Predictability

Matt Wallace reviewed Apex #9 and had this to say about my story.

Next up, flash fiction from Mary Robinette Kowal. It pains me to say this, but “Locked In” really didn’t get it done for me. It certainly didn’t have the impact that it seemed to have on others. I love Ms. Kowal to death, she’s a woman of many talents. She illustrated one of my stories and did a beautiful job. But this just struck me as a throwaway tale. The reason is the ending, I think. Because the story is well-written, and the narrative style was engaging (“the ball” is a great device). But where everyone else seemed to find the twist ending sick and shocking, I was let down. It was predictable and felt kinda cheap to me, like she hadn’t earned it. That sounds harsh, but that was my reaction, man. What’re you gonna do?

The interesting thing for me is that the “ouch” of this doesn’t come from the fact that he didn’t like it, but that the flaw that people seem to complain about in my writing is that it is predictable. Now, what I’m trying to figure out is if that’s a problem. See, in every case it’s been in a story where I wanted to the reader to understand what was happening before the character did. For me, when I’m watching a movie, or a play, or reading a book, it’s most tense when I know something bad is about to happen but the stupid main character is just blithely charging ahead.

I keep trying to do that because I like the sensation of mentally yelling “No, no, no!” at the main character. So, what I’m trying to figure out for myself is if the “predictable” tag means that there are people who don’t like that, or if I should tip my hand less about where we are going in a story.

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16 Responses

  1. David de Beer

    hmm, to twist the tale or not to twist the tale?
    I’ve asked myself this as well, because I’m not a twisty-pon-the end writer either, not usually.

    So, what I’ve concluded is this – write the way you read. If you don’t want to do twists, then don’t.
    In my experience this far, I’ve noticed that there are many readers who rate stories, especially horror/ darker stories, solely on the twist; the success of a story is measured on your ability to remain unpredictable and to hide the end.
    That works for some, it doesn’t work for me.
    And happily there are enough readers out there who also enjoy non-twisty endings.
    Utterly predictable? no, course not, but for me it’s not seeing the end coming, I very often do, it’s how they get there and what happens along the way that makes it interesting.
    I don’t try to twist, and it baffles me when someone makes a comment like, “I saw the end coming with your story.” Surely, people can tell the difference between a story that wants to and one that doesn’t want to twist?

    Write the way you like to read, that’s my vote.

  2. peterbilt_47

    I think the deliciousness of the “Don’t go in there!!!!!” moments in a horror film come from not knowing precisely what will happen or when, but knowing that when it does, the movie will deliver it as a sudden sensory shock.

    In a book, which doesn’t demand the audience’s continuous undivided attention or a sudden sensory assault, I don’t think that kind of tension translates as well.

  3. Wordly

    I’m not really sure where he’s coming from, as even he says, “…didn’t have the impact [on me] that it seemed to have on others…” and “…But where everyone else seemed to find the twist ending sick and shocking, I was let down…” So it sounds as if, for everyone else, the story worked a treat, just as you wanted, but for him it didn’t.

    Well, it sounds like even he’s saying that it’s probably more him than the story. ๐Ÿ™‚ And he did like it, until the end.

    Are you hearing from other people that your stories are predictable? And what does that mean, anyway? That it worked out as they were worried it would, or worried that it wouldn’t?

    Eh, this is the deal as I see it. People like anticipating, knowing what’s coming but dreading it, or knowing what’s coming and hoping that it’s not going to be so. What they don’t like is knowing what’s coming, and it turns out to be something completely different and also not related very much to the story.

    Unfortunately, in the language, both of these things come off as, “I knew what was going to happen.”

    Personally, I’d look at it this way: your story is in with some very good stories by some very good authors. Presumably, you are not related to the editor and have nothing over on him, so there’s no felony charges pending regarding bribing, threatening, or seducing. You’re not married to him, and nor does he owe you huge favors.

