Predictability and the reading experience

Merrie Haskell recently asked on Twitter why we criticize a book if the plot is predictable. That caught my eye because of course I recently took THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS off my list of possible Hugo nominees even though I loved it, mostly because of the highly, highly predictable plot (and a little bit because of the clichéd characters).

Incidentally, if any of you have read this, did you find the plot so entirely predictable, almost to the point of being able to write the entire back third of the book yourself? Minus a handful of details, sure, but basically?

The reason this is interesting is because as soon as Merrie Haskell commented about this, I immediately thought of the kind of story where predictability is simply not an issue.

I mean, is there anybody here who did not know exactly how Laura Florand’s ONCE UPON A ROSE was going to turn out? Basically how every main detail was going to fit into the plot, the role every important character was going to play, all of that?

Yet in Florand’s book, this is fine. Because being astonished by the plot is not the point of a romance, at all. (Can anybody think of a counter example? That worked?) It’s a lot like those old-fashioned formulaic detective shows such as “Murder, She Wrote,” where not only the basic formula but also the pacing is entirely predictable. Of course that show was enormously popular, too. Romances are super-popular, formulaic detective shows are super-popular; obviously being predictable is a feature, not a bug, for a lot of people who enjoy these forms.

I suspect this is because:

a) Readers (and viewers) generally prefer that The Hero behave heroically, intelligently, and effectively. If you like The Hero, then watching him (or her) get the better of the bad guy is the whole point. I always liked Horatio in “CSI: Miami” back when I actually had time to watch tv. “House” was very formulaic, but I didn’t mind a bit.

b) If you know how the plot is going to work, where the beats will fall, how the pacing will work, then you are free to appreciate the detail work because you don’t feel driven to turn the pages as fast.

c) If you don’t have to worry about the ending, then the reading (or viewing) experience is low stress, also allowing you to take your time turning the pages and enhancing the experience, provided that’s what you were in the mood for when you picked up the book or turned on the tv.

What is crystal clear to me after trying various romances and being almost completely unengaged, and then finding several authors whose work I like very much, is that predictability is not a problem for me — but only if the writing is good enough. I need the characterization and actual sentence-by-sentence writing to be really well done if a romance is going to work for me, and the more contemporary the setting, the more true that is. Whereas I have found that as long as the dialogue is good, then other aspects of the writing can be somewhat clunky and the book can still work for me — but only if the plot is less predictable.

I wouldn’t even say that books that are extremely well written and also offer thoroughly unexpected plot twists are “better” than those that just do the former and not the latter. Contrast Andrea K Höst’s AND ALL THE STARS with Laura Florand’s ONCE UPON A ROSE. The former is a save-the-world SF story with a romance included. The latter is a contemporary romance, straight up. The former offers an amazing plot twist that will knock your socks off. The latter is entirely predictable as far as the broader elements go. Both offer an excellent reading experience. You can’t easily say that one is better than the other, but only the latter works as, say, bedtime reading. The former would keep you up late going “BUT WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN?” and obsessively turning pages. The latter is like snuggling with a warm puppy.

So. You downgrade a story to the extent that it’s supposed to be a page turner, but its predictability gets in the way of the tension. Though I greatly admire an author who pulls off An Amazing Plot Twist, if it’s not supposed to be that kind of story, then predictability can in and of itself be a virtue rather than a problem.

Or so it seems to me.

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