In the course of my reading challenges, I’ve come across quite the variety of books. With about 150 books under my belt so far over the past two years, I’ve had plenty of time to really start thinking in more depth about what really makes a good book (at least in my opinion).
So Where Is This All Coming From?
Lately I’ve read a few books in a row that had one key issue in common: predictability. By “predictability,” I mean that key plot points were easy to determine early on in the book. It got me thinking about a Children’s Literature course I took back in university which centered on a very interesting idea that by now, there are no truly “unique” stories anymore. The stories that we know and love today are all variations on the same few themes, and all have the central theme of losing and regaining identity.
I think if we boil any story down to its most basic elements, there is definitely some truth to this. At its base, nearly every story needs the same elements: a main character who is soon confronted with some kind of problem, and must overcome obstacles to resolve it.
Even beyond this level, the specifics of how the story looks may have a lot in common. For example, if you strip away the details of the story, Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games) seems quite similar to Tris Pryor (Divergent), and may even bear some similarities to Harry Potter, if only on a basic level. Note that the point is not for the characters to be exactly the same, but rather that they follow a similar template.
The stories that we tell or read are based on real or imagined experiences, so it makes sense that there are limits to how many unique stories we can come up with. Newer literature draws inspiration from our lives as well as from stories we’ve heard in the past.
Creativity vs. Predictability
The familiarity of the elements is not, or at least should not, be the sole defining feature of what makes a book enjoyable. I think many avid readers have faced the disappointment of coming to the end of a book that they’ve really enjoyed, only to find the ending fall a bit flat since they saw it coming from the first pages of the novel. This was the case for me recently when I read Cinder. While I really enjoyed the book, the author dropped anvil-sized hints early on about what should have been the “big revelation” toward the end. My initial reaction was disappointment, making a final rating a tough call. As a retelling, a very trendy kind of story recently, it’s natural to expect some level of predictability. After all, the book is intended to be yet another Cinderella story. However, despite the heavy-handed hinting, I realized that I thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the book because of it’s unique take on the story, and the interesting characters and world that were developed.
As a result, I was left to wonder how a book can be so predictable, and yet still so enjoyable. Another recent book I read, See Me by Nicholas Sparks was predictable in a different way. Unlike Cinder, this book had almost the opposite pattern. Like most Nicholas Sparks books, the romance plot line was pretty predictable, however the book differed from his usual stories because there was also a plot about a stalker who was tormenting one of the main characters. Without giving any spoilers, I will just say that I was able to predict who the stalker was relatively early on, but I think that had more to do with how familiar I am with Sparks’ style. The hints where there, but they were definitely not glaring. A less predictable ending does not necessarily guarantee that the rest of the book is any better.
Based on these two books, among the many others that I’ve read with varying degrees of predictability, the best conclusion I could come up with is that a predictable book is not necessarily a boring or bad book. Since most stories consist of familiar elements anyway, the difference primarily comes down to how well the author crafts their story in a way that is still unique, or at least very well-written. Harry Potter, for instance, is a fantastic series because of how well J.K. Rowling developed the characters and the details of the wizarding world, not because Harry’s story is all that different from other fantasy heroes.
The Benefits of Predictability
Although it can definitely be very boring to continually feel that you are re-reading the exact same book over and over, predictability actually has some benefits:
- There can be something very comforting about knowing what to expect. When you pick up a Cinderella story, you know upfront how it is (most likely) going to end
- Using familiar patterns and motifs makes stories easier to understand (for younger readers), or easier to compare to other similar books
- It can be easy to find a book that you are certain you’re going to enjoy
- Depending on your mood, books that are more predictable can sometimes be easier to read in the sense that they don’t require as thorough attention as, say, a mystery or a thriller
- You get to see just how creative authors can be when it comes to re-working familiar stories in new and unique ways