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I'm working on my first novel. As I was going through the initial chapters, I felt that the story is quite simple and predictable (in the initial chapters) and picks up after 14 chapters are over. The story is feels like a slow burn, but being a revenge story, I feel I'm taking too long to set up characters and further developing a plot. I'm confused and a bit worried as well.

How do I make the plot more unpredictable and what else can I do to make sure everything is good?

11 Answers 11

24

Is it possible that the first 14 chapters are all backstory, and that you should just start your book with Chapter 15?

One of the things it took me years to learn as a writer is that not all the writing you do needs to end up on the final page. There are many things you should know as the author that you don't need to explicitly tell the audience. Books work better if you leave some mystery, and you don't spoonfeed every detail to the reader. If your story only really picks up at Chapter 15, make that the new Chapter 1, and sprinkle details from the first 14 chapters into the the rest of the book as needed. Or, as @computercarguy suggested in the comments below, "summarize the first 14 chapters in 1-2 chapters, then continue on with chapter 15."

It's not quite as extreme as case as yours, but in my current WIP, the eventual first chapter started out four chapters in. Sometimes as a writer, you need to taxi down the runway a bit before you figure out how to really get the story in the air. But unlike with an airplane, you can put the audience on board after that point.

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    Or summarize the first 14 chapters in 1-2 chapters, then continue on with chapter 15. – computercarguy Nov 23 '20 at 22:10
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    The common wisdom "Enter late, leave early" applies to individual scenes but also to the story as a whole. – Stephan Nov 24 '20 at 5:50
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Let's assume that you know that the plot has to go from point A through points, B, C, D and E to end up at point E. Each of these points represent some necessary action or revelation. The question is how to get from point A to point B. If the points were on a physical map, there might be a dozen or more different ways to travel: walking, car, train, bicycle, ox cart, hitchhiking, hot air balloon, and so on. What I suggest to you is that there are an equal number of ways to make the transition in your writing.

Let's assume, for example, that the plot calls for one of the characters to learn something that advances the plot. Make a list of all of the ways that the character could learn that something. Online search, overheard conversation, angry retort, a misdirected tweet or text, a news story on the radio or TV or cable show, and so on. Throw in the intent of the character: were they actively searching for the information or did they stumble upon it searching for something else? Once they had the information, did they believe it or think it fake news? Take an hour to list all of the combinations you can come up with for how the character acquires the necessary information. Pick one of these from the list, either by random chance or just picking one that prompts some thoughts about how to write the scene.

Do the same thing for each of the transitions that the plot requires. Be prepared to abandon the plot, because something interesting and unexpected popped up.

8

You need two things:

  • conflict
  • interesting characters

There need to be conflict all the way. When you set up the characters, you need to show us what they are like by throwing them into situations that specifically force them to act in a way that reveals their character. If it feels predictable, have the most obvious solutions to their problems fail, and come up with more creative ones.

A predictable plot is no problem as long as the reader is invested in the characters. You need to understand why they do what they do, and if they are interesting to follow (or at least the characters they meet are), the reader will not be bored.

(It sounds as if you may have written too much backstory. See how many of the early chapters you can cut, without the story stop making sense. If there is information in there you need, try to weave it into the story by showing small hints.)

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I'm going to suggest a reverse deus ex machina.

The Empire Strikes Back (R) *

Instead of the MC always being the winner for their godlike powers of being able to always win, make them lose for no apparent reason. Give the "bad guy" the deus ex machina, at least once in a while.

Maybe the MC has everything planned out to the Nth detail, has the superior firepower, has superior strength and speed, has everything going for them, and then totally flops on execution for a defeat. Maybe it's crushing and they have to do a major retreat or they have to take a significant amount of time to regroup. Maybe it's just a "oh, crap" moment that they rethink on the fly and just barely get defeated.

If this was a war flick, it'd be something like a whole battalion against a single company, so the overwhelming forces just rush in and throw a lot of ordinance and soldiers at the enemy. Only to find out too late it's an ambush, where there's landmines, hidden bunkers and mortars, lots of air and artillery support, and it just becomes their own slaughter when it should have been an easy victory.

Or this could be as simple as the "bad guy" throwing a red herring at the MC and it being followed to it's "logical" conclusion. In this case, don't let the reader in on the red herring, like so many writers like to do. Make it seem as if it's 100% obvious it's the correct course, sort of like how Prof. Moriarty tricked Sherlock Holmes several times.

This could lead the MC to start doubting themselves to the point where they are chasing lots of leads with the idea that it's not just one that's correct. The MC getting frustrated and mad because of twists and turns can help endear them to the reader, too. A plot that has a well defined start, path, and finish can easily be predictable, pedantic, and boring. If it's obvious what the MC should do and they do it, it's easy to lose interest.