    He chose your story to go in with these other stories, he did not choose the critic’s story, so your only real response should be something very happily along the lines of “Nyner, nyner, nyner!” and you’ll make money for your story and he shouldn’t make money for his opinion, if he does.

    So, there you go ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Chris Azure

    Well, the best stories are the ones that hold up well to repeat readings, even though you know exactly what happens after the first time.

    That said, I read your story, and I didn’t actually guess the twist ending ahead of time. But knowing what was to come made the whole thing more effective and disturbing on a second read.

  5. Mary Robinette Kowal

    I do want to make really clear that I have no problems with the reviewer. Nor do I have problems with the review, which I find completely valid.

    But yes, other reviews of other stories of mine have used the word “predictable” and it does make me wonder if it’s a taste difference or something I can improve on.

    Chris: I’m curious, because I don’t at all think of this as having a twist ending, how you expected it to end? As if you keep mental notes on your expectations.

    Wordly: Actually, the editor does owe me a huge favor, but I also know that he likes my writing. I’m not worried on that front. ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Chris Azure

    I may be using the term loosely – the twist was the remote control, as I saw it, but on the second read, it didn’t seem like a twist at all, because it’s such an integral part of the story.

    In fact, I tend not to predict endings at all, for whatever reason – which means the ones I do actually predict seem even more glaringly obvious to me. In your case, I didn’t have any expectations on how it would end. (so I may not be the best person to ask about predictability – as long as it’s above a certain bar, I’m okay with it) ๐Ÿ˜‰

  7. Wordly

    Wow, I guess! ๐Ÿ˜€

    What a neat thing to do, though, amazing! And how all those people came through, too–it must have renewed faith in people’s generosity no end.

    But, see, he likes your writing, so that’s good, too.

    However, in the interest of if you feel something is not quite all it could be regarding your writing, then, yes, it’s time to take stock and evaluate and figure out some things. Which, when you get down to it, is part of the whole joy of writing–I fondly think of it as crashing into those new levels of awareness and skill ๐Ÿ˜€

  8. Matt Wallace

    I dig what you’re saying, Mary, and I’m always down for peeking behind that curtain of omniscience, or knowing something nasty is waiting there in the dark that the main character hasn’t flashed on yet. I just don’t think this was necessarily that. For the simple reason you don’t actually reveal who’s holding the remote ’til the very end. The terror in the story obviously comes from the titular conflict, that Samuel is paralyzed to stop it when that fuckin’ ball starts working against him. And I was with you through that. It was just the last little detail. If you’d let me know they were fingering that remote the whole time, that they’d walked into the room with this nefarious or painfully misguided plan of action, I think I would’ve taken from the narrative what you’re talking about up there. But you didn’t, so to me it felt like you were working toward trying to spin everything at the end. M. Night Shyamalan-ing it, if you will. And, you know, that obviously worked for a lot of people. I just reacted differently, that’s all.

    I also wanna say, since I’m typing, that I understand the “ouch” review. I’ve got a couple dozen of them bookmarked myself. The last thing in the world I aspire to be, right behind genocidal maniac and serial rapist, is a critic. When I review something in my blogs, anything, it’s because I want to support whatever it is I’m reviewing. That’s why I choose it. But I also feel a responsibility not to bullshit my readers when it comes to my opinion. Fortunately you’re enlightened and generally luminous enough to realize this, and I dig that about you.

  9. -e-

    Mary, the experience of this “civilian”-

    empathy thru the character set up

    excitement and hope as he appears to be mastering “the ball”

    frustration, then shock, then horror right along with him as he (and I) realized the truth.

  10. Michele

    Mary, I liked it because I like stories like that period. I like stories where one line completely changes the story. I like to catch something because I’m paying attention. I don’t think there was anything wrong with your stories. Even if it was predictable it was still full of tension and brought a quiver out of my guts as I finished. In fact I immidately passed it off to my husband and demanded that he read it immediately, making it the only Apex story he’s read (despite his promises to try it out, and the great looks he gets when I explain my verbal reactions to the occasional story).

