Jilly: Surprisingly Predictable

Surprisingly PredictableI had great fun a couple of weeks ago talking about Okay, You Got Me – the moment when a story sinks its hooks into a reader and won’t let go. Ideally it’s a scene early in a story when the reader commits to the heroine/protagonist because the character does something that makes the reader care about them and want to know what happens next. In Devil’s Cub, my favorite Georgette Heyer, it’s the moment when Mary, the heroine, defends her virtue by shooting Vidal, the very badly-behaved hero.

Okay, You Got Me, or Save The Cat! is an important and wonderful scene, because at that moment the whole tantalising promise of the book stretches out ahead of the reader. If the scene has done its work well, the reader should be speculating like crazy based on the information they have been given. The writer’s mission for the rest of the book – the next 90,000 words or 280 pages or whatever – is to satisfy the reader’s story expectations in a manner consistent with the characters and problems established in this critical scene but without being so blindingly obvious that the reader has no work to do and the story becomes boring. No pressure, then.

Like any good relationship, the engagement between reader and writer is underpinned by trust, and it develops over the course of a story if the reader gets comfortable with the choices the writer makes as she develops her characters. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because it’s something I didn’t get right in my first draft. I had some feedback that said my hero and heroine sometimes reacted in unexpected ways, and the reader wasn’t sure why. I’m trying to do better in my re-write, and I’m thinking of it as a three-part challenge.   

First challenge: the character must be established clearly, so that the reader can decide for herself how she expects that character to feel and behave in a given situation, even if she doesn’t know exactly what they are going to do. One of my all-time favorite series is EF Benson’s Mapp and Lucia, a hilarious campaign of bitterly fought social skirmishes in small-town Edwardian England. Here’s Lucia:

Lucia, pale with fury, laid down her pen and waited for the situation to develop. She hoped she would behave like a lady, but was quite sure it would be a firm sort of lady.

Lucia … must be magnanimous and encourage no public exposure, whatever it might be, of Elizabeth’s conduct, but for the pickling of the rod of discipline she would like to hear about it quietly.

Second challenge: once a character has been established, a writer must take care not to have the character do anything that contradicts the brief the reader has been given, no matter how convenient it might be for the writer. Fluffing this is very bad. It can make a reader feel cheated and in extreme cases results in what’s popularly termed a wall-banger (book hurled energetically at nearest vertical surface). It’s something to watch out for not just within a book, but from book to book in a series. The Countess Conspiracy, by one of my favorite historical authors, Courtney Milan, was reviewed recently on the smartbitchestrashybooks blog and the reviewer, Carrie S, felt that the character of the Countess in question (Violet) was not consistent with the way she had been portrayed in previous books. Here’s point 3 of Carrie’s review:

This is part of a series of stand-alone books that are loosely connected, so we’ve seen most of these characters before.  I have no memory of Violet being so angry and bitter.  Am I misremembering her?  Her appearance in The Duchess War (Carrie’s Grade: A+) is one of a fun, playful, warm person.  Maybe the disconnect just reflects Violet’s carefully crafted public persona versus her interior life, but it was jarring.  I couldn’t recognize her.

Third challenge: even if the character’s actions are credible, if they’re so obvious that the reader always knows what’s coming next, why should they bother to read on? If the response to a key scene is an eye-roll and ‘well, doh,’ or ‘about time,’ rather than ‘wow, yeah,’ then all the good work from the initial scene has been wasted. This happens to me on TV or at the movies more often than with books, probably because I tend to read based on recommendations from people I trust.

So what I’m trying to do as I work through my re-write is to disregard Rose, and Ian, and Sasha’s first most logical response, and the second, and probably the third, and try to find something that’s entirely in character, but unexpected: the reader doesn’t see it coming, but when revealed, it makes total sense. I’m aiming for the kind of reaction I had when I first read Megan Whalen Turner’s Young Adult book, The Thief. It’s the story of Eugenides (Gen), a boy who is rescued from prison by a powerful Magus who wants him to steal a legendary gem from a sacred temple. Gen has secrets and a plan of his own, which gradually becomes apparent as the plot unfolds. I can’t explain how excellent the character development is without being spoiler-y, but for me this book was one perfectly constructed surprise after another. Like many of the characters in the story, I kept thinking of course! when it was all too late. If you haven’t read this book, I highly recommend it.