At the same time, though, the thing I didn't like about the Holmes books is that there was a bunch of things you "just had to know" in order to solve the mystery. And most of it was period specific or didn't age well, as science progressed. The other side of this coin is putting in too much info and doing it obviously, like it sounds like your first 14 chapters are trying to do. It's perfectly well and good to introduce relevant info about character's pasts as the book progresses. Talking about memories, past relationships, dream sequences, even flashbacks are perfectly normal parts of books. This doesn't have to be a perfectly linear account of the MC. It's not their biography.

One thing to avoid, which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Jules Verne didn't, are the rabbit trails about some of the minutia of the specifics. Sir Doyle Verne would talk for pages about the background of something that's barely relevant to the story. He'd mention something like a specific fish or bird, then go on a mini-thesis about how it came to be and why it's in that part of the world as well as how & why it's different from it's cousins. It really distracts from the story, which I have a feeling you are seeing in those first 14 chapters to a limited extent.

* Yes, I realize I didn't use any other Star Wars references in this section. Empire is a classic "bad guy wins" movie, so I thought it would be self explanatory.

Chekhov's gun

There's probably plenty of times the rule of Chekhov's gun applies in those first 14 chapters. You don't have to apply it absolutely everything, because sometimes that can lead to the unpredictability you are looking for, but it can help you figure out what stays and what goes. Leaving some irrelevant things in can be a source of comedy, too. In one series I read, there was a group of MCs, one of which had a thick Scottish accent. Late in the series, he's in a different part of the World/Universe and writes the main MC a letter. It's in perfect, unaccented English. The character even makes fun of the MC for thinking he'd write in the brogue. The letter was relevant to the story, but not the character's writing style. Still, it gave me a chuckle and helped lighten the mood a little, as they are getting ready for battle.

Writing is an art and not a science because it doesn't necessarily have to follow all the rules all the time. An action story doesn't have to be 100% action. In fact, the better ones aren't 100% action, since they reader needs to be able to catch their breath as well as the MC needing some downtime to deal with the next action sequence. You can't have them carry 10k 9mm rounds for all the shooting sequences in a 1000 page novel, nor can you have them always find a clip for their pistol just laying on the ground that magically fits. That might be a rule, too, but it could also be broken for a very short story where it is all action.

Since it's an art, you'll have to revise and rewrite until it's where you want it to be. It helps if your readers like it too, but maybe you just want the story on paper for yourself, not the reader. A writer can get into a rut by writing just what readers want, instead of what the writer wants.

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If you're heading out for revenge, dig two graves.

Your main character should be on the verge of having his/her plans for revenge discovered/destroyed/foiled/discouraged/backfire incurring self inflicted wounds (<- all of these) on the road to revenge.

As he/she builds the house of cards make sure there are lots of potential scenarios for having it toppled, any of which could happen right up until the end.

  • Yes, add self-inflicted wounds to the protagonist that make their future victory pyrrhic, or Faustian, or have them sell-their-soul, or begin to doubt or break the rules, or flip the problem around to ally with the enemy or at least confound an ally. Adding an unexpected twist will cause the reader to lose their footing and look closer at why the twist occurred. This offers you a chance to grow the backstory and make your character richer, less straightforward, and less predictable. – Randy Nov 25 '20 at 21:26
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Give your characters meaningful choices. Have their decisions matter.

To make a story interesting and unpredictable, there have to be questions which are not already answered, which have a bearing on the outcome of the plot and on the evolution of the characters.

In The Lord of the Rings, various characters make choices. Boromir faces the decision of whether to support the (to his mind) suicidal plan to take the Ring to Mt. Doom to be destroyed, or whether to try to take the ring by force, or whether to persuade Frodo (if he can!) to bring the ring to Minas Tirith and save everything. All kinds of things hang on what decision Boromir makes. And the decision he makes hangs on all kinds of things.

As long as the Fellowship are traveling in roughly the right direction to go to Minas Tirith, Boromir can procrastinate his decision, and he does. But he's a wild card sitting in the middle of things, sowing uncertainty in the story, and ultimately galvanizing Frodo to (try to) set out on his own. And Sam, observant patient Samwise, anticipated Frodo - and chose to follow after his mater alone, instead of warning the whole Fellowship of Frodo's intentions.

Every major character in that story (and some minor ones) are likewise faced with decisions which matter to the progress and outcome of the tale. Which path should Legolas, Aragorn, and Gimli take, after Boromir has been killed by Orcs, and the hobbits have all vanished or been carried away? Choice after choice.

Trials, goals, conflict, are all important to a story. But what makes a story unpredictable is the uncertainty of what choices each character will make - and what insights this will give us into their character.

Even if you know where your story is ultimately going, the most powerful, interesting, and seemingly unpredictable stories lean heavily on the choices of the characters.

