I’ve noticed an interesting pattern in the responses to “Waiting for Beauty.” (You can read it for free online; go ahead and click. It’s less than eight hundred words long.) Multiple people have said something to the effect of “I could tell where it was going, but I enjoyed it anyway.” And this has inspired Thinky Thoughts about predictability in fiction.
Normally my metaphors for writing tend to revolve around textile arts (weaving, embroidery, sewing, etc), but I’ve been having misadventures in piano lately, so this time I’m going to go with music. There’s a thing called a suspension, which you’ve heard many times even if you don’t know that’s the term for it. You know how sometimes, before a piece settles into the final chord, it hangs there for a moment being not-quite-right? That’s a suspension: a note from a different chord persisting before at last resolving into the sound you expect.
Suspension works because you do expect the resolution. You hear it before it happens; you know where the music is going. Resolving into another chord entirely might be a clever trick, but it isn’t “better,” and if you use that trick too often you’ll annoy a lot of your audience.
We tend to talk about predictability in fiction as if it’s a bad thing. The word itself has a negative connotation — and heck, some writers decry “resolution” as being the cheap and easy way out of a story in the first place. But we crave resolution; we derive satisfaction from that feeling of knowing where the music is going, and following it to the end. And it’s true in fiction, too. Predictability is only a bad thing when it’s done badly.
Okay, tautologies are tautological. What’s the difference between doing it badly and doing it well? If I knew that for sure, I’d be selling my wisdom to the masses. But I can suss out three factors, at least, the first of which is that the suspense (in the musical sense of the word, more than the thriller one, though the breathless anticipation of the camera panning around to show the murderer is often suspense of the music-analogous variety as well) — right, that parenthetical got too long. Let’s start over: suspense should not overstay its welcome. “Waiting for Beauty” is less than eight hundred words long because its central conceit can’t bear a heavier weight than that. If I wanted a five-thousand-word story, I’d have to bring in other material, delay for as long as possible the introduction of that element — and that still might not work, because whatever filled the first 4500 or so would have to be substantial enough that it would probably take over the story.
The second factor is that the material of the suspension has to be worthwhile in its own right. “Waiting for Beauty” depends heavily on the specificity of the details along the way, the image it builds up, brick by brick. If that doesn’t work for a given reader (as it hasn’t, for some), the story itself will fall apart on the spot. For other stories, it might be the vivid emotion leading up to the revelation of what the reader has seen all along. Or the clockwork precision of disparate plot elements falling into place. The point is, the general point of “the writing has to be good” becomes critically true when the unexpected ceases to be one of your selling points: you need the reader to admire the journey for its own sake.
And the third, of course, is that the final chord — the thing the reader is anticipating — has to be something they want. One of the things that makes M. Night Shyamalan’s later movies not work for me is that when I see where they’re going, I really, really wish they would go somewhere else. To some extent this ties into the issue of cliches: suspension turns into predictability (in the negative sense) when the thing you’re making the reader wait for is a thing they’ve seen a bazillion times. But it’s possible to be not a cliche, and still undesirable. The Sixth Sense is arguably more cliched than Shyamalan’s subsequent films, but I like the former and dislike the latter because of where he’s leading me in each one.
As obvious as it seems to say that predictability is okay — even beneficial! — if you do it well, I feel like sometimes we lose sight of that in our rush to condemn “easy” storytelling. Some of Shakespeare’s plays start with a prologue that spoils the entire plot; we still keep watching. Uncertainty is not the only thing that can create suspense; sometimes, in a different way, certainty can do the same.