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with Matt’s point of view. I agree that I write reviews with the intent to promote something I believe in, and that I owe my readers honesty. More than that I owe Jason, who I consider my friend, my honesty about his magazine. I don’t like being cruel, but I don’t want to hide my true feelings because I’m trying to break into a certain magazine, or just like the person.

    I don’t think you should dwell on the aspect you seem to be stuck in. Certainly people who have read the same author over and over have learned some idea of what to expect. In fact sometimes authors can lose readers for not doing what’s expected, whether it’s bad or good.

    I’ve gotten feedback from different people on a single story that said both “This is predictable and has nothing new” and “The ending was too big of a surprise, you should drop more hints”.

    Tones of stories are different. Surely some call for showing the reader the entire hand and then letting them cheer for or against the character who does not know what they do. And some revel in shocking the reader with an unseen twist.

    Perhaps Matt just knows you better. I certainly would expect someone who has read many things by me to see my stories differently than someone who might be exposed for the first time.

    I, honestly didn’t think Locked In had a twist ending. Twist should mean that it suddenly veers in a completely different direction right? It wasn’t so much twisting and sinking fast into a darker ending. When the truth was revealed it was less twist and more like the floor dropped out from under me suddenly.

  11. Michele

    I just popped over and read Matt’s review. I hope he gets a chance to see my comment (er, this one) because amusingly enough the stories he liked best I thought were the weakest. I thought Nolan’s story in this issue was a much better fit than the one in the last issue. “Sufficiently Advanced” was clever and amusing, but I’ve seen people make more of it’s cleverness than I feel it deserves (and that’s not because it beat my alien witchcraft story too).

    It’s just interesting to see the only story Matt and I agreed on was “Sum of His Parts”. If that doesn’t prove that it’s all about opinion I don’t know what does.

  12. Matt Wallace

    I just popped over and read Mattรขโ‚ฌโ„ขs review. I hope he gets a chance to see my comment (er, this one) because amusingly enough the stories he liked best I thought were the weakest.

    I think beyond very basic rules of spelling and grammar, whether a story is good or not is way the hell up in the air. Of course, when I REALLY hate something and someone else just loves it I sing a different tune. Human beings are flighty, fickle, flawed creatures.

    Seriously, though. Takes different strokes to move the world. And I’m fine with that.

  13. Mary Robinette Kowal

    I’m loving this very civilized conversation, by the way.

    I have a new thought. I went to see The Big Heat last night, a 1953 film noir. At one point in the film, the main character’s wife asks to borrow his keys so she can go pick up the babysitter. My first thought was, “Oh, no. They are going to blow up the car with her in it.” This was not set up in the script, by seeing the bomb-maker plant the bomb or anything like that, only by the fact that they took time in the movie for her to need to borrow the keys. I spent the next several minutes, as the MC read a story to their daughter, waiting for the car to explode.

    The predictability of it was because of technique–I mean, yes, we knew the bad guys were mad at the MC, but otherwise didn’t have a real reason to think that they would do that. I didn’t mind knowing; it made that scene of him and his daughter horrifying for me.

    Now, my husband, who was film student and so should reasonably be thinking more about technique, had no idea the car would blow up.

    So, I guess my insight is that sometimes people will just figure it out and sometimes they won’t. Some folks will be bothered because they know what’s coming; some won’t. So, I shouldn’t fret.

    So much thinking to come around to that point, eh?

  14. Rick Novy

    Since I seem to fall into the camp that found the story predictible, I’ll just say this. Write your story your way for your audience and forget about the rest. IMHO. After a certain level, this kind of thing falls under personal taste, and everyone’s is different. But you already know that.

  15. David de Beer

    hunh, is this WordPress eating my replies? testing, testing.

    well, enough said on the matter, methinks.