When writing a novel, authors generally don't want the reader to know how things will end. This is especially true of mystery novels, but obviously applies to any creative story. (A few stories show the end, and then the main question is how that end was achieved. However, the principle of keeping the reader in the dark remains the same.)

For this reason, avoiding a predictable plot is a good thing. You don't want to start setting things up, and then have the reader say to himself: 'Yep, I know how this is going to end.' This question is about how you can avoid creating such a predictable plot.

Here's an example which I recently thought of: Assume I'm writing a fantasy novel which takes place on an isolated island in the middle of the ocean. An amnesia-stricken newcomer arrives in the only village on the island, and quickly learns that life there revolves around escaping the island. The only way to escape the island is by defeating the evil monster keeping everyone from leaving. However, no one has yet been able to slay the monster.

You might not know exactly how, but you can tell that the amnesia-stricken newcomer is going to be the one who kills the monster and frees the people. The story will probably even end with them sailing off into the sunset. Forgetting the cliches for the moment, the plot is easy to predict.

Question: How can I avoid creating such a plot? Or if I have a predictable plot, as in the example above, how can I fix it? Are there simple steps or methods I can follow?

Note: Obviously all readers expect the good guy to win and the conflict to be resolved. That goes without saying. This question goes beyond that, referring to the times when the reader can list things which he knows will happen by the end of the book. It's more than knowing that the good guy will win. It's knowing how he'll win.


One method I've seen used is to establish a predictable plot or plot point, and then do the opposite, only to turn back at the last second. You still end up where the reader expected though, so this doesn't really solve the problem. It simply arrives at the expected outcome through unexpected methods.

An example is The Hunger Games. In the beginning of the first book, we all expect Katniss to enter the Hunger Games. She does, but only after Prim is chosen instead of her. We weren't expecting that, but she still ends up where we knew she would.

As I said, I don't see this as really solving the problem.


Note: Not a duplicate of this question. That question refers more to genre conventions, while this question deals with plot, and keeping the ending hidden from the reader until the last moment.

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    I don't think a predictable ending is necessarily a bad thing. I always expect that Sherlock Holmes is going to solve the mystery. It's easy to guess that Sauron will be defeated by the end of The Lord of the Rings. We all know that someone is going to crack the Da Vinci Code. Even if you know what's going to happen in the end, the journey of how the characters get there can still be immensely enjoyable. – Nuclear Wang Nov 7 at 18:43
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    Maybe I have seen too much Night M Shyamalan, but I would certainly not expect there to even be a monster, just some elaborate trick to keep people from leaving the stupid island :) – xLeitix Nov 8 at 7:46
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    Tropes are Tools – jpmc26 Nov 8 at 14:52
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    "The story will probably even end with them sailing off into the sunset." Ye, make the newcomer the new prophet of the evil monster... Maybe, the good guy should be not a protagonist. Even if evil is gonna lose. Let that be done by someone else. I dunno why do you constrain yourself that exactly this guy should be the one who wins the evil monster. – rus9384 Nov 8 at 19:35
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    One idea could be to have multiple different endings in mind and keep your story open for all of them as long as possible. But how exactly, I don't have advice for. – Fabian Röling Nov 9 at 14:03

17 Answers 17

Things are not as they seem. Time and again.

What you present to the MC is not what it seems to be. It requires your imagination to figure why it isn't. You can conceive of a problem: Then try to imagine a way what looks like a problem is NOT, or is actually an opportunity, or is actually the way things should be.

The monster is not a monster. Or it is a monster, but the real problem lies elsewhere.

Alternatively, think of the real problem, and then think of how that might present itself as a different problem, which is what your MC sets out to solve.

Always keep in mind the reasons things stay hidden: Subterfuge. Betrayal. Treason. Misunderstanding, disbelief that something could be true, or misplaced trust. Jumping to conclusions. Secrets, secrets, secrets.

For example, the monster is a dragon, and really is trying to kill the villagers. But the villagers have a secret: They started this war, taking the dragon's egg and selling it for gold. They know exactly why it is attacking them but they aren't talking about it, they are just trying to get this stranger (the MC) to risk his life for the glory of killing the dragon.

Now the dragon is hunting them, intent on revenge and torturing them to try and find out where her egg is, she only lays one per century. By mid-novel, the mission isn't exactly about defeating and killing the dragon at all. In fact the MC may ally himself WITH the dragon, and set out to find the stolen egg.

