Has anyone ever described your work in progress as predictable? Not words you want to hear! Critique groups are great places to squash that ugly thing. Here are some strategies that have worked for me.
Here’s a step-by-step refresher of how it works.
1. Grab something to write on. A white board works great, but paper will do.
2. Gather your most creative friends. The bigger the group the better, but two also works. In a pinch, you can even fly solo, but it’s not as much fun.
3. Define the problem/topic. Make sure everyone knows just what issue they are trying to solve.
4. Go nuts! No scenario’s too fanciful. No idea’s too farfetched. No twist too twisted. When I said, “I know—he’s a communist!” my critique partner tilted her head with a grin and said, “Write it down.”
Have you ever heard the saying, “If you throw enough mud against the wall, some of it will stick?” That’s the idea with brainstorming. On a page packed with throw-away ideas (like the communist one), I usually come up with one or two winners.
The “What If” Game
Try a fast-paced game of “What If.” Start randomly.
“What if the stock market crashes?”
“What if a tsunami strikes?”
“What if the main character is pregnant?”
Then build on each other’s ideas.
“And her husband doesn’t know.”
“Or the husband knows, but she doesn’t know.”
“Or they both know, but don’t want to tell the other…”
Get the idea?
This fuels imaginations (lights them on fire, really!) and will likely produce several nifty nuggets.
Think the Opposite
Pick an event, predict the outcome, then ask, “What’s the opposite?” It energizes the romantic aspect particularly. The girl pines over the guy, loves him from afar. He finally confesses his love. What do you expect? She falls adoringly into his arms, right? But what’s the opposite? She spits in his face and runs away. Do you see how powerful this is?
It also helps with character development. The protagonist is a strong, working woman. When confronted with an overwhelming situation, the reader expects her to handle it. What’s the opposite? She crumbles in tears, or runs away, or falls into an uncontrollable fit of anger.
Just thinking this way can root out predictability. The reason it works is because we’re all plagued with inner conflict. When our characters are too consistent, it makes them seem stale and contrived—so flip ‘em around. Make them surprise themselves—and you.
Conflict on Every Page
Finally, examine how to dump more stress on your poor, naïve characters. Why should life be so easy for them anyway? Start by focusing on a few plot points, asking, “How can I make this more difficult?” One character was traveling on a ship. We couldn’t let her simply float to her destination. No way. “I'll sink the boat,” I plotted, wiggling my fingers fiendishly. “Or have engine trouble, or slam into a whale.”
Later, go back and do this with each plot point. What a difference. I was surprised at how nice I had been to my characters. What was I thinking? Nice? Ha!
By the time you finish these steps, you'll have some great ideas to play with. So next time, there’ll be no use of that nasty “predictable” word.