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.
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:
Define the Hero’s Final Options.
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?