As I’m using it here, “inevitability” means “the sensation that the story couldn’t have unfolded any other way.” It’s a sensation better suited to tragedies than comedies most of the time. It’s also easy to simply declare something “inevitable” when in actuality the plot could have unfolded some other way and is simply going this direction by authorial fiat. Buried inevitability is better if you want to go this route at all (and you may not); otherwise, you’ll wind up using the characters as pawns of the plot.
1) Rooted characters.
There are two kinds here. One is the character who digs in and refuses to move. The other is the character who, for whatever reason, gets into a situation where he isn’t going to change his mind, though he could. Fickle, indecisive characters who can and do have the chance to flit away are bad news for a sense of the inevitable. Trying to trap them is like trying to swat flies. The author may end up with inevitability-by-fiat because it’s the only way to swat the buggers.
Rooted characters may be stubborn. They may be bound to a place by ties of loyalty, and thus refuse to run away from their home village even when they know that the Feared King’s army is coming. They may have sworn an oath to stay where they are. They may be too proud to change their minds under the circumstances even if they normally would. I would advise, however, against having a character who stays in one place “out of an instinctive knowledge that he would be needed.” This is fiat again. Worse, it suggests that the author couldn’t think of an in-character reason to have that person get trapped, and probably points to weaknesses in the plot. Similar reasoning applies to “somehow, he knew he had to stay” and making the character’s presence the result of a dare or a bet. It all points too much towards the element of chance. While you can involve chance in your evocation of the inevitable, it has to be subtler than this (see point 7). Dares, bets, and sudden flashes of intuition also run the chance of looking really fucking silly when the choice is to keep the dare or bet, or obey the flash of intuition, and die, as opposed to running away and living. (On the other hand, see point 3).
The second kind of rooted character is trickier to handle. He does have the chance to change his mind. He’s not going to. Why? Some trait of his personality, or some circumstance that surrounds him, keeps him from doing so. The reason this is so tricky is because, once again, of the doom that’s usually simultaneous with the arrival of the Inevitable Whatever, henceforth IW. If the audience sees an escape from IW and is screaming at the character to take it, they will easily lose patience with him if he stays, ‘cause there’s a fine line between bravery and stupidity. You have to demonstrate that he doesn’t see it as an escape, and explain why.
2) Guided repetition.
Probably the most conscious way of invoking the inevitable, this can still work as long as you don’t use it like a sledgehammer. Tap delicately instead, and flake off only what you wish to. Otherwise, the story looks manipulated and forced, not so much carved as tortured into position.
Examples are having the story start and end in the same place, or with the same event; having someone say the same words to trigger the IW that triggered a massive tragedy in the hero’s past; having a character who had warned everyone about his true nature all along and been ignored (such as telling people that he was a traitor) turn out to have been telling the truth; having a riddle or repeated phrase show up often outside of its original scene and then matter in the IW; having a minor plotline blaze to life in the IW when before it had only occurred in small and cryptic mentions.
You can see why this is risky, I hope? Not only inevitability by fiat, but Plot Device, is written all over repetition like this.
The trick, of course, is to integrate the repetition with the other parts of the story that contribute to the IW. If you know that the characters have to go to the building where the story began at the end, and you also know that a murder will take place there on the last page just as it did on the first, then give the characters reasons to go there. No “somehow,” no “something told him to listen,” no “John was walking up the road when he was seized with the wild urge to go to the haunted house on Main Street.” In a fantasy, this is somewhat easier than elsewhere, since you might have, oh, mind control magic, but still, don’t overuse it. Even if a character appears in the haunted house on Main Street against his will, the villain still has to have a good reason for drawing him there.
It’s a great deal of effort, but make it look effortless, and probably no other path to the inevitable will repay you so well. The moment of realization that strikes down like a hammer blow is one of the nastiest, and best, surprises that you can ever spring on a reader.
3) Actions taken in honest ignorance.
I prefer this to the methods I discuss in point 6, because it feels less like cheating. (You may have noticed that that’s important to me). The villain may indeed be manipulating the heroine. She thinks that she’s doing the right thing by letting his henchman go, because said henchman has promised to reform, and in reality that’s the action that will doom her, because said henchman goes and spills her secrets to the villain. But please, don’t scatter clues in the plot that the heroine ignores either because, well, she just can’t believe her best friend as opposed to the reformed henchman!, or because the author makes her stupid enough not to notice them.
This is great when the author has two plot threads running, one of a character with knowledge and one of a character who’s acting in honest ignorance of what the other character knows. There may be the temptation to scream, “Argh, no, don’t go in there/do that/say that/rely on that weapon!” But that’s a much different temptation than the one to scream, “Damn you, how can you be so stupid? The henchman told you it was a trap!”
So, please, please, please, if you want to use this path, keep the ignorance honest, or develop iron-clad reasons for the heroine to ignore warnings or clues that come her way. As long as the protagonist is still a protagonist, you want readers to be sorrowing as they watch him or her step into a trap, not cheering because that idiot finally got the comeuppance he or she deserves.
4) Change that doesn’t go quite far enough.
This is probably the most heartbreaking sense of the inevitable for me, because I can see that, if the character had just made one more decision, or had one more private conversation with the heroine, or learned of the threat to his friend’s life one hour earlier than he learned of the attack on his country perpetrated by said friend’s people, then things might have been different—and, since inevitability so often propels tragic or brutal fantasy, better.