Then of course, for Act III, the dragon as his ally helps the MC recover his memory. Because the dragon has a secret, too: She is the one that took his memory away.

But now, he has shown bravery and loyalty and true friendship, and has led them to a battle they may well lose. She decides she won't let him risk death under false pretenses. She is a moral dragon. She restores his memory so he can make an informed choice.

And something about knowing who he really is (perhaps the person that stole the egg, or traded it, or maybe he was involved after the egg was stolen, or is related to the king that bought it, so he knows how to circumvent the castle defense) finally allows them to complete the mission without dying.

And the MC is a changed person, he no longer misunderstands dragons, in fact, despite her subterfuge (which he understands and forgives), a dragon has become his best friend.

Now there are holes in that plot, but they can be patched. Figure out who the MC really is, what secret information he might have to get them out of their final dilemma. Figure out how the dragon knew to take him, in particular. How did he figure out the villagers were keeping a secret, and then discover the truth? How did he come to meet the dragon and become her ally in her search?

But this is the general approach: Something is not as it seems. Your MC truly does not understand the problem at all, at first. He thinks he does, but he's got things backwards, sideways, and upside down. You have to figure out why, and (like I just did) sketch a series of three or four of these secrets that act as your turning points in the story, at (very roughly) the 25%, 50%, and 75% and 90% marks. That is the end of ACT I, middle and end of ACT II, and the final piece of the puzzle late in Act III that leads to the finale (last 10% of your story) and conclusion.


Edit: So, if you thought the hero would kill the monster and free the people, you are wrong. Not only does the monster not get killed, but becomes his friend. The people may or may not be freed, or perhaps they must pay for their crime by returning the gold, before the dragon will let them leave. Maybe they need that gold to work the hero's plan. There may be escape and life for the villagers, but there is no happily-ever-after for those thieves. Even the hero is not what you thought he was, this becomes a redemption story for a hero that was actually a villain that helped cause the problem he eventually solves.

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    +1 because that story is beautiful and it totally sucked me in. It ironically did not end differently than predicted (you maybe forgot the boat), but it didn't matter because it is still interesting and 100% makes your point. I'm not sure if that answers the OP or not..., but it is a great answer. – wetcircuit Nov 7 at 21:24
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    @wetcircuit I added to the end, to clarify. In the OP version, the predicted ending is the hero kills the dragon and is a happy hero for the villagers. In my version, the OP becomes friends with the dragon, and might actually spurn the villagers for their thieving actions. Since my version can open the same as the OP, predicting a simple victory and after-party is completely wrong. – Amadeus Nov 7 at 21:33
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    @wetcircuit How did I swap the villain? I just clarified (as I had in the original) that the dragon took the MC because the MC was involved in the theft, so (before his memory loss) he WAS the villain. He just doesn't know that until near the end of the story, when his memory is returned to him. But I presume he fully remembers his adventures and friendship with the dragon, and that still changes him from his former mercenary self. My edit didn't change anything, it just clarifies why my ending was not predictable from the start, as the OP requested. – Amadeus Nov 7 at 21:36
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    Ahh, I missed that HE was the villain, or I guess a mercenary. It's not meant to nitpick. The real answer is about taking every aspect and subverting it with a secret, giving it dimensionality so things evolve as reveals. That is the "skill" that a writer can learn. – wetcircuit Nov 7 at 21:40
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    First off, great story. Full of twists; I love it. The whole example of taking the opening and then working to the truth won't work for me, simply because I plan novels in a different way, but it would be great for someone else. I can however start with the truth and work backwards to subvert it, which is one thing you suggested. Great answer! – Thomas Myron Nov 7 at 22:17

Of Course, All Endings Are Predictable

There's a bit of a problem with your premise that because an ending is predictable then the story must be boring.

I think everyone knows that all murder mysteries will end with the detective capturing the criminal, but readers keep on reading them.

I think all readers know that by the end of a novel the basic conflicts will be resolved, but we seem to see the old axiom at play here:

Focus on the journey, not just the destination.

Readers are enjoying the journey.

A Very Unexpected Story

Independence Day : Part 3 - New Aliens Arrive

Friday, February 19, 2019

That's the day the mother ship blacked out the sky over 10 major cities above the Earth. Finally, an alien emerged flew down to great the President of the United States.

The alien stood in front of the President and point a ominous looking tool at her. "We come to fix everything," the alien said. "Our technology will eradicate all your disease and provide you with unlimited energy."

"Thank you so much," said The President.

Everyone lived happily on Earth with the new alien friends and many people even traveled back to the aliens planet. It was all very happy.

That story is very unexpected, but it is also boring.

But now that I've been ridiculous, I will try to offer some advice.

The Real Thing Readers Want Is : Conflict

  • Readers want an interesting character.
  • An interesting character is one who wants something above all else: a goal.
  • The goal must be realistic. By realistic, I mean given the setup, the context, the setting, the character herself, the reader must believe that the character really wants this thing.
  • The goal must be obvious to the reader. Do not make it something like, "character wants to be happy". Make it a stated and specific and physical goal of some type.
  • Readers want to see the character try to get the thing she wants so badly.

But to keep readers reading there has to be conflict.

So, here's what you do.

  • Setup up a goal.
  • Set up milestones that the character will have to hit to get to the goal.
  • Show the character failing to hit the milestones all through the book.
  • As the book progresses, make it so it seems as if the character will never be able to attain the goal.
  • All the while, you must have a character that the reader cares about. Otherwise when the character fails the reader will think, "ah, I don't care, the character deserved failure."
  • Finally, at the very end, have your character make a break-through that gets her to the goal.

All of that could be considered predicable, but if the character fails over and over then your reader will care and believe when you finally get your character to the goal.

And the reader will have enjoyed the journey.

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    The whole 'a predictable ending isn't inherently bad, give the readers an unpredictable journey' is exactly what I would advise – Matthew Dave Nov 7 at 21:34
  • "That story is very unexpected, but it is also boring." Hogwash. If you've ever watched The Twilight Zone, it's a great story!!! – RonJohn Nov 8 at 3:25
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    @RonJohn "To Serve Man... It's a...it's a...COOKBOOK!!! Aiiiyeeeeeeee!!!!" :) Classic episode. Also, that girl everyone said was hideous (spoiler aler!) was actually beautiful (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Eye_of_the_Beholder) – raddevus Nov 8 at 15:06
  • "I think everyone knows that all murder mysteries will end with the detective capturing the criminal" The question always is who and how commited the crime. Some plot twists can be very interesting like there was NO CRIMINAL. But the detective finds out it only in the end. There are a few predictions you can make solely on genre. But what drives the story are unexpected things. – rus9384 Nov 9 at 5:16
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    In a murder mysttery, A is found with a blood-stainedknofe next to the victom's body and arrested, but the great detective does not think that A did it. During the investigations, B and C behave somewhat suspicious and at the great finale, the great detective reveals their secrets that caused this - and that D was the murderer. That's a surprising plot twist, but won't make a good story. What the reader wants is that - at least in principle - they could have come to the conclusion about D by themselves, [cont] – Hagen von Eitzen Nov 11 at 11:13

One way of going "off the rails" not yet mentioned here is to actually embrace the predictable plot, and then go past it. With your setup, of course the hero is going to defeat the monster. Let that happen by the end of act 1. What happens next? How does the village respond to not having a monster caging them any longer?

@Amadeus says: something about the problem is not as it seems. (And I couldn't agree more, but I've got to add something of my own, right?) I say: the consequences of solving the problem are not what they were expected to be. It might well be that the consequences are not what they should be because the problem wasn't what the reader thought it was. But the perspective is different: having passed the expected end, you are already "off the rails". Anything that you do from this point forwards would be unexpected.

My favourite example of this technique is the Russian play The Dragon by Evgeny Schwarts. End of Act 1, Lancelot slays a dragon that terrorises a village, and saves the girl who was supposed to be sacrificed to the dragon.

Then in Act 2 it turns out that the villagers are so accustomed to living under a dictator, they don't know how to function without one - they don't know how to be free. So the burgomaster takes the role previously occupied by the dragon, and the girl whose life Lancelot saved is now forced to marry the burgomaster.

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    That's a good addition, that the consequences are not as expected. In fact I think I've seen that, some girl is "rescued" and berates the young man that did it, "What in the world would possess you to rescue me? You've ruined my plan, you dolt!" – Amadeus Nov 7 at 22:46

An amnesia-stricken newcomer arrives in the only village on the island, and quickly learns that life there revolves around escaping the island. The only way to escape the island is by defeating the evil monster keeping everyone from leaving.

You might not know exactly how, but you can tell that the amnesia-stricken newcomer is going to be the one who kills the monster and frees the people.

