feel very similar. That’s because their plots are similar, or the same. The only difference is the story is written lightly differently.
But that’s the thing with plots; most of them are a variation on each other. They’re the same plots, or share the same plot points, but written in many different ways, and that’s because there are only 36 basic plots (as described by Georges Polti). Anything else really is just a variation on a theme.
But the way we write our stories is what sets them apart from others. Whether there are only 10 basic plots or 36, every story you write should be different enough from all the other stories out there.
That is down to how your structure your story, the characters you create, the themes you explore, information that you provide for your reader, the subplots and of course, the outcome you choose to end your story.
If your plot does become predictable and boring, then your reader won’t be that impressed with the overall story.
Take love as an example. Plots involving love, in particular, can be very formulaic and therefore somewhat predictable: boy meets girl, girl isn’t interested at first, boy then does something heroic and impresses her, girl changes her mind and falls head over heels in love with him and they live happily ever after.
Another predicable one is the thriller genre. They inevitably involve a hero, a villain and a love interest. They are so commonplace that it has become expected. But unfortunately they are also formulaic and boring.
Writers are not trying hard enough to be different.
So how do you prevent your plot from becoming so predictable, and tedious? How do you make your story different from every other story out there?
1. Consider a different approach – in other words, throw in some unpredictable plot twists, the kind that your reader won’t be able to second guess. Writers love to wrong-foot their readers, so don’t be afraid to thrown them off course.
2. Try to be fresh and different with your themes – readers like the unexpected. Be political, be controversial; themes are there to explore.
3. Ask provocative questions about your story – What would the main character really do in a given situation? The predictable action or the unpredictable action? Sometimes the unpredictable works better.
4. Add in some surprises. Again, readers love surprises – they make for the unpredictable. As the writer, you can create any surprise, but just make sure they are not too far-fetched that the reader thinks they are silly or ridiculous.
5. Avoid clichés. Does your detective have to be male, with a female sidekick, usually seen as a foil to the main character? Then reverse the roles. Have a female detective, with the male foil. Are your female characters generally written as weak and sometimes stupid? Have a reality check. Not all women are weak or stupid. And not all men are heroic and strong. These are all clichés.
6. Don’t be afraid to take a different direction with your story – keep your reader on their toes, so don’t be afraid to take a risk with the story arc.
The idea with writing is to make it different from every other story out there, and we do that by being fresh and original and unexpected.
With only 36 definitive plots, writers might think they are limited, but in fact, there is a wealth of stories we can create, just by shaking things up, being different or provocative, by putting a new spin on things, by approaching the story in a new and fresh way, by creating unique characters and by taking risks.
And besides, being unpredictable is so much more fun.
Next week: Finding the motivation to write