How To Write Unpredictable Stories

When I read a book or watch a movie, I always try to figure out what is going to happen. For me, the most enjoyable stories keep me guessing right up to the end. The least enjoyable stories are the ones where I can predict the ending long before the finale.

Now, you’re probably expecting me to write a post with half a dozen tips on how to be unpredictable in your writing. However, I’ve been thinking about this for a long time and I’ve concluded there’s really just ONE main thing you need to do:

  • Evenly balance the Hero’s Final Options.

Scales of Justice-titleWhat the heck does that mean? Allow me to elaborate…

In a well-crafted story, the protagonist will choose between two things in the finale, i.e. the Hero’s Final Options. For example, in THE HUNGER GAMES, Katniss’s options are: 1) win the Games by killing Peeta, or 2) don’t kill Peeta and lose the Games. This is set up in Act I. So for the whole book, the reader wonders what she is going to do. Why? Because both options have merit. Neither is the obvious right decision or wrong decision. Each has evenly balanced pros and cons.

Another example is HOW TO SAVE A LIFE by Sara Zarr. In this novel the teen mom plans to give up her baby for adoption when it’s born, but she has doubts about that decision, and for the entire book she goes back and forth between her two options. Just like Katniss’s choice, there isn’t an obvious right or wrong decision.

Now, in a not-so-good story, the “right choice” will be obvious. For example, let’s take a generic love triangle situation where the heroine will have to choose between two boys by the end of the story. One is the boy her family wants her to marry, but he’s such a jerk we know she won’t marry him. So it’s no surprise when she runs off with the nice poor guy. To make this story less predictable, the boy she is supposed to marry should be someone she actually likes. Now the heroine has a conundrum. Two guys she likes with balanced pros and cons. There is no obvious right decision. Now the reader isn’t sure what she is going to do and is compelled to keep reading to find out!

The tricky thing is, as writers, we often know what is the right option for our protagonist, so it’s hard to keep our bias off the page. Personally, I have to work hard to make that wrong option appealing. But I know I have to do it! So I complete these two simple steps for every story:

  1. Define the Hero’s Final Options.

  2. Write a pros and cons list for both options.

Usually I have a lot more cons on the “wrong” option and more pros on the “right” option. I balance those out until they’re even and I almost forget which side is which! That’s what you want. Because the key to being unpredictable is forcing the hero into a tough final choice where the right decision is not obvious and may not even exist! Maybe your hero even comes up with a third option at the last minute, like Katniss did. Or your hero makes what appears to be the wrong decision that turns out to be right. Or vice versa. Who knows! And that’s the point. If you have evenly balanced your Hero’s Final Options and set up the pros and cons for both throughout the story, the reader should not be able to predict what will happen.

In my opinion, that’s how to write an unpredictable story. What do you think? How do you keep the reader guessing?

 

Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a cartoon screenwriter, YA novelist, small town fugitive, and late-blooming gymnast. For more, visit her website at heatherjacksonwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

26 thoughts on “How To Write Unpredictable Stories”

  1. Im trying to write a scary story about a doll that comes to life, can you give me some ideas that should make the story more interesting?

  2. Good morning! I just found this post after clicking on the link from a more recent post. I have a question about the romance genre. In many romances, there isn’t a triangle, and since we know the guy and girl must get together for a HEA, is the suspense, then, in HOW they resolve what’s keeping them apart? Or is it that choice B (life apart) should be painted to look just as attractive as choice A (life together)? Thanks!

    1. Hi Laurie! That’s a very good question. As you pointed out, love triangles are often used to set up this end choice, but there are a lot more ways to make an eventual HEA suspenseful. Think about it in terms of where the conflict is coming from: an external force (disapproving parents whom the hero wants to please, social pressure from friends, job opportunities that make the timing of a relationship tricky) or an internal force (hero hasn’t gotten over an ex, hero craves a life that their romantic interest isn’t interested in, hero wants kids and romantic interest doesn’t). Basically, a desire that the hero has that conflicts with getting together with the love interest. After the conflict is established, even though the reader knows this story will have an HEA, the trick is making that HEA seem impossible, so much so that the reader begins to doubt the HEA. And the only way to do that is to make the “other” option very alluring.

      So that was a very long-winded answer to your last question. In short, YES! 🙂

  3. Heather, thanks so much for this. It’s been an area that I’ve been putting a lot of thought into. I am not writing fiction but rather a motivational book about living with a life-threatening illness. I want it to be filled with suspense. It’s about walking the tight rope and how you get through that mentally.
    The book was initially going to finish up with me skiing down the Front Valley at Perisher but while still in Perisher I picked up a chest infection which turned into pneumonia and came very close to dying. They scanned my lungs and found the fibrosis related to this disease had deteriorated and so I was off to have chemo. This was not part of the plot. I am now back on deck again and doing pretty well a year down the track.
    The trouble with non-fiction is by virtue of writing the book, they know I didn’t die but I guess I can still build up that tension along the way.
    Any suggestions?
    xx Rowena

    1. Suspense isn’t necessarily created from the obvious outcome or the “what” (live/die), but rather the “how”. And if your book focuses on the mental battle of getting through illness, then the real question might be whether you survive mentally. And remember, you know the ending, but the reader doesn’t, and you can present and shape the story however you need to.

