Surprise me – but not too much

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The book, Lost in Math, talks about how some dudes, using the magical power of MATHS, scientifically prove that, on a scale of 1 being super predictable and 10 being extremely unpredictable, all popular music, from Beethoven to Lady Gaga, rated about a 4-6. Only, you know, they used sciencey terms to make it all official and whatnot.

The author goes on to say:

Intuitively this means that good music lives on the edge between predictability and unpredictability. When we turn on the radio, we want to be surprised — but not too much. Not so surprisingly, then, popular music follows quite simple recipes, and you can sing along when the chorus repeats.

This observation about music, I think, carries over to other areas of human life. In the arts, in writing, and in science too we like to be surprised, but not too much. …

Lost In Math, Sabine Hossenfelder, chapter 5

The author then goes on to explain the effect that this has had on the scientific community, but this isn’t a science or math blog, so we’ll stop there.

We’re going to apply this phenomenon to novels.

As readers, we don’t like stories about people who simply wake up, brush their teeth, go to work, eat dinner, then go to bed at night. Why? Because that’s how most of us live. Sometimes we mix it up with vacations, trips to the zoo, or whatever floats your boat, but day-to-day life is routine. We don’t have to pick up a book to experience it.

As readers, we also don’t like stories that are too bizarre. We don’t like having too many new concepts and terms thrown at us all at once, or reading a story that is completely unrelatable on any level. That’s why the Redwall series, for example, humanizes its animal characters — they wear clothes, cook food, fight with swords, and refrain from leaving droppings on counter tops — because that’s what the human audience relates to.

Therefore, writers need to learn how to balance between predictable and unpredictable if they desire a wider audience. Make it interesting, but relatable. Put a new spin on old ideas. Blend cliches with unique concepts. Trust me, most readers won’t constantly reference a companion encyclopedia to know what the heck you’re talking about; they’ll just quit reading.

Twilight was insanely popular despite its amateur writing, because it took the familiar ideas of romance and teenage angst, and paired it with the brand new idea of vampires that sparkled in the sunlight. Just one new angle on a mountain of cliches skyrocketed it into a #1 best seller. I mean, c’mon, who else would have ever thought of sparkly vampires?

So…

Surprise your readers!

But not too much.

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