Hero-plots are probably the most predictable story type.

You have sold me on a trope of "nameless hero fights a monster". I am not dumb. I have seen too many hero stories to believe this will end any other way, no matter how many times you try a fake-out. You've telegraphed this guy is a hero archetype. There aren't really any other options since you've deliberately stripped away any possibility that he has a unique personality, conflicts, or a family. He doesn't even have a status quo to leave, he is a guy already on an adventure with nothing else to do.

If you base your plot on a Joseph Campbell-esque "hero with a thousand faces" mono-trope then of course everyone will guess how it ends. You are deliberately telling a very old and very one-note plot that is little more than a simplistic male power fantasy. These things end predictably because the goal is always the same: hero is super-awesome!

Cinderella-plots, the female-coded equivalent, are equally predictable and popular.


What if he is just a regular guy who grew up in this village in fear of the monster and amnesiac strangers? Now I am less sure how this story will turn out.

What if you code the story for horror instead of hero – now I am unsure what the stranger brings, or how many of the villagers lure amnesiac strangers to be fed to their monster, or maybe the "monster" is something totally unexpected like modern-day normal people in cars, like an M. Night Shyamalan movie.

Maybe it is coded like a political thriller, and the real story is all about how the villagers react to the possibility that a stranger might change their status quo – now I really don't know how it will turn out because whether or not he defeats a monster is irrelevant to the theme of the story. Anything might happen because heroes and monsters are metaphors.

He could die shortly after arriving in the village and the rest of the story is a few villagers trying to convince the town (and the monster) that he is still a very living threat. Now I've completely subverted expectations because I started with a hero archetype but I was willing to discard him: hero is not super-awesome (gasp) instead here are some plucky guile characters that are much more interesting and extremely under-powered. Sure, I'm still expecting them to "beat" the monster somehow, but it's not so predictable.


There are many other story types, and many other kinds of characters and conflicts. Adding some other flavors to the story will make the ending less inevitable, but to be honest most readers will know what kind of story it is no matter how you try to disguise it, based on the protagonist archetype. If he's a blank-slate male power fantasy, it will severely narrow your options as a writer.

Don't blame readers when they can predict the end. No matter how convoluted you make the plot, they know the purpose of that archetype. You'll have to be willing to subvert the awesome guy fantasy, or tell a story about someone other than awesome guy. "Awesome Guy" only has the one ending: sunsets and boats and adored by all.

See also: Mary Sue.

  • You had me at 'code the story for horror'. Writing a typical genre novel and then writing it as if it were a different genre is a great way to subvert expectations. Also, note: the MC would not be a 'blank-slate male power fantasy'. I was keeping the example simple. – Thomas Myron Nov 7 at 22:26
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    "You are deliberately telling a very old and very one-note plot that is little more than a simplistic male power fantasy." You're so, so wrong. These stories -- the well-implemented ones, of course -- are great because of the inner journey, the growth from "callow farm boy" to Savior Of The Universe. – RonJohn Nov 8 at 3:33
  • ""Awesome Guy" only has the one ending: sunsets and boats and adored by all." Only bland stories have that as an ending. In good stories, successfully completing The Quest leads to either More Duty, or Passing The Torch to the sidekick. – RonJohn Nov 8 at 3:39
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    LOL "callow farm boy to Savior Of The Universe", yeah that's an earned journey filled with character development, right up there with "girl who falls in love"…. And at the end (in the better scenarios) more of the same? Sounds kinda predictable.... writing.stackexchange.com/questions/39965/… – wetcircuit Nov 8 at 4:03

Sometimes a predictable plot is not a bad thing. If you choose to go ahead with it, you can still shake things up.

Take something like the modern movie Titanic. We already know the boat is going to sink. And that most of the people will not survive. We know why the boat sunk. We even know a fair number of details because these stories are in our cultural lore (in the US anyway).

It's a true story but the main characters are completely fictional. The instant they meet we know it's going to be a love story, specifically a story of people from different worlds falling in love against all odds. And we'd know that even if the trailers and ads for the movie didn't drum it into our heads.

What we don't know is how they'll react when the ship is sinking. We don't know if they help save people or if they doom them. We can guess they find each other in the madness, but we don't know how. We don't know if they escape the boat or not.

Most importantly, we have no idea if they live or die. We become invested in those characters and root for them and are on the edges of our seats (if the movie did its job) wanting to know the outcome.

