Predictability or Inevitability

I have that thing you did written down in my book. Yeah, that thing. That was messed up, man.

A little while back, I discussed how experienced and incisive players of video games begin to perceive the hand of the designer, to predict his aims, and infer information which the surface layer of the game doesn’t communicate in order to gain an advantage in the game. This principle is actually common to other media as well, but it tends to be far less rewarding when we encounter it there– we call this ‘predictability’.

Now, predictability is something we’re all familiar with. Even if it’s always a surprise to you, we all have a friend or two who can spot the twist ending coming a mile away, and just sits through the rest of the movie waiting for the rewards of their smug certainty to be realized. You know, douches. However, what’s not immediately obvious is that predictability in story is completely divorced from predictability in the real world. Real-world predictions are based on our observations of the real world, while story predictions are based on our observations of stories.

Not worth it yo

One night many years ago when I apparently had nothing better to do I saw the movie Swordfish, a strikingly lousy John Travolta movie notable only for, and sold on the basis of, a brief scene with Halle Berry’s tits. At the time, I was surprised at the heights of simultaneous predictability and implausibility it had managed to reach. These traits seem contradictory, but on closer inspection this combination is actually very common. In fact, only the combination of narrative predictability with real world implausibility create what we think of as predictability– if what happens in a story is exactly what we’d expect to happen, both in reality and in stories, we don’t spare it any thought at all. It is invisible.

Imagine this scene: A young girl is walking down the street, alone, when she’s confronted by a gaggle of thugs. There are hundreds of ways this could play out, and in our reality many would be pretty harsh on the poor girl (though probably not as many as most people would think). However, in most media the result nine times out of ten is that the hero comes either just in time to rescue her or, in an even more tiresomely predictable ‘twist’, to see her easily dispatch her enemies by herself.

Basically: If you want to surprise people, excite them, interest them, then it’s extremely easy to fall into the trap of trite and superficial ‘surprises’. The first solution you think of to her conundrum will probably be the first one the audience thinks of too, and if they can think of it so easily then what do they need you for anyway? In the current environment, just having her give those badasses the slip and run away is far tenser and more exciting, particularly given the dissonance between that and what we expect from most modern narratives, than having her explode into physically implausible and disgustingly trendy Whedon-esque waif-fu violence.

So, to sum up predictability in a handy little guide:

Fulfilled? Narrative Expectation Realistic Expectation Result
Yes Yes Not noticed
Yes No Trite
No Yes Honest
No No Unpredictable

Great! Now you have an idea of how to avoid writing predictably. You can now create pure bullshit non-sequiter with the best of them (best of them = rest of them), so I guess you now have what it takes to be a writer for Family Guy.

A fate worse than death?

While it’s easy to just have something completely random happen to either save the heroes as needed or to screw them over and keep the plot going, this sort of thing is rarely satisfying to the audience. Though much of our lives are driven by random chance, and indeed many stories are started by random events, we generally feel cheated if that’s how our stories end. Yeah, shit happens, but in the end the reason we’re interested in stories is not because of the shit that happens, but because of how characters react to that shit, and alternately dig their allies out of it or shovel more onto the heads of their enemies, much like blocks in a competitive player game of Tetris.

This is why foreshadowing is a big thing. If nothing else, it signals to the audience that you know and care at least enough to go back and revise the story to make it look like you knew where you were going at the start. The ideal mix of techniques which most writers strive for is that where the the ending is difficult to foresee, but once you get there it’s hard to imagine how it could have happened any other way.

This is why M. Night Shyamalan was such hot property after The Sixth Sense; the movie sets up its ending from the very first scene, and everything from that point on is calculated to build that impact. It’s the sort of thing that’s a lot easier to appreciate than to execute, I think. It’s easy to see how Memento’s measured and terrifying unveiling of the past grips us, but very difficult to imagine how once could create such a masterpiece. That execution isn’t made any easier by the fact that different people in the audience all have different cultural reference pools and levels of critical thinking, so foreshadowing that one person might find heavy-handed another person won’t notice at all, and a plot twist may seem hopelessly contrived to one person and a confusing Deus Ex Machina to the next.

I can’t provide answers. In the long run, the only way to make a beautiful plot is to give it time, to know your characters, to tie the pieces together bit by bit so that each thread leads to the next. I’m taking everything away and giving nothing in return; I’m telling you to discard the answers that came to you easily and hunt for rarer game; I’m murdering your half conceived ideas, making your job as an artist harder, and why?

Easy art isn’t good art. If you’re having an easy time, you’re making something shallow. You can enjoy yourself, but enjoy yourself because you enjoy the work, not because you’re avoiding work.

You can make any story, and every story has an infinity of variations– those little pieces of story, those character establishing moments, those anecdotes and dialogues, they write the ending for you, they pin down the shadow of your story’s destiny. The shape of it is defined by the space between them, though when you shift your perspective maybe you can see those same pins define a different silhouette. You can move the pins, and you can move your perspective, but when all is written your ending must match the shape you see.

Otherwise you have written a lie.


And yeah, I know I was supposed to be writing about game design, but I’ve been wanting to write about this for a while. Also, like, you know, games have stories too man.

Other ideas for how the girl and thugs scenario could play out:

  • Jump to scene of her being dropped off at her house on a motorcycle.
  • The thugs look menacingly at her for a moment before they’re distracted by the snapping fingers and smooth choreographed moves of a rival street gang.
  • The biggest scariest thug shoulders to the front of the crowd and reaches for her– she jumps into his arms, “daddy!”
  • She pulls a balaclava down over her face and says “let’s do this thing.”
  • “Hello ma’am, can we interest you in invitations to the undercover policeman’s ball?”

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