What a Coincidence
Sat Jun 04 2016
Every manuscript I critique for a client teaches me something about writing.
You'd think that would stop eventually. But so far it hasn't. This week I finished a manuscript that taught me some things about the dynamics of coincidence within stories.
I've never been very fond of times in stories when the protagonist just happens to stumble across the critical clue, or just happens to run into their long-lost flame while traveling in Italy, or whatever it might be.
Now that I have a clearer idea why I don't like that stuff, I want to share it.
Why things happen
People have two basic explanations for why things happen:
- Something caused it. We see an effect, we automatically look for a cause.
- It just happened randomly. It was some form of coincidence.
If you think about your life and how you've experienced it since you were a baby, the first one tends to dominate. Cause and effect is usually the explanation. You learn that when you let go of things, they fall. You learn that glass can only withstand so much of a hit before it shatters. You learn that sharp things will hurt you.
Humans care about cause and effect because understanding it allows us to explain the world. We feel better when we can explain to ourselves that this happened because of that.
The force of explanations
We care so much about explanations that we even make them up to explain genuinely coincidental events.
Two days ago, while biking to work, a rabbit dashed out in front of me from the verge. It missed my front wheel by inches, startled the crap out of me, raced across the bike trail and smacked directly into a chain-link fence. Cue Elmer Fudd, Cwazy Wabbit.
Not half a mile later, another one did the exact same thing.
Now, thankfully, I missed both of these insane little bunnies. Rationally, I know this was just a weird, random coincidence. I've been biking that stretch of trail for years, and never once before last Thursday has a rabbit jumped out at me like that. Then two in a row? What's that about?
What, indeed. That's the question, and it sent me looking for a cause. Did their bunny parents disapprove of their forbidden love, leading to some kind of Romeo-and-Juliet suicide pact? "Since we can't be together, let us throw ourselves in front of the two-wheeled monsters!"
I doubt it very much. But that's where my mind went, looking for any explanation that would help me make sense of those bizarre events.
Visible causes make for plausible effects
Most writers strive to make their stories realistic, for whatever that means within the norms of a given genres. But whether a story involves humans or elves or talking animals or intergalactic energy beings, the events of the story still tend to follow the rules of cause-and-effect.
When a story does this, it feels realistic to the reader. The events of the story become inherently plausible, because we can look at the effect and find its cause. As readers, we can explain the event to ourselves just like we explain all the normal stuff that happens in our real lives.
Yet, pretty often in the manuscripts I critique, writers include events that don't seem to be related to anything. They come out of the blue, leaving readers unable to find the cause, and thus, unable to explain it to ourselves. The event is pure coincidence, and therefore feels suspicious.
Faith in the writer
Although real life includes actual coincidences, and although readers engage in "willing suspension of disbelief" while they read, on some level they always know that a story was written by a writer. That the events are all crafted towards some end. Thus, they ought to have causes.
When we can't find the causes, the story starts to feel haphazard or random. We lose faith that the writer has any kind of a plan for where the story is going, and without that faith, how can we be confident that the writer is going to give us a good story experience? How can we be sure that we're not going to put all the effort to read the first 300 pages, only to have the whole story fall apart when a random car accident kills the protagonist? If the story feels random, we can't.
Readers will follow you to the ends of the earth so long as they trust that you have a plan. When you throw a bunch of coincidences into your story, we lose that trust.
Fixing coincidences: add an event
Often, writers need for very specific events to happen in order for their plot to go the way they have in mind. Equally often, writers need those events to come as a complete surprise to the characters. You have to catch the characters unprepared, on the back foot, in order to kick off whatever mess they're going to spend the story getting themselves out of.
The easiest option is to let the inciting event happen randomly. But then your whole story is based on a coincidence, and that's no good.
To fix it, just give readers a reason. Depending on where in the story the event comes and how much material has come before, just link it back to something that has already happened. If necessary, go back to earlier pages and include some kind of foreshadowing about the event. Let us see the rolling pebble that eventually causes the avalanche.
There's a great example of this in Tom Clancy's novel The Sum of All Fears. In that book he needed a submarine to suffer a freak accident and sustain some damage that would become a plot point. He had the submarine hit a log that's floating out in the ocean and crumples its conning tower or some such thing.
If the words "freak accident" set of your coincidence alarms, good. They set off Clancy's, too. After all, what's a log doing out in the middle of the ocean? That's pretty random, right?
It is, which is why near the beginning of the story, many chapters earlier, he included a scene of some Japanese Shinto monks selecting a tree from a forest in the northwest that was to be some significant structural and design element of a new temple. And which is why he included a scene later of a storm at sea which caused the giant log to go overboard off the ship that was transporting it.
Problem solved. The coincidence is no longer a coincidence, because now when the submarine hits the log, we immediately understand the cause-and-effect relationship. Once it happens, we even kick ourselves for not seeing it coming! We knew the log was out there. We knew the story involved submarines.
By clearly establishing the cause ahead of time, Clancy makes the eventual effect feel almost inevitable, rather than what it actually is: a highly unlikely way for a submarine to get damaged.
Fixing coincidences: use what you already have
In the client manuscript I just finished, there was a similar issue: the main character's girlfriend suffers an assault by a bad guy, which then kicks off a whole chain of events in the story.
But the attack came out of the blue. The attacker selected his victim essentially at random. The story offered no particular reason why the attacker should have just happened to pick her, out of all the potential targets he could have picked. It felt random. Capricious, even.
However, earlier in the story, the protagonist seriously humiliated a rich, powerful, ego-driven man.
You can already see where this is going: why should the attacker be some random bad guy, when he could have been hired by the humiliated rich guy to target the protagonist's girlfriend as a form of retribution against the protagonist?
That's what I encouraged the client to do: work with what was already in the story. Look for ways to tweak existing story elements so they become the cause for later effects. Presto, no more coincidence.
Sometimes coincidences really do happen. It's fine to use them once in a while in your stories, especially for things that don't strongly affect the plot. Just try to use them sparingly. The rest of the time, give readers a reason why something unusual happened and ground that reason in something earlier in the story.
And the more strongly a given event affects the plot, the more that event demands a cause. As Tom Clancy famously said, "The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense".