Inevitable and Predictable, So Close Yet …

I just finished Matt de la Peña’s We Were Here (Delacorte Press, 2009). Not surprisingly, it kind of rocks. Don’t worry; this isn’t a review of a not so new book that you’ve probably already read. I only mention it because it’s a great example of inevitability. In case you haven’t gotten to it yet I won’t go into specifics, but the big reveal is far from surprising … in a very good way. Same with the novel’s ending.

The reason I didn’t mind figuring out the ending pretty early on is that de la Peña’s plot has inevitability. The hero’s choices drive him into increasingly difficult situations until he has to eventually confront the source of his self-inflicted torture. So always being aware of the story’s inevitable conclusion in the distance fits We Were Here‘s rough, urban journey. I found myself experiencing a growing satisfaction as I trudged alongside the book’s hero knowing where he was headed even when he didn’t. Paradoxically, and this is what I love about de la Peña’s writing, this dramatic irony also turned out to be the source of most of the story’s tension for me. I knew what the hero needed. It was painfully obvious. So I wanted to grab him by the scruff of his neck every time he took a step in the wrong direction. But in the end, the hero figured out the right course all on his own. He achieved redemption because he chose to. Like a worried parent, I could breathe again, my child had made it across the tightrope without my help.

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And then there’s predictable. I’m talking bad TV sitcoms here. Unlike a story with a strong, inevitable ending, what the reader/viewer sees coming in a predictable plot isn’t really connected to the hero. It’s an outside force instead of a consequence of the hero’s actions. Therefore it feels like a cheat and leaves readers or viewers wanting more. Or worse, it leaves them wishing they’d never gotten suckered into the experience in the first place.

Okay, so we’ve established that we like inevitable endings and that tying our plot twists and crises to our protagonist’s choices helps us achieve them. Well, I’m hoping you’re with me on this; maybe my previous sentence should have been in the singular. Either way I shall plunge ahead.

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Achieving inevitability instead of predictability also hinges on how delicately an author deploys the little signposts that get the reader wanting the ending everybody’s moving toward. A delicate balance must be struck. If de la Peña had peppered as few as one or two more bits of foreshadowing into We Were Here, the book could have ended up as just another formulaic and moralistic walk along an all too familiar adolescent beach.

I can’t help but imagine some early draft of the novel that looks precisely like that. Okay, I’ll admit it; Ihope that cliché early draft exists with all its flaws. I like to imagine it lying bloated at the bottom of some file drawer in Matt de la Peña’s office: an unremarkable stack of dusty pages held together by a single, overtaxed rubber band around its middle like a hobo’s belt. It’s petty, I know. But it’s an image that makes me feel better about my own writing process.