Predictable, But In A Good Way

song in my head — “Predictable” by Good Charlotte

One of the most important things I believe a storyteller can learn—especially one who wants to push conventions yet still reach a large number of people—is the subtle art of audience expectations. What does my reader or viewer expect from a story like this one?

Many factors play into audience expectations, and they vary from medium to medium. In the film world, for example, something unrelated to the actual movie, like the budget or some behind-the-scenes drama, can have a significant impact on how a viewer enters the theater (if they enter at all.) In most stories, however, regardless of medium, genre conventions and "tropes" often play a highly critical role.

One thing I find exciting to try and achieve in all my stories, no matter the genre, (and a quality I really enjoy experiencing as an audience member,) is the idea of predictability. Is this story predictable?

Now, you often only hear about something being "predictable" in a negative criticism, but I think being predictable in a good way—what some might call “inevitability”—is a worthy aim. It means you have set up your story well, and that the payoffs are clicking. It means an audience is tracking with you. It says you're playing all the right notes.

Of course, being predictable in a bad way is undesired, and usually comes when a story isn't inspiring, unique, or well-crafted. When an audience can see every moment coming from a mile away, well, that's not very satisfying.

However, an audience (especially a mainstream one) generally likes to be one tiny step ahead of you. Most people can't tolerate being in the narrative dark for too long. They want to understand the story—want it to feel familiar in some way, even if they can't articulate that need. It feels good, then, to have that flash of revelation, that moment when you see how the story has stacked the dominos, just before the storyteller topples them.

If you can hit this sweet spot—making the audience do a little work for the joy of revelation—then I believe the potential for more people to enjoy your work is higher. And what artist doesn't want that?