Predictability vs. Recognizability

Something I didn’t talk about in my post on writing formulas and formulaic writing is that not all predictability is bad. In fact, there is a great deal of any story which one wants to be predictable. If we are reading a murder mystery, we will be irked if there is no murder, and doubly irked if there is no mystery. And if the mystery is not about who murdered the victim, we will be very hard to win over. I think that G.K. Chesterton summarized it when he said that as a boy, he would put down any book which didn’t mention a dead body on the first page. (And once again I can’t track this down. I need to get better at actually sourcing Chesterton quotes.)

Now, while these examples are obvious, they illustrate the point precisely because they are so obvious as to not normally be worth mentioning. When we complain of fiction being predictable, we don’t mean simply that we were able to predict elements of what was in the story. In most cases, that we are able to predict elements in a story is, in fact, a necessary prerequisite to being willing to read the story at all. It is good advice not to judge a book by its cover, in so far as that advice goes, but I think you will find that a book with a completely blank cover (that is, having neither words nor pictures upon it, so that there is no suggestion whatever of what is behind the cover) will not get read very often.

I do not bring this up to be pedantic, but because those cases where we do not say what we mean often conceal interesting truths. Certainly it has been my experience, anyway, that whenever a man says, “everyone knows what I mean” he is wrong. Usually the more certain he is that he is universally understood, the more wrong he is, because the only person who can be completely convinced that everyone understands him is a man who’s never found out what anyone else thought he meant. But, be that as it may, I think that this is a particular interesting topic because what we really mean reveals much about how we enjoy fiction. It also reveals the real reason why books should never be reviewed by people unfamiliar with their genre.

Chesterton once said that an artist is glad of his limitations:

You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes. Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump: you may be freeing him from being a camel. Do not go about as a demagogue, encouraging triangles to break out of the prison of their three sides. If a triangle breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a lamentable end. Somebody wrote a work called “The Loves of the Triangles”; I never read it, but I am sure that if triangles ever were loved, they were loved for being triangular. This is certainly the case with all artistic creation, which is in some ways the most decisive example of pure will. The artist loves his limitations: they constitute the thing he is doing. The painter is glad that the canvas is flat. The sculptor is glad that the clay is colourless.

And so it is with fiction; the elements which we want to be predictable form what sort of story it is. And this can get very specific. Within murder mysteries, there is the sort of story which can be referred to as an armchair cozy, and within those, there is a yet more specific sort of story which can be referred to as a Christie. Armchair cozies tend to feature a very intelligent detective who uses his wits more than his fists, and Christies tend to have that intelligent detective, at the conclusion of the story, gather up all of the witnesses and suspects into a room and explain the facts as he found them and then set them into an orderly and coherent picture, while clearing away red herrings, lies, and mistaken inferences others had been making.

Now, there are those who criticized Agatha Christie’s work because it always ending with the detective gathering everyone together and summarizing the plot prior to revealing the solution as being predictable and formulaic. These are, in a sense, the mortal enemies of those who love the form of the Christie and feel the lack in the ending of the Maltese falcon, where the solution to the mystery is a mere afterthought. To those who take these plot elements to be part of the form of the story, a story which does not include them is defective. To someone who does not take these plot elements as part of the form of the story the stories are predictable and formulaic.

Which is to say, whether writing is predictable and formulaic is in no small part a matter of how one conceives of the story before one reads it. If one thinks of science fiction as just plain old literature, all of those space ships and other worlds become very predictable and formulaic. Thought of as romances, murder mysteries sure do use the same old device to bring the couple together—if they even remember to have a couple to bring together. And so forth; in a sense this is just remembering that a thing can only be good when thought of as what it is—hammers make terrible pillows, etc. But things like hammers and pillows are relatively clear in what they are while stories rarely fit perfectly into any genre and thus are always defining new sub-genres. Indeed, the fact that there is a type of murder mystery called a Christie testifies to that very fact since they are named for stories with plot elements like those found in many of Agatha Christie’s stories.

And there is a sense in which even thinking in terms of genres is a mistake with fiction because it implies a comparison; it is always a mistake to allow the goodness of one thing to eclipse the goodness of another thing. Perfect happiness cannot rest on infinite novelty since infinite novelty is not possible. (Perfect happiness must instead come from the ability to appreciate a good which has already been appreciated, whether in some greater good, or in the thing itself already experienced.) That said, in a world with imperfect creatures thinking within genres is unavoidable and so a clever (or charitable) author will help the reader to understand what sort of story he’s getting into and what he may expect, that he will know where to look for surprises. Because a large part of enjoying a story is knowing where to look for surprises in it.

(There is the obvious exception of books with “twists”, that is to say, books which signal that they are one sort of thing and then suddenly reveal that they are something else. Being more a re-reader than a reader of new things, my own opinion is that these are rarely good stories because the twist is typically a gimmick. Having managed one thing to startle the reader, the authors of twists often seem to not bother themselves with putting in anything else which is novel, and so there’s no value to re-reading them. There are exceptions to that, though, where the books are worth reading even if you know the twist, so I don’t mean to over-generalize.)

At this point I suspect that the relationship of this post to whether writing formulas encourage formulaic writing should be clear. If the reader is familiar with the formula and reads stories written according to it as if the formula defines a genre, then formulas will not encourage formulaic writing at all (except in so far as they elevate formulaic writing that otherwise would have been unreadable to the level of being readable, as I discussed  in the post I linked above). On the other hand, if readers do not understand the formulas as a type of writing, there is a good chance that they will find fiction writing according to the formula to be formulaic because they will be looking for novelty in the wrong place.

This same phenomenon can be seen in music appreciation, by the way. A friend of mine who studied music in college pointed out that each type of music has its typical structures (allowable cords, cord progressions, repeats, and so on) inside of which musicians play around and differentiate themselves. Those familiar with these structures hear the music as music, while those who aren’t familiar with these structures will often hear the music simply as noise. This is why new genres often gain popularity with the young, who have not imprinted on already accepted musical structures and who can easily adapt to a new musical structure. Later, they spread as those who need more time to learn new music’s structures finally do.

There’s even something analogous in looking at the “long hair” of the Beetles. By modern standards, their hair is within norms for businesslike hair styles. In fact, on this album cover they almost look like modern bankers:

Not quite; bankers do have an extremely recognizable style that has shifted only very little with the times. But in their time, the Beetles were icons of rebellion. Today, outside of a few niches like banking, we barely have any standard hair styles for men—except possibly that mullets are bad—and so nothing violates those standards. (Again, except mullets, for some reason.) But the curious upshot of those lack of standards is that if anyone’s hairstyle is recognizable, it is therefore derivative and boring. There is, I think, a lesson to be learned there.

Glory to God in the highest.

2 thoughts on “Predictability vs. Recognizability

  1. Mary

    It’s from The Spice of Life

    ‘There was a time in my own melodramatic boyhood when I became quite fastidious in this respect. I would look at the first chapter of any new novel as a final test of its merits. If there was a murdered man under the sofa in the first chapter, I read the story. If there was no murdered man under the sofa in the first chapter, I dismissed the story as tea-table twaddle, which it often really was. But we all lose a little of that fine edge of austerity and idealism which sharpened our spiritual standard in our youth. I have come to compromise with the tea-table and to be less insistent about the sofa. As long as a corpse or two turns up in the second, the third, nay even the fourth or fifth chapter, I make allowance for human weakness, and I ask no more. But a novel without any death in it is still to me a novel without any life in it.”

    Liked by 1 person

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