We Know What’s Gonna Happen But That’s Fine With Us

Lisa GenovaIn 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.

35 thoughts on “We Know What’s Gonna Happen But That’s Fine With Us

  1. If not the chief enjoyment, surely it is a principle one in any ongoing series, comedy or detective or thriller: that the hero will live somehow through it, which gives one the confidence to follow the plot, whether farce or mystery, through all its novel twists and turns.

    Things may look impossibly dark for Jack Reacher and/or Bertie Wooster, but each will be able enough after to man the next installment.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great point, jhNY! Fans of series rely on the hero or heroine surviving to live another book, against all odds.

      And the authors, of course, don’t want to lose their protagonist meal ticket.

      Like

  2. Hi Dave,

    For me, the obvious example of a predictable novel is anything that’s a re-read. I think it says a lot about a writer if you’re happy to revisit their work, even when you know word for word what’s going to happen.

    In The Death of Ivan Ilyich, a man named Ivan dies. There’s not much more to it than that, and yet I found it really absorbing and am grateful to you for recommending that Tolstoy short story.

    Bryce Courtenay’s April Fool’s Day is about the death of his son. The book opens with Damon’s death so you absolutely know that it won’t have a happy ending, and yet Courtenay breathes so much life and energy into the people on the page that there was a part of me hoping that there would be a magical AIDS cure, and a miraculous recovery, even though I KNEW that it just wasn’t going to happen.

    Being a bit naughty and moving away from books, I’ve been completely swept up in the TV series Supernatural. I find it very predictable in a way. You always know who the good guys are. You always know that they’re going to win, and they’re going to stay good guys. I mean, they can go to hell, and kill a bunch of people, but somehow they’re still good, and it all gets cleaned away. Having said all that, I just love spending time with the two main characters. Their acting and dynamics together are so much fun, whether they’re killing vampires, or just sharing a beer. And I guess like literature, it’s more about the words and feeling at that exact moment. Is it too corny to say it’s about the journey, and not the destination? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Susan! I agree — a reread novel is the ultimate predictable novel! (Unless one rereads it after so many years that what happens has been forgotten. 🙂 )

      And, yes, a work like “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” indeed telegraphs its main plot point with its title. You’re right that that Tolstoy story was still extremely compelling. Glad you liked it!

      AIDS-themed novels can be really tough to read, but “April Fool’s Day” sounds excellent.

      I wasn’t familiar with “Supernatural.” Just googled it: Wow! It’s been on for 15 years! That’s impressive, as were your thoughts about that TV series.

      “…it’s about the journey, and not the destination”? Often true!

      Like

    • We followed ‘Supernatural’ like religion for the first 2 seasons, but after the apocalypse was set loose upon the world at the end of that second season, everything that followed seemed a bit anticlimactic, and we tapered off eventually, then entirely. Perhaps we should have persisted, given your longstanding interest.

      I did appreciate the character Ruby from those early days: a bad un who did enough good things that after much misgiving and reassessment, she eventually charmed the boys into believing they had in her an ally. Alas, she did all those good things so as to be in position to do one very bad thing: unleashing Hell.

      The Ruby Principle, as I subsequently named it, has helped me to analyze and understand several actors and institutions in contemporary politics, so I guess in that sense, “Supernatural” was time well-spent. See NYT re Whitewater and Hillary’s emails for examples.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m actually only up to season six of Supernatural. Lucky I’ve seen season 2! I think the show gets better with each season, and I can’t see any reason that I wouldn’t make it to the final episode. I understand your point about the apocalypse being the peak of the show, and everything after that being anticlimactic, but for me, it’s all about Dean and Sam’s relationship, and there’s always drama there, whether they’re trying to stop Hell being unleashed, or if they’re just going out to dinner. I also like that the people behind the scenes seem to respect their fans. There are lots of little nods to the audience, and more than one episode that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense from a plot point of view, but has obviously been written just because it’s a lot of fun. if you want to check out just a single episode that has no real bearing on the overall story, episode 15 of the sixth season is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m glad you brought up Historical Fiction for this post, because it was the first thing that popped into my head. Of course as a student of history, I know a lot about what is coming in the bigger picture. However, the smaller story within that picture can still often be a heart stopper. The best example I can think of is pretty much anything by Kate Quinn (The Alice Network and The Huntress, especially). I also just finished a novel that came out very recently – A Bend in the Stars by Rachel Barenbaum (hope I spelled that right). While I was familiar with a lot of the historical events there, I couldn’t put that book down because of the incredible story she set up. Even in the case of biographies or memoirs, or stories about particular units like Ambrose’s Band of Brothers, I am always anxious to see how people fare, even if I know the overall outcome going in. Another example I can think of outside of the hf genre is the summer hit “Daisy Jones & the Six.” The plot summary inside the cover tells you exactly what happens. The band breaks up. But why??? It was a real page-turner finding out! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, M.B.! Excellent points! As you note and allude to, the overall history in a historical novel might be known but we don’t always know what will happen with specific characters — who are of course often fictional, even as they might interact with some real-life historical figures.