Because the outcome isn't "the boat sank." It's "did Rose and Jack live?"

So, sure, turn your story on its head. There are dozens of ways to do that. But even if you don't, you can still make it a story people want to read.

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    ... and we can have endless discussion whether that floating piece could have carried both – Hagen von Eitzen Nov 11 at 11:02

A story is hooking up its reader on a conflict. The story has an obligation to resolve this conflict. And in many cases it is very clear from the very beginning what this resolution will be - the story just tries to take a "scenic route", full of twists and turns, towards this resolution. But this is not something that you want, right? You want the resolution itself to be unpredictable (like in the Lost show).

One way of addressing it to create a Mystery. In this case, the primary conflict should not be between the protagonist and the monster. The conflict is between protagonist and his environment, and defeating the monster is only one of the ways of solving it.

The second way is twisting the plot (and @Amadeus already had written a good answer addressing that). The monster is not as bad as it seems, and initial conflict gets transformed into a different one.

And the third way is a "twistless" plot transformation. Protagonist gradually comes to a realization that there are more important things than killing a monster. His escape from the island may come as a bonus.

You mention mystery stories and use a non-mystery-story as an example. That cannot work.

So let's explore how a mystery story creates unpredictability. The recipe is very simple: incomplete information. We know someone died, or some conspiracy did something, but we don't know how, when and who did it. Piece by piece, we find these things out, but always there is one more part of the puzzle missing. There is misinformation leading us down wrong paths, there are surprise turns, there are discoveries... all of this works because we start out with incomplete information.

Your hero story doesn't have that and that is why it cannot possibly be made into a mystery story. We know the hero will be the hero - we know this in a mystery story as well, but the question in the mystery story is not "who is the hero?", but rather: "who is the villain?" (e.g. the murderer, or the conspiracy behind everything, or the dark wizard who cursed the village or whatever).

We also know who the villain is - the monster.

We also know what the mission is (leaving the island), what the obstacle is (defeating or bypassing the monster).

There just isn't any mystery.

To make this outline unpredictable, you need to remove information. Maybe the villagers don't know about the monster and just know that leaving the island leads to death at sea. Then discovering the monster as the obstacle is your first mystery to solve and the reader can have all sorts of own ideas about what is causing all these shipwrecks - and even if he guesses right, he will derive satisfaction from it.

You can then throw in a turn. The villagers try approach A and B and C and fail, and the actual solution is something unexpected. Maybe they try to fight it, no luck. Then they try to bypass it by moving faster or at night, no luck. Then they try to build stronger hulls to simply withstand the attack, no luck. Then it turns out that they were sitting on the solution the whole time. The reason the monster always circles around the island is that its favourite food grows there. Collect a large amount of coconuts (or whatever) and bribe your way past the monster, feeding it a couple every time it comes near the boat.

Your mystery and unpredictability comes from unknowns. You need to add unknowns to your story to make it less predictable.

  • A simpler version of Amadeus' answer, using missing information instead of subverted expectations. I like it. – Thomas Myron Nov 8 at 17:31

The kind of terms in which I'd phrase what you're asking (and which you may find in searches elsewhere) is that: the story's climax must resolve the problem which was established in the inciting incident. So, yes, to be a satisfactory story, with a setup like that, it's probably going to need to end up with the hero/heroine defeating the monster and escaping the island. That's true (otherwise, why are the monster and the island in the story at all?).

However, the interesting part of a story, many would say, isn't what happens, that's just a list of events and not interesting at all; it's what the characters learn from that. (Perhaps even, what the reader learns from that). So... the hero/heroine kills the monster but escapes the island. So far, so predictable. But:

  • Do they do so as glorious conquerors, the other villagers escaping with them, with the hero having learned their own strength? (If you were watching a Disney movie, you could place a bet on this. Are you writing a Disney movie?)
  • Do they kill the monster but the villagers all die - the hero escaped, but only at great cost, having learned what price they are prepared to pay for their own freedom?
  • Do they sacrifice themselves to let the villagers escape while the monster is distracted - having learned that the greatest good for the greatest number is more important than personal success?
  • Do they find a way to signal for help killing the monster from those living on nearby islands, having learned that nobody can succeed in life alone?
  • Do they escape, only to learn that they (and all the villagers) were sent there as punishment for some crime that their amnesia had forgotten; they learn that understanding context is important before taking action?

So that's at least five different ways that the predictable "hero escapes island" ending can vary quite significantly.