      Hope that helps.

  4. That’s a very good point.
    I also think that if we keep things as realistic as possible, balance tends to form by itself. If we have choices which are realistic, there will always be pros and cons to them.

  5. Your blog is like its own writing class! I love to be kept guessing as I make my way through a story, and if the outcome is really fabulous, I don’t mind being wrong. Great post.

    1. Aw, thanks so much! I’m teaching myself to write and just sharing what I learn on this blog.

      I LOVE being wrong about a story’s ending if it’s done right (i.e. doesn’t come out of nowhere or is nonsensical). It’s so tricky to fool or mislead a reader, and authors who can are incredibly skilled. Hats off to them! 🙂

  6. This is one of those problems that’s only obvious after somebody points it out to you. Sometimes a solution is to work in reverse, and put your head into the bad guy to create reasons why he/she is morally right. Or to have friends of the hero disagree with and question the hero’s actions, maybe even going so far as to try to actively stop him/her!

    I wrote a romantic comedy where a nice guy goes on a business trip and cheats on his wife. Nothing funny there! When readers saw the outline, they immediately hated the MC.

    But I was really writing about a guy getting older and trying to stay young and vibrant, but going about it in the wrong way.

    I made his wife, who was nice enough in chapter one, go with him on his business trip so they can rekindle their relationship. I made their young daughter, a real cute kid, tag along. So far, people still hate the MC.

    They go to Italy and get sick, do nothing but fight, and leave him in a huff. Oh, and the wife is a real shrew on the vacation part of his working vacation. The guy is a nice guy, though, and readers start t come around about him. They turn on the wife. I just had her do some awful things. (I even felt bad about it.)

    Then he runs into his assistant in Italy and he is absolutely taken with her. She flirts with him nonstop, and for some reason the readers start to like her and him together. Because he turned out to be nice and the wife was the bad guy. Halfway through, readers are WANTING him to have an affair with the nice young lady! They HATE the wife!

    Then, they have the affair. It’s a comedy, so a lot of funny stuff happens, which makes readers like the guy even more, and if readers like your MC, they tend to like whoever he likes, and he liked that girl…

    THERE starts to be his dilemma, in readers’ eyes. WHO should he be with? The wife they liked at first, they now hate. The (to-be) cheating guy they were suspicious of, they now like. A Lot. The conniving cheating hussy homewrecker mistress is actually a nice young lady who fell for a married guy, but she really likes him – and readers really like her now, too.

    It’s a quandry. They don’t know what they want him to do.

    Well, they do. They want him to stay with the mistress. But they are very conflicted about it.

    And they LOVE that they are conflicted about it.

  7. This is a lovely clear explanation.

    I tend to do it in a more organic fashion, whether I’m outlining or pantsing. That is, I do the same sort of thing, but without thinking about my method as clearly as you do. I tend to start with one evident “best choice” then try to convince myself of an alternative while I write. In future I’ll remember your method.

    Thank you. 🙂

    1. Haha! I feel the same, Diane. I’m constantly trying to remember everything I need to know to write a great story, and just when I think I’ve got it down, I’ll discover something else.

  8. Neat exercise! I’d love a master list of exercises like this one. I’ve already read about a few from you and it’d be neat to see what are the simple exercises one can do when you’re working on the ending for a story, for example.

    The stories I find most unpredictable are the ones where the main character sees a third option.

    That third option usually is hard for a reader to even consider because it hinges on the main character’s knowledge of the world in which the story takes place (knowledge that wasn’t shared or mentioned in passing but not easily identifiable as important).
    I find it satisfying nonetheless. It makes the main character look ultra competent—MC didn’t settle for the obvious.

    And oh my god, that example about the love triangle. I hate it when it’s so obvious and it reminds me of the movie Spanglish which took me by surprise at the end. Still is one of my favorite movies because of the ending.

    1. Hmm, I’ve never seen Spanglish, but since I love an unpredictable ending, I will check it out. Thanks for the suggestion and comment! Also, I will look into making a master list of exercises. Now that I’ve put all my blog posts in Scrivener (colour-coded and with keywords), such a list will be easier to organize.

  9. Wow, I can’t believe I didn’t realize this before just now. But once you pointed it out, it made perfect sense. I’m going to test this out on my current WIP. Thanks.

    1. You’re welcome! Also, you’ve just cracked how I write blog posts – I examine a story and go, “Eureka! That’s what’s happening. How did I not realize that before now?” Then I worry that I’m the only person in the world who hasn’t noticed the pattern, but I write the post anyway and it’s all worth it when I get great comments like yours. 🙂

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