Monday, January 30, 2012

Avoiding Predictability

I'll admit.  I find most fantasy and science fiction short stories rather predictable.   This is especially a problem with shorter stories.  The issue is that these sorts of stories (flash fiction stories, generally 1,000 words or less) are generally expected to have a twist ending, a surprise that you're not supposed to see coming.  However, if you expect that it'll end in a twist, you can usually figure out what it is the moment you understand the premise of the story.  For example, let's suppose you're reading a story about a student who failed his drug test, but it's vague what the drug test is. It's because he's not taking the intelligence boosting drug his school requires.  Or how about a man wondering whether to tell his wife that she's actually a replacement, with his dead wife's memories downloaded. It turns out he's a replacement too.  Or how about a guardian being assigned an unspecified task by his superiors concerning his charge?  He's supposed to kill her, because he's not guarding her, he's guarding everyone else from her.  (I'll admit, that last one's mine.  I never said that I was immune.)  The thing is, for each of these (including mine), anyone with a modicum of genre-savvy could predict the ending well before getting to it.  All the examples are from Daily Science Fiction, but I don't mean to pick on them.  They're  convenient because I read most of their stories, and the stories are usually very short, which, as I mentioned earlier, makes them harder to make unpredictable.

Why?  What makes these stories predictable?  First, people expect a twist.  It's a standard trope of the genre, and because people expect it, they're on the lookout for it.  Second, shorter stories are simpler stories.  There's usually a single science fiction or fantasy element that's being explored, so readers know where to expect the twist from.  Third, writers learn to set up their twist early in the story.  Usually by the first couple of paragraphs, it's already been telegraphed.  The reason for this is that readers will complain if the twist comes out of nowhere.  They have to be allowed the chance to guess it, so it's expected that there will be hints of it in the beginning.  So they now know where to look for the clues to the twist.  And if they do that, there's a good chance that they will find it.

Can you frustrate these expectations and make your story really surprising?  If I really knew how, I'd be a better writer.  But here are some dos and don'ts that have occurred to me:

  1. Don't rely on word ambiguity for your twist.  "Guardian" or "drug test" are words where a little thought can reveal alternative, but equally valid, meanings.  If your reader is looking for a twist, he'll pick up on those words, and be able to figure it out.
  2. Don't put all your clues in one place.  You need clues.  If your twist comes completely out of left field, your reader will feel cheated.  But if you put everything in one place, it will be easy for them to figure out.
  3. Do write stories without a twist ending.  Not every flash fiction story needs a twist ending.  As long as you can tell a good story, you can feel free not to try to surprise your reader.  Of course, if he's expecting a twist, that in itself may surprise him.
  4. Do make your stories more complex.  If there's one premise or concept, then of course there's a limited number of ways for the story to go.  Throw in more ideas, more science fiction or fantasy, or both.  This will open up many more permutations and possibilities.
  5. Do write longer stories.  Longer stories are harder to predict.  More concepts come into play, there are more plot points and more complexity.  Of course, it's possible to write a simple long story, but even in that case, a twist is more of a surprise, since you've had longer to lure your reader into a false sense of security.
  6. Don't rely on a straightforward reversal for your twist.  Want the innocent victim your monster is hunting to turn out to be an even worse monster?  It's been done.  Want a girl to have cybersex behind her boyfriend's back, only to learn that he's the one on the other end? That's also been done.  The reversal twist is a common technique, and has been done so often that it's hard to fool an alert reader with it.  The simple reversal is too obvious a possibility to be overlooked, especially in flash fiction stories which often have just two significant characters.  But more subtle reversals still work.


  1. Twist endings aren't merely a trope of the science fiction genre, but also a trope of short fiction. (Though the SF genre has traditionally been rife with puns.) Good post, with much to think about.

  2. Thanks for commenting.

    That's a good point. I notice them more in speculative fiction, partly because I read more speculative fiction, and partly because they're bigger there. Whether or not twist endings are more common in speculative fiction, they have more of an effect. In non-SF stories there's a limit to how much of a twist you can add. In SF, you can change the entire premise of the world in your ending. Since SF gives you more flexibility in how the world works, you get bigger twists.


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