      Kate Quinn is definitely on my to-read list from your previous mention of her work. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hi M.B.

      I’d like to ask you if you’ve read John Jakes’ Kent Family Chronicles? They’re about the only historical fiction that I’ve read, and I really enjoyed them. If you’ve read them, I’d be interested to know how you rate them?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I agree that the reading experience can still be good, even if you know the outcome. I remember reading War and Peace for the first time, knowing that the romantic couple of the novel was Pierre and Natasha, but still Tolstoy managed to make me think that Natasha was going to marry Andrey and that I somehow had gotten the Pierre and Natasha bit wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Elisabeth! That’s a very interesting angle: knowing an outcome in a book even as the novelist (Tolstoy, in the case you mentioned) is so skilled that an authorial “misdirection” is almost believed!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Dave, I’m back for a short while we are getting ready for the move back to Chester Co. I was struck by the photo of Lisa Genova, one of my current favorite authors. I loved “Still Alice,” “Left Neglected,” and “Inside the O’Briens.” You know that none of the main characters are going to be magically cured by any of the diseases or conditions that they suffer from, so there are no great surprises to be had. But she is such a great writer and knows her stuff about everything she writes about. There’s another one about a young boy with autism, which was good but not great.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Welcome back, Kat Lit!!! (Even for a short while. 🙂 )

      Lisa Genova IS a tremendous author, and I hope to make “Left Neglected” the third novel of hers that I’ve read. She definitely knows her stuff (being a neuroscientist and a dedicated researcher), and keeps readers very absorbed even as we know the general parameters of a lot that will happen.

      The best of luck with your move!

      Like

      • Thanks Dave! Btw, the other book by Genova that was about an autistic 8 y.o. boy is Love, Anthony. For some reason I couldn’t come up with the title. I guess it didn’t have the same impact on me as most of her others! Bill put together a floor plan that has my furniture laid out, at least for the bedroom, but he still needs to work on the living room. But I’m sure he will give it to me before I move in.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thanks, Kat Lit! Even if “Love, Anthony” isn’t as good as some of Lisa Genova’s other novels, I’m sure she has interesting things to say about autism.

          I hope the floor plan works out!

          Like

  6. Although some would argue that the Bible fiction. But even those who don’t categorize it thus recognize that in the New Testament Book of Revelation has a predictable end: God wins. But it’s quite a read to get there.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The first thought that came to my mind was the billion dollar romance market. Yes, we are fine when we know what’s going to happen. In fact, if something does not go as planned, we are disappointed, even annoyed. That is what is so wonderful about books – there is something for everyone, whether it be certainty or unpredictability. Always a joy to stop by.

    Liked by 2 people

    • My pleasure, Dave, glad you liked it! Even though some aspects were predictable (the relentless decline of Huntington’s Disease), there were a few surprises in the story for me, including one big one that forced me to pull over my car while I was listening to the audiobook. Such a poignant story. I can’t wait to see what Lisa Genova writes next.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I did very much like the novel, Mary Kay. 🙂 And, yes, definitely some surprises — among them, Rosie’s dramatic crisis of faith and Joe’s positive reaction to Katie’s boyfriend. I will definitely read a third Lisa Genova book in the not-too-distant future!

        Like

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