But actually... do they escape, after all? The problem presented by the inciting incident needs to be resolved, but there's no law to say it has to be resolved positively.

  • Do they choose to remain on the island, having learned that being content with what you have is worth more than some unknown glory that's always over the horizon?
  • Are they killed by the monster, having failed to learn that the self-doubt and angst which the monster metaphorically represents is holding them back?

And what about the other things you mention in the setup?

  • Why does the newcomer have amnesia? What is it that he's forgotten? Was the memory taken from him - or has he suppressed something in his own past?
  • Why does this entire island of villagers have a life that "revolves around" trying to escape? They have a perfectly good village, large enough to support them - why leave at all?
  • What is the monster? Why is it there? Who put it there? If they leave it alone for a while instead of trying to escape, will it get hungry and swim away to another island? A monster is never just a monster - for what is it a metaphor (fear, selfishness, greed, old age, justice, injustice, vengeance, ...) and how does that affect how the hero fights it?

The answers to those questions could be surprising and could keep the reader interested to the end.

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    Focusing on what the characters learn is an ingenius way to keep the predictable ending and still have it be unexpected. Excellent answer! – Thomas Myron Nov 8 at 17:35

You're worrying too much about playing the tropes straight. If you want to make the story less predictable, play with the expectations. For simplicity, I'm going to only use inversion, subversion, and reconstruction. Here, let me borrow your example...

Here's an example which I recently thought of: Assume I'm writing a fantasy novel which takes place on an isolated island in the middle of the ocean. An amnesia-stricken newcomer arrives in the only village on the island, and quickly learns that life there revolves around escaping the island. The only way to escape the island is by defeating the evil monster keeping everyone from leaving. However, no one has yet been able to slay the monster.

Cool. There's the example you gave. Interesting plot idea, but feels a bit too Maze Runner for my tastes. Oh, well. I'll work with it. So, how did you play out the plot again?

The amnesia-stricken newcomer is going to be the one who kills the monster and frees the people. The story will probably even end with them sailing off into the sunset.

Well, let's invert the trope.

The newcomer doesn't have amnesia but simply had no memories to speak of before arriving on the island. He is killed by the monster and the people stay stuck on the island. The story ends with it raining as they hold their usual "funeral" ceremony.

This works because readers are thinking you're going to have the hero save the day. When the hero is killed, your readers will think, "Surely everyone else will take the opportunity to leave while they can!" Instead of sailing off, everyone stays and accepts where they are for at least a little while, his heroic speech of "We're all going to get off this island together," still echoing in their heads. The problem is, your readers won't appreciate this as much because they'll feel as though their time was wasted for absolutely no gain. The story was one of perseverance only for it to warp into a tale of futility.

What if we subvert it?

The newcomer is faking his amnesia. He's secretly the person keeping everybody trapped on the island. While he acts like he is helping everyone to defeat the monster and escape the island, he is actually working to feed the castaways to the monster in order to dishearten them and make them lose interest in escaping. The character he becomes closest to and develops a sort of friendship with finds out who he is, and is the last one he feeds to the monster before we end the story with him now as the de facto leader of the island; he has ultimate control over everything and everything he stated that he wanted for when he leaves the island (in the beginning of the story) is now his at the end: women, power, and all the tapioca pudding he could handle.

This works because the reader was expecting the main character to be the hero. They won't feel cheated that things didn't work out because, if written well, they'll have been deceived just as much as the cast. It won't be a matter of "that's not what I expected, I don't like it." It'd be a matter of "I went into this with the wrong idea altogether! Boy do I feel dumb. lol"

Finally, let's reconstruct the trope.

Everyone sent to the island are criminals. They were induced with amnesia in order to help rehabilitate them. The newcomer doesn't realize what is going on and sets out to kill the monster and free everyone, but discovers what he and everyone else did. In that final moment, as he's face-to-face with the monster, he's given the choice to kill it and free everyone or to stay so they can pay their penance. He hardens his heart and finds new conviction. He rushes towards the monster, weapon in-hand. As he approaches the monster, he strikes down, his weapon crashing into the ground next to the monster as he stands there, blood flowing from a wound in his chest. He manages to gasp out one final sentence, "This way, they don't have to learn the truth," and he falls to the ground.

