In the case of many novels, readers basically know the general parameters of what will happen. In the case of many other novels, the plot destination is a complete or near-complete unknown (unless a review or too-talkative friend gives things away 🙂 ). Either type of novel has the potential to be compelling.
But can a novel be truly compelling if you kind of know what will happen? The obvious answer is “yes,” because lots of the appeal is in the journey: how the author gets to the expected conclusion, how characters deal with things, the quality of writing, and so on. Also, there are still usually some unexpected moments.
For instance, I read Lisa Genova’s excellent Inside the O’Briens last week, and — as in that author’s earlier novel Still Alice — a character is stricken with a devastating incurable disease early on (Huntington’s in the O’Briens and Alzheimer’s in Alice). But even though we know bad things are in store for the protagonist — Boston police officer Joe O’Brien — we are drawn to how he realizes he’s sick, how he and his family react to the Huntington’s diagnosis, and so on. Plus there’s still plenty of suspense, because Joe and his wife Rosie’s four adult children (a firefighter, a dancer, a yoga instructor, and a bartender) each have a 50-50 chance of possessing the death sentence of the Huntington’s gene. Do they want to take the blood test?
The very title of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold informs readers that a character will be murdered, but the author maintains lots of interest through such means as Santiago not being warned of his fate even though many people knew about the threat he was under.
Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird definitely contains some surprises, but we unfortunately know for certain — as the book’s iconic trial begins — that innocent, falsely accused black man Tom Robinson will be convicted by a racist all-white jury in the 1930s U.S. South.
Of course, historical fiction has all kinds of elements we know are coming, but those novels can still be gripping — including their humanizing of the past. One of many examples is Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. Most readers are aware of the heroic story of Joan, her rigged trial, and her gruesome early-in-life death by burning, but Twain takes us on a fascinating journey along the way.
Another historical-fiction example is Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent — whose protagonist is Dinah, a minor character in the Bible. But her parents are Leah and Jacob, and her grandparents are Rebecca and Isaac, so people versed in the Old Testament know what happens in the lives of those four famous personages.
Novels whose outcomes are almost a complete mystery to people reading them for the first time? Some of my favorites include Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (will Jane and Rochester’s romance ultimately work out?), Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (will murderer Raskolnikov be caught?), Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (will Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska reunite?), W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (will Philip Carey stop acting like a lovestruck idiot?), Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred (will 20th-century African-American writer Dana become stuck in her ancestral Antebellum South after getting yanked back in time?), Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (what will happen to a priceless painting?), Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies (will the rich banker guilty of severe sexual misconduct get his just desserts?), Andy Weir’s The Martian (will stranded-alone-on-Mars Mark Watney escape the planet?), etc.
Then there are mystery novels themselves. Most of the time we don’t know “who done it” until near the end of the book. There won’t be much mystery if that wasn’t the case, though there are some novels in that genre that reveal the culprit relatively early even as we still wonder how, when, or if that wrongdoer will be caught.
Your favorite novels that fit both sides of this topic?
My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which satirizes overdevelopment by focusing on the fictional Variances family — is here.