One of the worst crimes a writer can commit is to be predictable in his or her storyline and characters. This holds true even in genre fiction, where a certain formula is generally followed: In a romance, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy and girl reunite forever. In a mystery, a crime occurs, there are many suspects, the criminal is revealed. In a thriller we have an innocent victim, a tightening noose of terror, and ultimately, escape and release. Even in these formulaic examples, predictability makes for a boring, disappointing read. And as I’ve mentioned elsewhere on my blog, I am terrified of being boring.
I’ll be blogging off and on about my work-in-progress because it’s my world at the moment and will be even moreso as I head toward my May 1 deadline. The working title is The Midwife’s Confession, and it’s about a group of old college friends and a fight for their families. I carefully outlined this story about a year and a half ago. My editor loved the outline, but I had to put the story aside because of a scheduling probem with the publisher. I then wrote The Lies We Told, which will be out this coming June. Now, though, I return to The Midwife’s Confession with a fresh eye, and here’s what I’m discovering.
It’s an excellent and engrossing story. However, I find myself hitting a couple of points as I write that are–dare I say it–trite or possibly even boring. These elements work just fine in the outline, but I feel dragged down by them in the story itself, and if I feel dragged down, so will my reader. So these elements need to change and that’s what I’ve been working on for the last couple of weeks. I’m pleased to say I’ve made great progress.
Since I don’t want to give anything away, I’ll make something up so you can understand what I’m talking about. Let’s say that my story, in outline form, has a 16-year-old girl who is rebellious, hates her parents, steals beer from the fridge, and has unprotected sex. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that–the description fits plenty of 16-year-old girls. But she’s so darn predictable. The reader knows this kid too well, and I’m yawning just thinking about her. When I would start to translate the story from outline to manuscript form, this girl would probably jump out at me as Trite with a capital T. I’d then brainstorm with friends, John, or myself, looking for ways to make her different and more interesting.
When I was working on my third novel, Secret Lives, I was discussing a scene with some writer friends. The scene involved an argument between a father and his grown daughter, and one of my friends suggested I have the daughter react in an outlandish manner. “She wouldn’t do that!” I resisted. Well, most people wouldn’t. Most people are predictable. As I played with the scene, though, I decided to give the suggestion a try. Suddenly, I had a scene that really came to life, was populated by fascinating people, and was guaranteed to make the reader sit up and take notice.
Without revealing too much, I can tell you one of the situations in The Midwife’s Confession that was bugging me because of its triteness. I wanted to get one of the women’s husband’s out of the way of the story because I needed the woman to deal with a certain situation on her own, so I had the husband leave her for another woman. It worked beautifully in the outline. I really put the woman through the mill as she dealt with her husband’s infidelity. Yet it seemed so trite when I started to actually write his affair into the book. So I changed the story, and now he’s dead. Not that death is any less trite, but killing him off opened up a new set of intriguing possibilities for me. Did he die of natural causes? We’ll see. Did he die with a secret, perhaps? (Indeed he did!)
I’m always thinking of my reader as I write. Will she guess where I’m going? Maybe. Will she guess correctly? Heh heh. I hope not. That’s the most enjoyable part of writing a big fat novel for me: creating the puzzle, making it work, and avoiding the expected wherever I can.
Predictability in real life is a nice thing. In fiction, it’s a bore.