It works because it makes the audience have a back-and-forth. It makes them think it could go either way, and it really could. You could play that out where he follows through, where he tells them what he learned, where he let's himself die or commits suicide, or where he kills the monster but also makes sure the monster kills him so that he can pay his penance. There's different ways to take that. Sure, reading it, it's easy to say, "That was predictable," but that's only because we've seen so many stories do it where it's taken in every direction. "Nothing's new under the sun," and all that.

I recommend checking the hyperlink out for ideas of how to play with your tropes. Combine tropes. Don't just use only one. Don't ONLY play it straight. Subvert parts of the plot, invert it, deconstruct and reconstruct it. Have fun with your writing. A plot is only predictable if we know what is going to happen. We knew Katniss was going to be in the Hunger Games, but we didn't know she would volunteer to take Prim's place (as you said). We knew Batman wasn't going to kill Superman in BvS, but we didn't know it'd be over something as asinine as "You're shouting about Martha. I knew a Martha. We can be friends now!" We knew Harry Potter would have to fight Voldemort at some point, but we didn't know what was going to be unveiled leading up to that point. The trick is making sure the outcomes feel fresh despite the plot-point being trite.

I hope that helps!

...And now for some reason I feel like binge-playing the Danganronpa series...

  • This is a great answer to the original question, and as an added bonus it's a handy explanation of the difference between straight use, inversion, subversion, and reconstruction of a trope. – Kleronomas Nov 10 at 0:14
  • Thanks, I did my best. I may have been a tad critical though, but that's only because I struggle with the exact same issue. I tend to play my tropes straight as well even though that's hardly what is best for the story most of the time. – Sora Tamashii Nov 10 at 0:20

Let's explore some possibilities in the situation you set up, without anything not being what it seems.

Obviously, the hero is going to get off the island with at least the romantic interest. But how? If the hero finds the sword that only he can pull from the stone and slays the dragon with it, that's dull.

How does the hero start getting along with the villagers?

Does the hero have to kill the sea monster? Is there a way to divert its attention or blind it or put it to sleep for long enough? If so, how does the hero find the solution?

Assuming the hero does kill the monster, how? This had better not be easy. There can be several attempts that fail, and different approaches that just will not work. The hero may have to learn something, or find some way to acquire an item. The hero may be setting the death up without realizing it.

Who's the romantic interest? Will there be more than one (sequentially)? At the climax, when the hero is resolving the situation with the monster, how does she avoid getting killed? Or is she killed and replaced? The hero may be generic, but the love interest doesn't have to be.

Once the monster is dealt with, do the villagers still want to stay? Is there something revealed by the defeat of the monster?

Even under strict and stereotyped conditions, there's interesting plots.

How can I avoid a predictable plot?

Don't plan the storyline.

If the writer doesn't know then how can the readers? (Only if the writer's thinking is predictable, not a savoury answer sure.)

Have a read of this blogpost on writersdigest.com, it'll push your boundaries if you let it. Paradox:

In storytelling, what will happen informs what is happening, and what is happening informs what did. You cannot know where a story needs to go until you know where it’s been, but you cannot know where it needs to have been until you know where it’s going.

  • Hi Duckisaduckisaduck! It is a good idea to include within the body of the answer all the information you consider relevant, so a person needn't follow additional links to get a full answer. This is particularly important since sites you link to might change address, or go down entirely. We usually include links to provide additional information, or when citing a source. – Galastel Nov 8 at 1:01
  • @Galastel I understand. That being said, I have a slight issue in that the whole blog is relevant. not wishing to quote the entire thing I provided a taster. I obviously need to refine my approach - I'll work up to an edit perhaps, but it'll have to be in 12 hours or so - life. – Duckisaduckisaduck Nov 8 at 1:44

Whenever I think about the topic of 'predictable storytelling,' I recall an interview with Kevin Smith, regarding his work on the movie Red State.

"As I was writing it, I realized; oh crap, if I know where the movie is going, chances are the audience is going to know where it's going.

So for me, while I was writing it, I was like, okay. As soon as I feel I know where it's going: jump. Do something completely different. Change the story."

You can really see that attitude reflected in the movie. It changes directions wildly, multiple times through the movie.

You might not want your story to feel quite so chaotic, but the underlying advice remains; constantly ask yourself if you 'know' where your story is going, and re-evaluate how you might subvert that expectation.

Your plot may be predictable, but your characters are not.

Make your hero pay a price or make a moral decision

In addition to having an external conflict, hero vs monster, you can have internal conflict, which is much less predictable.

