It’s Okay if You Know Where it’s Going: why “predictable” isn’t automatically bad

Okay, this is something that’s honestly been bugging me for years.

I’m sick and tired of “predictable” being an automatic strike against a story. I’m sick of people deeming something objectively bad if they knew how it would end early on. I’m going to go so far as to say that people who think that way don’t actually know very much about stories. Yeah, they’re entitled to their opinion, but THEIR OPINION IS WRONG AND BAD

Same with “formulaic.”

Here’s the thing: I readily agree that there’s a necessary place for good fiction to strike out across borders and expand the boundaries of what we perceive possible in writing. I absolutely agree that taking risks and trying new things is necessary in keeping a genre vital and alive. What I want to question is that not doing those things is intrinsically bad, that there isn’t a place for it in the way that there’s a place for the other. I think this attitude causes one to overlook a lot of the things that are so great about storytelling.

We all know how fairy tales go. There are a few tropes and at least the ones in the Western canon follow formulae that we’re all familiar with at this point. And we keep returning to them, and to the myths and legends that make up part of our cultural heritage. We keep retelling these stories, even though we all know how they go, because there’s something in them that speaks to deep things in us. Even when we put new spins on these stories, it’s still with some recognition that this is a form on which to base experimentation. In that sense it’s valuable.

These are the stories that express our deepest desires. To be more than who we are. To live exciting lives, to be heroes. To conquer the things we’re afraid of. To be happy. To see justice done and the wicked punished and the good rewarded. We all know how these stories are going to end but when we get lost in them, if we’re willing, we have a way of forgetting. We move with the characters, as them, through the dangers they face and toward their happy ending, and when they arrive there we celebrate with them.

It seems to me that “formulaic” isn’t the problem. The problem is how well the formula is executed and the degree to which the reader buys into the formula itself.

Take Romance. For a lot of people – maybe most people, certainly the RWA – one of the defining elements of a romance novel is the presence of at least an optimistic ending; a HFN if not a HEA. I’m a sucker for angst and tragedy, so I’ll admit to finding this general constraint unattractive at times, but that doesn’t mean that I think the formula is wrong or bad in itself, and it troubles me when Romance as a genre is taken to task for making so much of it. Of course there are ways to execute the formula badly. But of course there are also ways to do it well, and just because it doesn’t tend to be what I prefer to read doesn’t mean I wouldn’t recognize those as good books.

It’s fine if you prefer to not know where the story is going, if you relish twists and turns. I do too. I’m there with you. But let’s not automatically call anything that stays “safe” bad. Because I think that’s kind of bullshit.

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