I had the rare and luscious experience this weekend of cracking open a book and it being so awesome that I flew right through it. The Deceivers is about a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who’s tapped to attend Vale Hall, a secret academy for con artists.
The character’s situation was compelling and the writing flawless, so I was sucked in right away. But at the back of my mind, doubts fluttered—suspicions that this book would end up like every other book in the Secret Academy subgenre.
Please don’t let her end up falling for her mark and becoming part of another love triangle.
Please don’t tell me that the hunky Vale student she’s falling for is playing her, that she’s actually his mark.
Please don’t turn the well-intentioned, father-figure principal who’s running the whole show into a morally bankrupt egomaniac who’s been playing everyone.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these scenarios. The problem is that you see them in almost every book of this genre. After a while, they become cliché and begin to sound like every other story in that section of the library. Not exactly what we’re going for as authors.
Predictability is a problem for many readers. It’s why genres explode onto the scene for a while, but eventually fade out (dystopian, anyone?), because pretty soon, every book in that category sounds the same. Part of the magic in reading a new book is not knowing what’s going to happen. If readers can figure that out without really trying, chances are, the book isn’t going to hold them captive.
I was pleasantly surprised that the afore-mentioned book rose above the predictable outcomes. I was committed all the way through because I didn’t know what was going to happen and I couldn’t wait to see how things resolved. This is what we want for our readers: engagement, excitement, and an appreciation for a well-written, never-before-seen story.
So how do we give that to them? How do we avoid writing a story that’s predictable?
Read Within Your Genre to Identify Common Tropes
To a certain degree, genres have to be similar. People who read in a genre read those particular books because they’re appealing. Readers who pick up horror stories want to be scared; romance aficionados like the tension between the protagonist and his or her love interest; historical fiction readers enjoy stories about characters from a different age and long-ago settings. So some of the common elements within genres are necessary; they’re what make those books those kinds of books.
What we want to avoid are rinse-and-repeat scenarios surrounding the story’s main conflict or its resolution (like the ones I mentioned earlier).
To do this, we have to know what those same-old-same-old scenarios are, and the best way to do that is to read lots and lots of books within your story’s genre. TVTropes has a listing of literary genres and popular examples of books in those categories to help you flesh out your reading list. (Or, for something on the lighter side, check out these tongue-in-cheek Story Tropes Bingo Cards.)
As you read, make a list of the common scenarios and story resolutions you see in those books. Which ones keep cropping up? Which ones feel too easy, as if the author is just following someone else’s formula? Which ones were you able to predict while reading? Write those suckers down so you can think past the easy solutions and come up with something unique that will set your story apart from the others.
Read Outside Your Genre to Explore Other Conflict Scenarios and Their Outcomes
Once you’ve identified what to avoid, you’ve got to figure out conflict sources and resolutions to use instead. The best way to do that is to read outside of your genre. I know, I know, I just told you to check out books like yours. But if that’s all you read, you’re only going to see what everyone else in your genre is doing, and you’re likely going to end up using the same formula.
To make your story unique, look to other genres. What kinds of conflict scenarios are happening in those books? What other sources of conflict can you use to ramp up the tension in your scenes? Instead of the obvious story solution, how else could the main conflict be resolved?
Start another list. Get the juices flowing by writing down every idea that pops into your head, no matter how outlandish or odd. In the planning stage, experiment with some of those ideas to see which ones will help you not only avoid predictability but create something interesting and exciting that readers couldn’t possible see coming.
Choose Subplots Thoughtfully
While the main conflict or story goal within certain genres are similar (Boy Wants Girl, Woman Must Escape a Killer, Cop Has to Solve the Crime), you can differentiate your story from the others with your subplots.
In The Deceivers, Brynn is seeking to obtain certain information from her mark. This is her objective, and it’s a common one for a story in the Secret Academy/Con Artist genre. One twist, though, is a subplot involving her mother’s kingpin, drug-dealing boyfriend. When he learns that Brynn is collecting secrets from a wealthy politician, he wants in. He wants a cut. He’s a dangerous dude, so ignoring him is bad, but including him means tying herself to her old life and her dead-end neighborhood, which Brynn desperately doesn’t want to do.
This subplot takes the story out of the typical mold for this genre and creates all kinds of interesting scenarios. Throw in a romance subplot with another student who’s got issues of his own, and it becomes a totally new and unpredictable story.
When you’re planning your story, you obviously need to focus on your main storyline, but don’t stop there. Carefully consider what atypical subplots you can include that might take things in an unusual direction. Most outer motivations (overall story goals) can also work for smaller objectives (subplots). So explore the different possibilities to come up with a unique mix of plots that will give you all kinds of options for where the story can go.
Listen, it’s easy to fall into the trap of writing a story that’s just like the others in your genre. But for readers, “easy” often translates into ho-hum, clichéd, and expected. You don’t have to reinvent the whole genre to keep readers interested. Just put in a little extra work to identify and avoid the common patterns, and you’ll end up with something for readers to talk (or even blog) about.
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Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.