Your story is a tale of revenge? Is your main character married? Does he have to abandon his wife (her husband, significant other, etc...) to pursue vengeance? Is he forced to choose between moving on and having a life, or with destroying his own reputation by bringing death to someone who wronged him? That's a choice. And your character can waver before crossing some Rubicon, making some decision from which there will be no turning back.

Does your character have to decide whether to pursue private revenge or public justice - wanting to bring public shame to the one he has a grudge against, but fearing that a trial may go awry, and the guilty party may walk free? More immediate choices, too - will he hazard trying to disarm a foe or surrender; to lie to a potential ally or tell the whole truth; to settle for punishing a henchman or to promise immunity to the one who pulled the trigger in the inciting crime in exchange for cooperation with getting at the mastermind behind everything? And maybe the henchman then has to decide whether to betray the protagonist, or support him, and so on...

Every alternative faced, every willful sacrifice (or cowardly compromise) your character makes, gives new and deeper texture to the tale.

Or have them be blindly stumbling, or compelled along, from one plot set piece to the next, saying "Gee, maybe I'll go this way now" whenever a fork in the road happens to come up (if there's ever even a fork in the road at all). And then have laser unicorns fly down from the sky and kill all the enemies. But I wouldn't recommend that.

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And when all seemed lost, laser unicorns flew down from the sky and obliterated the fifteenth regiment and the battle was won

If you want to make your story more unpredictable, then just do that. Maybe add a few extra plot points to break up the predictable bits. Maybe you don't need laser unicorns...but that would be funny. Just change it up a bit, maybe a travelling group of people decide to try and rob your characters(extra fight scene that wasn't there before!) or the map you had been following was apparently upside down the whole time(welp, back through the land of cannibals!) or something like that.

If you can't afford to change the plot because something doesn't work that way, then you just need to pull an IWAJAD(It Was All Just A Dream). The readers might hate you for it, so maybe only do 1-2 of these.

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    This just doesn't seem like good advice for a book most people would actually want to read. It's easy enough to make something unpredictable, the trick is to make it unpredictable in a GOOD way. – Chris Sunami supports Monica Nov 23 '20 at 16:42
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    I agree with Chris. Throwing in a surprise element can be a great idea, but it should move the plot forward or at least be tied to it somehow (like, it needs to be plausible) so it doesn't feel cheap. And 'it was just a dream' is used a lot, so it could also feel cheap, unless, somehow, you REALLY find a way to sell it. – Tasch Nov 23 '20 at 23:34
  • I agree with the others on this. Surprise is good, but it needs to serve the story. Weirdness for weirdness sake results in a plot that's a mess. – bob Nov 24 '20 at 19:18
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    Chekov's Gun: The laser unicorns are seen flying overhead on the first page. – Shawn V. Wilson Nov 25 '20 at 18:49
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A story has many components. Mystery grows incrementally by layering on all those pieces.

  • Setting. Introduce less common settings, or add unusual furnishings.
  • Weather. It doesn't have to be a dark and stormy night.
  • Strangers. A new character, especially one very different from the others.
  • Social situations. The same social situations show up endlessly in fiction. Breakfast in the kitchen. Driving to the office. Meeting in conference room. Wedding. etc. Choose a less common one, at least for that genre. One haunting one for me was in Bram Stoker's Dracula. Having a vampire meet with his lawyer was sheer genius. Chilling. Most monsters do not have legal representation. It made him unpredictable.
  • Incongruous hobbies. Hobbies have jargon, materials, procedures. They can enrich a story, especially if most readers know little about them.
  • Words. Have characters whose use of vocabulary is distinctive. Flavorful dialog is vital.
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I'm going to share a change I made in the story I'm writing recently. My old version was to begin with the character, a day in his life, an unsuccessful day at his sales job returning home to his curry noodles and internet when he gets the phone call that changes his life and I felt that was a perfectly fine place to begin. Introduce the character and start with a day in his life.

It occurred to me recently that the reader gets into the story much better if I begin two weeks later at his job interview with the company that hires him, because that's where the story gets juicy. I lose some conversation over breakfast with the antagonist but I'm OK with that. I think starting where it gets interesting is much better than starting at the beginning.

You mentioned it's a revenge story and in being a revenge story, you need some buildup, but try to find the point where what's happening is essential to the story or character development and start there. It's OK to cut a few chapters, at least, it's OK if you're me. I've done it.

For example - if you begin with "The neighbor moved next door yesterday and he seems OK, but I wish he'd turn the music down" - not very interesting. You're hinting that he may not care about you, but nothing juicy.

Compared with "The neighbor moved in next door and now my dog is gone." - that pulls the reader in.

Or the more creepy. I turned and saw a pair of eyes staring at me through my window. I grabbed my son's baseball bat and ran outside but whoever it was, they were too fast. They were gone. I looked around for clues. Anything that might tell me who it was who was staring at me through my window and but all was quiet. A gentle wind blows by and I hear a faint click. The gate to my neighbor's house is unlatched.

