Caroline recently got in touch with me enquiring about how to improve the endings of her short stories. She says she often gets great comments about her stories, but her endings let her down. They are too predictable.
This is a common theme found in many rejection letters. In fact, it could be argued that editors need to come up with a less predictable way of saying our stories have predictable endings!
Predictability is not just an issue for fiction writers. Feature writers also need to be less predictable. Pitch a predictable idea to a magazine and you won’t get far with it. Pitch something out of the ordinary, but perfectly targeted for the publication’s readership, and the editor may be eager to commission.
I, too, find myself falling into the predictability trap at times. And, in my experience, it’s because I’ve just gone with the first idea that’s entered my head. The first solution is rarely the best. This is because the first idea is usually the same one that everyone else has come up with - whether it’s a story ending or a feature pitch idea.
To get round this I think for a little longer, but the way I do this is by using the free writing technique. I will sit down with a pen and notebook (for me it has to be handwritten - if I typed my brain would never keep up with my typing) and then I just write down my thoughts as they occur to me.
I write a lot of drivel in these free writing sessions. (Some people may argue that a lot of my drivel gets published too.) But free writing is not a place for editing, or grammatically correct sentences, or perfect punctuation. It’s about brainstorming. It’s about getting the mind to dig a little deeper. Here’s an example of how awful some of my free writing can be:
What's the ending to this story? I could have Sarah get a neighbour to do all of the liaising, but that's a bit naff. If Sarah doesn't like builders, Sarah is the one who has to take ownership of the problem. What if she phones her brother, who is a builder by trade and get him to come down? Don't be stupid, Simon - if her brother was a builder she'd have given him the job in the first place. No, it needs to be something else. She's got to take the initiative. It's got to fit with her character …
Fifteen or twenty minutes later I am sometimes rewarded with the right idea. Whether it’s the end of a story or a more unusual angle to a feature idea there is usually something that is better than the first idea that entered my head. If I count back I might find it was thought number eight, fifteen or forty seven that became the better idea. Some sessions work better than others. Sometimes the ideas come quickly, other times they don’t.
But one thing I do know is that the first idea is usually the predictable one. So always ditch your first ideas. And the next six too, if possible.