The best way to get here is to unfold the change slowly, patiently, organically. You don’t have to be obscure. The audience can see where it’s going; in fact, for a tragedy to work, they have to be able to see that. And then, when it’s yanked up short and the final chance for a happy ending is taken out of the hero’s hands, the sickening feeling of “Oh, no” is likely to come.
Oddly enough, this means that one of the favorite tools to inflict change on a character, the sudden epiphany or revelation, is right out. Most of the time, they amount to a declaration that the character is different now, without showing how he came to be that way. This is one reason that so many romances don’t work for me. I don’t see the characters grow into love; the author just tells me they’re in love now, much the same way that she told me they hated each other at the beginning of the book. But with a tragedy, the decision will seem arbitrary, not natural, or like the character is stupid or the author is interfering, if there is no traceable process for how the character didn’t become the person who could have made that final leap out of the trap.
(One of the options on the next poll is going to be how to change characters by gradual process. I don’t think it’s concentrated on often enough).
5) Lack of will to make the one right decision.
Yes, this is a troublesome one, given how many fantasy protagonists are extreme individualists and devil-may-care troublemakers and political mavericks. Fantasy’s piling on of extreme situations, the ones where it seems anyone really would do anything, doesn’t help, either. If the world has gone crazy, why shouldn’t it go crazy enough to let the hero make an eleventh hour decision and get the hell out of Dallas when he knows that the evil sorcerer is going there?
But to use this path to inevitability, the one decision that would permit escape has to be the one decision that the hero won’t make. And you have to follow the same precautions as in point 1, making the lack of will seem natural and in-character for him, rather than giant hands of God reaching down from the sky to move the pawn into position.
I think you can see why this path to the inevitable doesn’t get used a whole hell of a lot.
My favorite way of doing it is to trap the character between two of his own opposing principles. Rather than committing fully to one of them and making a clean break with the other, most people would try to float in between and keep both principles intact as long as they could. What’s the natural impulse if the choice comes down to killing the one person you love or destroying the world? Most people would want to figure out a way to do both, of course, and most authors let them.
If you want the inevitable, you could set it up on a time-frame, or in such a metaphysical way that only a pure choice is possible; any wishy-washiness and the trap springs. The hero takes too long to make his decision, because he’s working out ways to let his true love survive. Or the heroine turns at the very last moment and throws the object that’s dooming the world through a dimensional gate even as she hauls her love away by the hand, forgetting that the embodied Dilemma told her the absolute truth: any attempt to break her sworn word results in her losing both love and world. And down comes the IW.
So, tricky, yes, and not only for the reader; an author is probably going to be tempted to flinch or pull her punches with this one more than any other in the sack. But then the IW really didn’t have to happen, it could be fooled by fakery all along, and you don’t get to call it inevitable. If you choose this one, commit, and follow through.
I don’t like this one. I’ll mention it, but I don’t like it. (Another suggestion on the poll will be on good uses of silence in fantasy, as opposed to uses of silence that piss Limyaael off).
This is the one where the hero gets trapped because another character knows about the trap, but keeps the knowledge from him, or he always gets interrupted just as he’s about to talk to the character who could tell him the truth. I don’t like it for two reasons:
- The character keeping silent usually doesn’t have strong enough reasons for keeping silent. No, “I don’t know if he would believe me” is not enough of a reason to satisfy me. If the hero is the kind of person who doesn’t believe the other character, then at least it will be his own stupid fault he walks into the trap, rather than an irritating use of silence. And really, secondary character, you’re caring about his good opinion when you know that he’ll die if you don’t reveal the truth?
- The interruptions are always really fucking contrived.
So. If you really must use this one to send your hero flying into a trap, I think the best way to is to make the hero to blame for the silence. He has every chance to ask, and he doesn’t—not because someone calls him on his cell phone just then and he forgets, but because he’s, say, so self-confident that he arrogantly decides he needs no one else’s help. And then, inevitably, his own self-confidence bites him in the ass later.
Contrived silence, like contrived Big Misunderstandings, pisses me off badly.
7) The clash and meld of personalities.
This is the subtlest way, and possibly the most difficult. In this one, the author pays attention not only to the protagonist’s personality, but to the personality of every other character surrounding the protagonist. And the IW descends because all of them act consistently and naturally, and react to each other consistently and naturally, such that it doesn’t have any choice but to descend.
I’ve spoken before of plotting as the clash and meld of personalities. Person A takes Action A for his own natural reasons, which Person B resists because of her personal history, and Person A pushes back because his own natural reasons are there, and Person C gets involved by virtue of her preexisting, totally justified friendship with Person A, and Person B steps more and more towards the role of enemy… It involves the utter forsaking of plot roles, or rather, the integration of plot and character such that there is no telling the two apart. It forsakes contrivances. It forsakes people doing things because of sheer chance.
But, at the same time, it looks like sheer chance. And the IW looks like inevitability. It looks, in other words, like real life, while being so highly orchestrated that it’s the furthest thing from it.
This is, obviously, hard. I’d encourage people to use it, but I don’t even know how many authors want an inevitable feeling for their stories, let alone want to use this method of plotting. So it’s here because I admire it and love it to pieces, but I accept that it won’t work all the time.
The poll—with more suggestions!—will be up in a little while, and so will comments to comments.