Friday, December 21, 2007

I Totally Knew Where This Post Was Going

Those of you who've written stories and handed them off to friends are undoubtedly familiar with the feedback: "I figured out where it was going on page..."

It's easy to be annoyed by that, because it's often not phrased in a constructive form (e.g., "you tip your hand too early"). It's more of a boast: I was smart enough to figure out where the plot was going before it was revealed. The flip side is implicit: I'm smarter than the story is, and smarter than you.

That is, of course, not what they mean at all. And you do exactly the same thing when talking about books or movies. The point at which you figure out the story is where it all comes together, where you see the author's intent, and where the path becomes clear. It doesn't make too much of a difference if that's early or late in the story (with certain genre exceptions such as mystery and horror), as long as the story is well told. And indeed, if you hear the above statement, it's still a good review as long as it's followed by, "...but it still kept me hooked."

Really, it's not such a sin to be predictable (the dreaded p-word). We want our stories to be predictable, at least to the extent that the actions of the characters all make sense. But if that's good-p, then there's also bad-p: when the events of the story follow a pattern that's dictated by convention outside the story. Again, for certain genres, it's not a problem (would you object to reading "The Shining" if I told you it's a horror novel where a family slowly gets exposed to more and more terrifying events, until the climax when they face off against the big monster?), but when you're talking about the old "mysterious stranger turns out to be the villain/ancient hero" saw, it'd better be done right or else it'll feel like you're just doing that because all the other stories did.

And I think that is the real key to good-p versus bad-p. If a story follows certain conventions, but the plot and character actions all work well with the story, then it can be predictable to a certain extent, and you should be happy when people tell you they figured it out, unless you're William Tenn and you were deliberately trying to surprise them. If the story follows certain conventions for no other reason than that they're conventions, then it edges into bad-p, and a good critiquer will point that out. You just have to be able to separate the two, and when doing your own critiques, look at that point and see if it's harming the story or not.

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