Friday, January 20, 2017

The Quality of Predictability

While home for Christmas, my brother and I were sent into the grocery store after a dinner out to grab a few things. Stuff kept getting tacked on, and by the end we had seven items that we needed to get. We couldn’t remember the seventh.

“Remembering seven new pieces of information is supposed to be average,” I said. “More than that is supposed to be intelligent. I guess that explains why mom would never let us see our IQ tests.”

My brother was miffed by the comment.

“I just wasn’t listening,” he replied.

There actually some truth to it. People only have a limited amount of ability to process brand new information, our short term memory far less flexible than long term. We can remember more if there seems to be a connection between the objects, which is why mnemonic devices like My Very Excellent Memory Just Served Up Nine Planets work so well to train us in non-related pronouns of Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and the ill-fated Pluto.

Familiarity breeds investment.

In the book I’m shopping around, I had two major parts in which the plot lagged and people—myself included—had a hard time of pushing past. It took me at least a year of being aware of the problem before I finally came up with a successful solution: Connections and familiarity were key.

Instead of having this fight scene between the protagonists and a “faceless” bounty hunter, I reorganized the plot so that it would bring back in a character people had wanted to know more about, killing two birds with one stone. Taking basically the same sequence of events, but adding in a connection with previous parts of the book made the moment more interesting, look like the plot progressed, and enabled readers to stay engaged until they got back to the already successfully flowing parts.

People struggle to compartmentalize too much new information.

In that same manuscript, I was also told that my beginning was confusing, but no one could really explain what they meant. I had one woman go through the section again with a highlighter to note each moment she got lost, and she finished without a mark on it. “Well, I guess I understood everything.”

Over four some years, I struggled with figuring out what people meant by “not understanding” before I realized they meant they were overwhelmed with new information. Many of my readers did not read the science-fiction genre—my peers in my small hometown of Wyoming predominantly memoirists and contemporary literary writers—which was part of the problem, but also that I threw one-too many “curveballs” (unintentionally of course) with the building of my world.

The initial version started in a hut filled with mechanical parts like a stripped car engine. It was a secondary world—in later drafts confirmed to be a completely separate planet—and people struggled to figure out things like the “time period,” the location, and just the type of story it was. The cult of the female protagonist’s upbringing was not the primary antagonist, but the backdrop. Were we on Earth? Outer space? The rules followed expectation on some parts, but not in others, which of course I assumed was a good thing. But that made it difficult to note all the little details, the tiny objects described, the strange items and fashions that diverted from a seemingly typical dystopian reality. The readers didn’t know what they needed to remember for plot points because so many of the aspects of this word subverted expectation. Shouldn’t that be what’s important?

Obviously it all made sense to me, none of it being throw in intentionally to throw a kink into things. I envisioned the world how I envisioned it, focusing little on originality or cliché. But, as I say, my common sense isn’t so common, and if I tried to write something that had never been done before, I would never get to write what I want. So in the early drafts I try to stay out of the heads of my readers and create what feels right, make the story in the way I see it, meet my vision as accurately as I can. Later I’d determine if it worked for others. I would struggle to objectively say, “This idea is cliché, while that idea is unexpected,” because I typically do what makes sense, what feels right. Some of it will be assumptions created by the genre itself, others will be random conclusions formed in my mind. This rarely happens consciously, and so I can’t easily separate them out.

It was too my shock I found that deleting information rather than adding information helped draw focus to what was important and allowed people to feel comfortable in their conclusions.

Utilizing past knowledge is a fulfilling puzzle.

Working as an editor for One in the Hole, (deadline for submissions of the fifth and final issue March 15th), I received a lot of “compilation” stories. The premise of the literary journal is for the stories, poems, and essays to all be about Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and many of the non-fiction writers would simply pick a subject and tell several stories about it: moose, buffalo, their families, etc.

I often spent time reorganizing these into a more progressive storyline, trying to find the underlying point in all. Otherwise, it was like trying to get reinvested into an entirely new story all together. It was harder to read these compilation because you wouldn’t get the refreshing new styles or voice someone different, but still forget everything you’ve learned about the last because it didn’t relate.

As a common indie reader, I find that most summaries screw the pooch by prioritizing mystery over being informative. After reading their pitch, I still know nothing about the novel because they’re so afraid of making it “predictable.”

When I was in school with required reading, I found that I was far more interested in the plays after I had read all about them on Wikipedia then when I was just introduced to the first few pages.

The brain works best by seeing patterns and connections.

Originality is a primary goal for most writers, and for good reason. It’s an excellent tool to get people to start caring again, rethink their base assumptions, and take us from the constant pelting of everyday life. Show us something new and we’ll be a limp kitty in your arms.

However, most successful works are not all that original. In fact, it can feel difficult to sell something truly different, especially as something as business oriented as film. When I wrote the post “Originality Doesn’t Sell,” suggesting originality is merely a tool to improve your work, not a quality of it, most people’s first assumption was I was writing about how difficult it is to get a truly original work out there. Which is common advice; I follow a blogger who was told that a screenplay should have 70 percent expectation, 30 percent novelty.

This seems like a whole bunch of box-filling, limiting gibberish force-fed to the masses to keep the peasants in their place. And it sort of is. I’m not advocating attempting to keep something formulaic or cliché, but rather that understanding how most reader’s minds work gives options to the author. Analyzing expectation and comparing it to reaction is more successful in achieving impact. Too many writers balk at predictability because it’s fairly easy to write something that’s been written before, and being limited to it simply because the world sees you as a fluff writer is insulting and disingenuous.

But familiarity is powerful. Sometimes it’s not just about marketing or meeting the common denominator, just recognizing why no one is invested in your truly different piece of fiction. Don’t avoid something merely because it’s easy or been done before. Predictability, acquaintance, and expectation are all powerful options in your arsenal. Without them, it’s incredibly difficult to progress and invest in a storyline.

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