Make the hero pay a price: he has to renounce to something he cares about in order to defeat the monster. Make him struggle about this.

Self-sacrifice is a an example. It may seem like a predictable cliché, unless you show that he has something to lose. Depending on the time span of the story, you can make the hero have a romantic interest or even raise a family in the village, so the price is not only to sacrifice himself, but also leave a family behind.

Or maybe, the only way to defeat the monster is to lose his own memory. This idea gives a cyclical effect, hinting that it's how he lost his memory in the first place.

The protagonist can also pay a moral price.

What if the only way to defeat the monster is to lure it using one of the villagers as bait? Is the hero willing to put the life of an innocent at risk?

Or even worse: sacrifice one of the villager to gain the monster's trust, and then take it by surprise. Maybe your protagonist is not so heroic as it may seem. After all, being amnesia-stricken, he may not even know himself. Or maybe he truly is heroic and refuses to perform such immoral act, but then the villagers step up and become willing to sacrifice their own.

What if there were only two ways of defeating it, both equally bad? What moral choice is the hero willing to make?

As previous answers have already mentioned, the readers may know how the plot will end, but it's the how that's more interesting.

Or if I have a predictable plot, as in the example above, how can I fix it?

Have parts of it happen, but subvert other expectations.

In your stranded amnesian example, maybe have your hero bond really well with some people there, go fight the monster with them but sacrifice himself to let the others be free.

Everyone knew they (he) would fight the monster, but everyone will expect him to be the survivor.

Or make him talk to the monster, discovering that it is a god keeping the people on the island to protect them (from whatever).

Of course, purposely avoiding the expected outcome can produce weird writing, but it can also lead to great (and really interesting) stories.

Or - like in James Cameron's Titanic - make it absolutely clear what is going to happen at the end beyond any doubt, and make the story only about how it comes to that. [This will be way harder to pull off in an interesting way though]

Characters should view the narrative from the present, a good way to keep the reader in the dark about the future of the story is to present a first person narrative and have the reader only know what the character does about the situation. This may not keep the reader from predicting the plot but it will keep the reader from knowing the details too early in the proceedings.

But you don't need an unpredictable plot, it's about the journey not the destination, you can tell a highly compelling story even if the shape of the story is evident from the very beginning, and in fact pointed out repeatedly throughout the narrative. I'm rereading The Sword of the Lady at the moment, it's part of a seven book series with the same protagonist. The plot is laid out before the first book starts in the epilogue of the final book of the preceding trilogy and reiterated repeatedly in each of the seven novels and yet the story is hard to put down all the same.

Also remember that as much as you might try you can never hide everything from everyone, humans are really good at initiative leaps. People can and do put very little evidence together to make surprisingly accurate pictures of the whole story. Trying to hide the plot of the story can in fact put people off reading the tale as a whole if it feels like you are deliberately twisting an otherwise straightforward tale.

As a note "Obviously all readers expect the good guy to win and the conflict to be resolved. That goes without saying." No, just no, don't insult your audience with that kind of thinking; there are many narratives where the "good guys" lose, or turn out to be the bad guys and win anyway and many more where there is no actual resolution, and certainly nothing so straightforward.

I think there are a lot of good answers here. Mainly, you need to make your journey to the ending different than the same-old,same-old. ending can be same-old. To take a leaf from the example given, we could even have some regular old prophecy that some chosen one would defeat the monster. The hero tries to defeat the monster again and again to fail miserably. May be towards the end he realises that maybe 1) he need to sacrifice himself to foil the monster OR 2) he is not the chosen one, he need to be the help that another guy/girl needs on the island, to foil the monster. So our protagonist is still the hero of his story, but how he ends up defeating the monster is now different.

May be because I saw Wicker man recently: What if the villagers are setting him up to fight the monster and die as intended?

The trick may lie in making your story sound fairly predictable but in reality it is not. For example, the newcomer has amnesia, but there could be no explanation to why this is so. This starts all sorts of alarm bells to ring for the reader.

That he is likely to slay the monster is not a given. He could in reality be the person who controls the monster (unknown to himself). The villagers, for whatever reason, may need to be controlled by a monster (or at least the presumed threat of a monster).

Basically, a double-bluff.

The Village (2004) by M. Night Shyamalan has many of these hallmarks, where we are strongly led to belive that the story is about an early 19th Century community in fear of monsters in the woods, whereas in reality this is only a pretence behind an entirely different plot.

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