When you think of a compelling read, the fact you couldn’t see any of the twists and turns happening is probably one reason why you couldn’t put the book down.
Unpredictability in a story is such a fun feature to come across as a reader, and something any writer will benefit from in their own work, so here’s how you can!
How To Add Unpredictability To Your Story
Double Down On The Doubt
Making your readers doubt a character’s motives, actions, or the truth in a story can make your book a page-turner. How to take it to an unpredictable level is to double down on that doubt.
As an example, imagine that you’ve hinted at the actual killer, dropped everything on the most obvious suspect, but also left some doubt about if it’s really them by focusing things on a side character too.
The reader thinks they have it all worked out until the closing chapters where you double that doubt and suddenly everything points to your MC being the true villain!
No reader will know where the story is going after that. You’ve most likely blown their minds, and they won’t be able to put the book down.
If you’d love that outcome for your own tome, brainstorm how you can work doubt into your scenes, and then how you can turn it on its head for a dose of uncertainty that is sure to keep your reader guessing until the last sentence.
Play Into The Familiar Before Flipping It
When you set up your story or characters familiarly, readers will play into those known tropes and stereotypes and predict exactly where you’re going with your story.
It’s a blessing, as in it gives readers what they expect and want, but also a curse because when it plays out like they know it will, you’ve got no unpredictability.
There is a way around that, however, and that’s flipping those known things.
A good example of this was a movie I watched recently called Don’t Make Me Go. It’s about a road trip taken by a single father called Max and his teenage daughter, Wally. Max has raised her alone after his wife cheated on him with his friend, and has been happily living his life, working, and enjoying a booty-call relationship he’s not ready to commit to. It’s full of stereotypes and familiar plots, including the fact his daughter wants to find out more about the mother she barely remembers and doesn’t want to go to college like her dad is expecting.
Wally wants to tell him her fears and future plan on this road trip, not knowing that Max wants to let her know that he’s just been diagnosed with cancer and the procedure to have it removed is so risky he has decided to die instead.
Taking Wally on this road trip is his way of teaching her everything he knows in life before he goes, and he’s hoping to reconnect her with her mother at the end of it so she still has one parent. Cue more stereotypes of the mother not wanting a relationship with Wally when she turns up because she has a new family. Max also finds out the affair fell apart and his ex-wife and ex-friend aren’t even together anymore, and Wally rebels on the road trip, sneaking out to parties, crashing their car as Max teaches her to drive, and everything else you can imagine in a road trip movie.
It’s all very familiar until there’s a twist. Something so unpredictable (but ingeniously foreshadowed when the movie flashes back through scenes after the twist happens) that this clichéd, familiar movie is flipped on its head.
I won’t spoil it, and encourage you to consider looking up where Don’t Make Me Go is streaming and giving it a watch. It was full of predictability until it wasn’t, and a good example of how to play into the familiar before flipping it to something that will give unpredictability to a story and leave an impression on any audience.
Give Everyone What They Deserve (The Good And The Bad)
One predictable thing that readers love to see in a story is the hero scrapping through the battle triumphantly, and the villain getting their comeuppance. But what if the hero deserves some punishment too?
Sometimes our MC, even if they are the star of the story, does gray area stuff. No human is perfect, and well-rounded characters have flaws. If your MC has done something that deserves repercussions, don’t ignore it.
Don’t get them out of it and act as if everything is sunshine and rainbows because the hero always wins. Your reader will expect that, just as they expect the antagonist to lose. But if everyone has been bad, they all deserve what’s coming for them.
On the flip side, an antagonist who can’t foil the MC as predicted could find themselves with an unpredictable win. Their scheming ways may have seen them miss out on being valedictorian, but coming off second-best may lead to something even better for them. Readers won’t see a win for the antagonist coming, so don’t just play into the predictability of everyone getting whatever good or bad ending they deserve and leave it at that.
Take things a step further. See how both a fail and a victory can play out for every character and work that into your story. It won’t be something a reader is expecting and may just give a much more satisfying end to your story thanks to the unpredictability.
When you combine giving everyone what they deserve, flipping the familiar, and doubling down on your doubt, a compelling read should be yours.
— K.M. Allan