Begin with some kind of tension. Find the point that you can't eliminate without hurting your story or losing key character elements and eliminate everything before then.

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Make it non-linear

Classical predictable revenge story goes usually around this timeline:

  • Villain cause Tragedy to Victim (Hero)
  • Hero cannot defeat Villain just now, so he need to
    • survive
    • get gear
    • get training
    • get friends
    • get weapons
    • get informations
  • Hero try get his Revenge (and maybe fail, so back to previous point)
  • Hero wins

Each single point can be repeated as many times as needed, in no particular order, creating its own sub-quest. When all subquests and main quest are finished, the story ends.


So to make it less predicable, you can just change the order of Chapters.

Start with the Hero somehow equipped and trained and put on classical heroic story (barbar Conan cames to mind) where the Hero arrives to some Place, solves some Quest, win some Treasure, loose big part of it and departs to other Place.

Repeat few times, while you introduce Hero and the World as side-effect.

The Hero did not forgot the Tragedy, but does not talk about it to strangers, when not needed. So we can see him arriving, shopping etc. then he just "talks to the right (shady) people and get interesting hint about <this subquest entry point> so the next day he goes there" (and we do not need to hear all the talks, so we - as well as those shady people - suppose, that the Hint was just for getting Treasure. Hero is good known to readers now as for some "marks" like some scars, big sword etc.

Next Chapter could be simmilar, (just the Hint is something else, maybe local Beauty kidnaped by bandits) and you insert some "real hint" like when describing the Beauty you say, that she looked like Marianne, so she catched Hero's eye (and do not explain Marianne now) and Hero goes to save her. Award may be bigger sword or more scars.

Next Chapter can be about a Boy (without scars and sword) trying to survive in winter and get off hungry wolves.

Next Chapter introduce Hero with more scars and bigger sword and awards him some special/characteristic fighting skill.

Next Chapter is about Girl overcomming some problems. On the end somebody calls her Marianne.

Then Chapter about the Boy in summer, with some small equipment in hills, where he fight with Orcs and get scar (oh, so it was our hero after all)

Next Hero gets some company (and more scars).

Next some Other Person fights some problem and get Position.

Next Hero gets some Contacts as result of <this Chapter subquest>.

Next Chapter the Other Person (younger version) does something terrible to some Villagers.

Next Chapter Hero finally confronts The Villain (which may look like just next Sub-Quest). Hero wins and tells to the dying Villain, that Marianne was Heroes sister and one of those Villagers, that Other Person decimated 20 years ago.

And so it is all clear now and the book may end.


Adult Hero known and described by other name (Lonely Lion) than the Boy (Johny) and their connection and the nickname is explained relatively late.

Villain causes Tragedy also near the end of book and it is not clear, that it is The Tragedy, as Hero does not talk about it too much (it still hurts).

Chapters are not dated, so the years are not obvious and could be decided only in retrospection. (But there should be some hints to connect them in right order later - like characteristic scars, some friend calling Lone Lion as Johny and so - usually introduced much later, than the <Chapters Main Character> is introduced)

The book starts like other genre and Revenge motive sneaks inside much later (or even at the end).


I described it as Fantasy (which is easy), but it can be in any setting and it would just use other "marks" say car, clothes, typical way of speach or words, ...

I would also introduce more side-characters, with their Chapters of history and let them go to other Chapters as friends/enemies/changing sites/double-crossing/villains bodyguards/etc/etc and connect them fully only in few last Chapters to make the World much richer and complicated. And the Revenge should sneak inside by small steps, which are more clear in retrospective (like Heros dislike for some types of characters/situations, occasional curse, little strange/unexpected behavior ...)

My point is, that even totally predicable timeline may be simply obscured and presented as much wider story, than it looks to its autor.

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This will agree with/repeat some of what other answers have said, but hopefully it provides another perspective.

If the story doesn't pick up after 14 chapters, however many thousands of words there is too much prelude. If you read those chapters carefully and ask what each part does, much will prove worthy of excising. Once you've lost sentences, paragraphs, scenes, chapters, characters and so on, take another look at what you felt worthy of preservation. If it's still too predictable, maybe some of what was revealed there should be postponed. Don't let the reader know anything before they really need to.

In fact, what's most important to reveal early on is what the characters are like, not the individual facts they're acting on. This is for two reasons: it makes us care more about the story, and it helps you control what's revealed and when, addressing the predictability issue.

You've still got the remaining chapters to write. As far as possible, throw your plans for these to the side for the moment. Make sure characters act in a way that's true to them, not to any plot you'd envisaged if that would be different. Besides,if you don't know what's coming next, how will your reader?

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