June 11, 2011

One Girl’s Thoughts on Unpredictability

I think a few of us have heard this word now, and there’s a lot of speculation going on about WHAT this means.

I first heard it in a phone conversation with my editor. She said that’s the word going around there at Rom HQ. Unpredictability. To take a book that we all know will have a happy ending, and make the journey fresh and unpredictable so that the reader isn’t guessing every event, every word and minute facial expression that your characters will make next.

When my editor said the word to me, it was to say I had managed to accomplish it in my MS (Hajar’s Hidden Legacy, Jan 2012). She said there was a scene in it that truly shocked her, one she hadn’t seen coming at all and how, when the MS took that turn it had her hooked.

She followed that up with this statement, and I think *this* is the big major Ah-HAH!! She said: If you take two strong characters and let them lead the MS, it makes it fresh and unpredictable.

Character is a huge part of what makes a MS unpredictable. They help create a kind of organic sense of the unexpected. I think if you try TOO hard to be unpredictable, things go against character and story structure. But when you take two characters who have their own unique ways of talking and thinking, and put them as proactive leaders of their own story, you can make something fresh without the WTH?!

I’ve used this as an example before, but I’m going to use it again. There was a small moment in His Virgin Acquisition, where Marco pulled Elaine in and kissed her. When they parted she ‘gave a cry’ and then she got all quiet.

My editor: why did she give a cry? Was it because you’d read other heroines doing that in that situation?

Me: … 0_0 maybe.

It wasn’t fitting with her character and it just came across silly and cliche. When I revisited that scene later, I had him kiss her still. But she responded to it with dialogue. Because Elaine was a talker, and I think that’s more natural for her. Not to be silenced by something like that, but to try and make it disappear by talking.

Again, that’s a very small moment, but those moments can all add up to make something that’s either not quite rising above what seems typical, or to create something that seems new and bright. And that’s what you want, a sparkly, shiny MS that brings YOU, and with that, brings an element of surprise.

Even if you’re bringing the unexpected in a grander form (IVF clinic mix-up sees an ordinary girl accidentally bearing the heir to the throne) you still have to bring it all the way through and into the characters.

Ultimately, there are only so many plots. It’s the characters in them, and the execution of those plots that make a reader (an editor) care.

I have another quick example of how unpredictable can come in. Without being spoilery…Last year I was asked if I wanted to write an office romance for 21st Century Bosses. I LOVE writing office romances. So I jumped all over that. My only directive was to have it be an office romance. So it was wide open!

My first thought was boss secretary. (and I am NOT knocking that at all. I love it. I will probably write one one day.) But then I started thinking about the power balance. (That the heroine have power of some kind is important to me) Then I thought of a heroine who worked for the hero…but got to tell him what to do. I made my heroine my hero’s PR person. So she works for him, and yet she advises him. He pays her to tell him what to do in many ways, which means he has to respect and value and her opinion and her ability to do her job.

Right there it brings a different dynamic into the employer/employee romance. Further than that, Lily, my heroine, is all about image. That includes her own. She goes to the gym, she has her nails done. She loves colorful shoes. Those little details make their way into the book, in Lily’s mannerisms and in conversation. Even in having them go to the gym together (off screen).

I didn’t reinvent the wheel with that book. But hopefully I was able to inject something a bit new and unpredictable.

I think we’ll do a Maisey List to sum up:

1. Organic unpredictability comes from character (not a random outside force)

2. Organic unpredictability furthers the conflict. (again, we don’t want to have a zombie attack in the missle of the book because it’s UNEXPECTED!)

3. Use small moments to keep adding little bursts of minty fresh unexpected. (reactions, facial expression, find new ways to say things. Really ponder if your hero would think that, or if he’s only thinking that because you’ve read other heroes thinking it.)

4. Take a chance on unexpected plot elements. Again, in the interest of furthering conflict and staying with character. 😉

5. Take a chance on unique, strong characters. A hero who longs for a wife and children? A heroine who’s successful and strong in her career. A hero who’s trying to escape his culture and economic origins. A heroine who is determined to reclaim her family home, no matter the cost.

6. Unpredictability starts with character. (see above.)

If you have any questions, I’d be happy to get a discussion going in comments!


Comments

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  1. Great post, Maisey.

    I think this is the key phrase that catches me: “But when you take two characters who have their own unique ways of talking and thinking, and put them as proactive leaders of their own story . . . .”

    Each character does have their own story. And the unique journey begins when the h/h meet and their stories clash/meld/explode, etc. When you look at it that way, you really can’t tell the story for them. The h/h have to tell the story to you as you write it.

    Abbi 🙂

  2. Aahh, Maisey, you means I have to take out those Zombie Ninjas in chapter 8?

    Great post! And totally ties in with the post I’m writing today about how story is character, characters are story, and being willing to write a little wild..

  3. Great post, Maisey!

  4. Abbi, I think a proactive character is important. Characters who act in their world rather than simply react to it.

    Autumn, depends on who you’re sending the book to. 😉

    Thanks Wendy!

  5. Thanks for another interesting post, Maisey. I’m just catching up – will have to catch up with Hot Rod next! I’ve started a new story – yes, bad me, I’ve abandoned Senor Turquoise Eyes for the moment (he’s not talking to me anyway!), and for this new story, I’m aiming for point 5 as I wanted to try something a little different. Apart from that, as usual I haven’t the foggiest. I’ll just have to hope that the characters are a little more co-operative than the aforementioned Spaniard!

  6. Awesome post, m’dear! 🙂

  7. This post helped me figure out what wasn’t working in a very important chapter — the one in which my heroine first appears. Her personality is very strong in later chapters, but she wasn’t “herself” at first. This post made me figure out what needed to be done, so thanks! Everything is falling into place now. 🙂

  8. Fab post, Maisey. Thanks for this one.

  9. Thanks for the enlightening post, Maisie. I’d heard this term but I really couldn’t wrap my brain around it. What happens if the characters take the story in a direction that doesn’t fit into the line you’re writing? Do you change the characters? Their decisions? Their actions? The whole story?

  10. Alexandra, I really think if you have strong characters you have the main component to getting a MS off the ground. Strong characters should drive their story forward.

    Thanks Jackie! Our discussion was part of my inspiration for it.

    Donna, awesome! So glad to be of help! I hope it all comes together neatly for you!

    Lacey, of course! Writing it all out, I know I’ve said, really helps me grasp concepts, so these posts are always helpful for me too!

    Anne, that’s a tough one. I think, having a very strong connection with Presents it isn’t something I’ve truly struggled with. But, I have gone to places that have made me question whether it would work in a Presents, and been surprised that my editors haven’t questioned it. I think there’s a bit more freedom within category lines than people think. (I’m majorly pushing it with this MS, but I want to see if it will work!)

    Pragmatically though, it something is wildly outside the lines, I’m the type who would go back and reassess character as I’m very goal driven, and if I wanted something in a particular line, I would work to keep it there. Does that make sense? I’m sure there are plenty of other writers who would disagree! But that’s my two cents.

  11. Great post. I’ve been thinking about this since I read Dee Tonorio’s notes from RT’s Harlequin spotlight and they’d said:

    “Predictability: Take a look at your work. Try to make something new. Refresh the journey. Possibly been too narrow in our series promise. Now’s the time to be a little unpredictable—Things like character reactions, plots, new approaches, “A-ha!” moments with surprise. But don’t ignore the series promise!”

    Good stuff and you summed it up so well.

    Robin

  12. thanks, Robin! Always happy to try and help. And go on and on about things.

  13. Great post Maisey, thank you. It makes complete sense really, when you think about it.

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