Have you read or watched anything lately where the character took you by surprise, in a good or not-so-good way?

9 thoughts on “Jilly: Surprisingly Predictable

  1. I want to complain about the first episode of the third season of Sherlock, which evidently only Slate and I in the entire universe disliked. I wasn’t surprised that Sherlock was alive, but I thought it was wrong, wrong, wrong that everyone but Watson knew it. I thought it was a huge betrayal by Sherlock, and although we know he doesn’t have much in the way of people skills, I did think he might have a moral compass hidden somewhere in that trenchcoat. Unless I understood none of it, which is entirely possible. In that case, at least I’m in good company with Slate in our confusion and annoyance.

    I love Devil’s Cub, too. In my 285-page edition, Mary shoots Vidal on page 102, but I was hooked on her long before that. Just sayin’. 🙂

    • Count me in with you and Slate, Kay, I was very disappointed in the first episode of third season Sherlock. I was even more disappointed in the second episode, too, so much so that I haven’t bothered to watch the third yet. I thought the first episode was like a pale imitation of the first episode of series 1, starting over and re-defining relationships but not building on the character arc of Series 1 and 2. I’ve been waiting for them to get to it in the Sherlock Sundays over on Argh Ink because I’m so curious to see what Jenny sees in it.

      I like Mary before she shoots Vidal, but like Vidal, I fall in love with her when she puts a bullet through him. I think Heyer’s allowed more time to set her characters on a collision course than most romance writers get today. I don’t think we have the luxury of waiting till the end of the first act to get the protagonist and antagonist head-to-head. I think a twenty-first century version of this story would have more Mary v Vidal in Act 1, more of them butting heads as she tries to keep her sister out of his clutches.

      • I just checked out Sherlock Sundays. Jenny’s with us! I left a comment, which is waiting moderation. Then I refreshed the page, and a new comment appeared by someone named “kay,” not me, who likes it. For a minute I had a Moment where I thought an Evil Force had taken over my keyboard. I’ll just wait until I’m moderated to see if that really happened.

        I think you’re absolutely right about romance writers in Heyer’s era getting more time to set up her characters. And that shooting scene–yes, Mary was a good character before the shooting, but that shooting sets her apart, even among Heyer’s heroines. Such a great book!

  2. One of the books I read this month, which shall remain nameless, didn’t take me by surprise at all. I read it all the way to the end, because it wasn’t offensive, and I thought maybe something surprising might happen at the end, but no. It was one of those “rich guy meets a girl who has to work for a living, and gives her a job that throws them in constant contact” kind of books. I didn’t have high expectations for it, and the book fully met them.

    I think maybe those “Wow, yeah!” moments are gifts from the muse. We have to do the hard work, prepare the way, keep moving and shifting the pieces into place, but when one of those “Wow, yeah!” moments come, at least half the time, I have no idea where it comes from. But it’s perfect!

    The thing is, I’m not that clever. If I work at a surprise ending, if I see it coming, everyone else who reads my book will probably see it coming, too. But when I get one of those “gifts” . . . Wow. (-: Those revelations of plot or character make all the crap and slogging really worth it!

    • ‘Wow, yeah!’ moments are definitely a gift from the muse, but I have a suspicion that the muse likes to see plenty of blood, sweat and tears before she comes to visit. My plan is to keep trying to stay true to the characters but resist the obvious, and hope she decides to reward my efforts with something a little bit special 🙂

  3. Great post, Jill. Last week I completely re-thought Dara’s character (because she was so good she was boring). I’ve got her first scene rewritten and I’m going to review it with this in mind, considering how it sets her up for the rest of the book. Thanks!

  4. Good grief, are you reading my brain or something? Over the weekend, I came up with a few things that my characters are going to do that are consistent, yet surprising. And I guess that is the challenge…we’ll see how well (or if) I can pull it off, but it’s sure fun trying!

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