it came as no surpriseOne of the worst crimes a writer can commit is to be predictable in his or her storyline and characters. This holds true even in genre fiction, where a certain formula is generally followed: In a romance, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy and girl reunite forever. In a mystery, a crime occurs, there are many suspects, the criminal is revealed. In a thriller we have an innocent victim, a tightening noose of terror, and ultimately, escape and release. Even in these formulaic examples, predictability makes for a boring, disappointing read. And as I’ve mentioned elsewhere on my blog, I am terrified of being boring.

I’ll be blogging off and on about my work-in-progress because it’s my world at the moment and will be even moreso  as I head toward my May 1 deadline. The working title is The Midwife’s Confession, and it’s about a group of old college friends and a fight for their families. I carefully outlined this story about a year and a half ago. My editor loved the outline, but I had to put the story aside because of a scheduling probem with the publisher. I then wrote The Lies We Told, which will be out this coming June. Now, though, I return to The Midwife’s Confession with a fresh eye, and here’s what I’m discovering.

It’s an excellent and engrossing story. However, I find myself hitting a couple of points as I write that are–dare I say it–trite or possibly even boring. These elements work just fine in the outline, but I feel dragged down by them in the story itself, and if I feel dragged down, so will my reader. So these elements need to change and that’s what I’ve been working on for the last couple of weeks. I’m pleased to say I’ve made great progress.

Since I don’t want to give anything away, I’ll make something up so you can understand what I’m talking about. Let’s say that my story, in outline form, has a 16-year-old girl who is rebellious, hates her parents, steals beer from the fridge, and has unprotected sex. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that–the description fits plenty of 16-year-old girls. But she’s so darn predictable. The reader knows this kid too well, and I’m yawning just thinking about her. When I would start to translate the story from outline to manuscript form, this girl would probably jump out at me as Trite with a capital T. I’d then brainstorm with friends, John, or myself, looking for ways to make her different and more interesting.

When I was working on my third novel, Secret Lives, I was discussing a scene  with some writer friends. The scene involved an argument between a father and his grown daughter, and one of my friends suggested I have the daughter  react in an outlandish manner. “She wouldn’t do that!” I resisted. Well, most people wouldn’t. Most people are predictable. As I played with the scene, though, I decided to give the suggestion a try. Suddenly, I had a scene that really came to life, was populated by fascinating people, and was guaranteed to make the reader sit up and take notice.

Without revealing too much, I can tell you one of the situations in The Midwife’s Confession that was bugging me because of its triteness. I wanted to get one of the women’s husband’s out of the way of the story because I needed the woman to deal with a certain situation on her own, so I had the husband leave her for another woman. It worked beautifully in the outline. I really put the woman through the mill as she dealt with her husband’s infidelity. Yet it seemed so trite when I started to actually write his affair into the book. So I changed the story, and now he’s dead. Not that death is any less trite, but killing him off opened up a new set of intriguing possibilities for me. Did he die of natural causes? We’ll see. Did he die with a secret, perhaps? (Indeed he did!)

I’m always thinking of my reader as I write.  Will she guess where I’m going? Maybe. Will she guess correctly? Heh heh. I hope not. That’s the most enjoyable part of writing a big fat novel for me: creating the puzzle, making it work, and avoiding the expected wherever I can.

Predictability in real life is a nice thing. In fiction, it’s a bore.


  1. Linda Spear on January 17, 2010 at 6:49 pm

    I must have been channeling you all along. My new book has the fundamentals of “boy meets girl; boy loses girl, but they do not reunite forever….and that’s the mystery…how it all came out….I hope you read it….I’ve admired your character’s “chemical reactions” and I’ve patterned quite a bit from you, so hold your horses and read my first novel…and I hope you see some of yourself!



  2. Joane on January 18, 2010 at 12:40 am

    I can see the rebellion in my grandson…although he is a boy. Never stole the beer (his parents didn’t drink at home). But he didn’t do his schoolwork, even though he is very bright, (has ADHD so that is typical). Got pier pressured into doing things he shouldn’t have. So although he never ended up in trouble with the law, he did end up in counseling. He is almost 16 now, has done a 180 (on his own). Now enjoys seeing his A+ sister coming into her pre-teens get into the trouble with the parents he used to for mouthing off. Soo, long story short, even though this story is going to be about a young girl people can still place a son in that place. I can’t wait to read it.

  3. Chelsey on January 18, 2010 at 12:52 am

    Thats one thing that I love about all your books, all the secrets that dont come out till the end! Even when I think I figure it out (and even if I do) there is always at least one remaining surprise waiting for me.

    I just finished “secrets she left behind” and while I did love it, it did have a little bit of the predictability you were talking about. I just knew exactly what the main characters were going to do. Normally, it takes me 2 days to read your books because I cant put it down, this one took me a week. Now, thats not necessarily a bad thing. at 2 days per book I will run out quickly, where as a week of enjoyment is a healthier pace lol. But I dont know if its the characters that were predictable or that I have picked up on your writing patterns.

    Some predictability is good. Readers relie on the fact that 16 year olds will smoke, and alcholics will drink, and doctors will save lives. It helps us connect with the characters and understand them.

    I am sure you will work through whatever delimas are in your way to make a great read!

  4. Diane Chamberlain on January 18, 2010 at 1:06 am

    Linda, your new one is on my list of to-be-reads and I’m looking forward to it. Joane, I think rebellion is a necessary developmental stage, and if someone doesn’t do it as a teen, they’ll do it later when it’s much less appropriate, so it’s good your grandson got it out of the way when he did!

    Chelsey, I do think Secrets She Left Behind is one of my slower books, so I’m not surprised it took you longer to read. It’s more about character than plot. I can’t wait for you (and others) to be able to read the next one, The Lies We Told. We’ll see then if you’re on to my writing patterns! Thanks for commenting.

  5. Margo on January 18, 2010 at 9:11 am

    That’s one of the many things I love about your writing Diane…the element of surprise…you never have disappointed me that way and I have never, ever been bored reading your books!!…something unexpected always happens and it proves what a wonderful and thoughtful writer you are…you take the time to really write a powerful book where each novel is different from the previous…and it shows how much you care about your readers by really plotting and working hard to make each book unique…this is why you are loved by us all Diane.

  6. Hope on January 18, 2010 at 9:50 pm

    Actually, I believe that a little unpredictability in real life can be helpful in keeping things interesting! So, I certainly don’t want predictability in what I read or what I write. Writing according to a journalism formula for many years has made it nearly impossible for me to go back and re-read my old articles without dozing. My columns were for the most part a whole different story. It was there that my editor gave me “permission” to let my writing hair hang out! Your writing always has that one twist that I hadn’t figured out. Thank you for that gift!

  7. Gina on January 19, 2010 at 9:51 pm

    Diane Chamberlain books boring? NEVER!

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