Sunday, April 25, 2010


You know that moment when you realize that something in your plot is entirely dependent on coincidence? And you think that the reader might scoff because it's so unlikely? And the event is too important to the plot to drop or change radically?

Well. You know, acknowledging this problem is the first step to fixing it. The next step is to explore how it COULD happen if it can't happen coincidentally.

Whenever you find yourself saying, "Just happened to-- So Pete just happened to stop by the restaurant for dinner..." assume that you're trying to do an end run around plausibility. Stop. Think through.

Let's start with an example. Coincidence is pretty common in mysteries, especially classical mysteries (like Poirot), because you need suspects. That is, in this location, you need a whole group of people who had motive to murder the victim.

Here's one I just encountered.
Heroine and heroine are at a country inn in England (this is in the 19th Century). A decade ago, the heroine left her home in Russia. Now at the inn, she encounters a Russian man who worked for her parents. That night, he's murdered. Oh, and I need some suspects, besides her, right? So here's the Foreign Office official who was posted to Russia back a decade ago, and the mysterious Frenchman, a former soldier who was on Napoleon's ill-fated march to Moscow, and....

But the biggest coincidence is simply that someone in England runs into this Russian guy and cares enough to murder him.

So first step is accepting there's a problem, that this is too big a coincidence. As soon as I realized that, I admitted also that I did need for things to transpire pretty much this way-- the Russian has to accost her at the inn, the other suspects knew him and were also at the inn. So I spent a bit of time thinking how could that be so?

Well, because everyone planned it. I think the Russian was trying to blackmail the couple, and so he sought them out in London. The Frenchman is hanging out with a bunch of emigres in London (he's just a red herring, so he doesn't actually have to know the Russian at any point, as he didn't actually kill him or seek him out. He's just foreign, which is suspicious.) The Russian was following her (to give her something of her father's), and Foreign Office couple (suspecting he knew something about their nefarious activities in Russia, and no, I don't know yet what they are :) followed him to the inn, and so did the Frenchman. So there's only a bit of coincidence at the beginning, but after that, everything's planned. But of course the murderer wants it all to seem like coincidence ("I just happened to be passing by...") so there would seem to be no motive. I will doubtlessly refine as I write, now that I accept that there's too much coincidence. And I'll emphasize things like... oh, London is a big city, so it's not as unlikely that foreigners would be there as in a remote country inn. And I'd imply that these were not invisible people (they were rich and well-connected) so they'd be easy for the Russian to find if he wants to track them down.

Anyway, it's hard to acknowledge that too much of our plot relies on coincidence. But acknowledging that is really the first step to remedying it. And all you have to do is think, "If this same thing happened because someone made it happen, how would it happen?"

I do have to point out one problem that comes up, however! I had a book where I had a seeming coincidence in the opening. It wasn't a coincidence, actually-- that was just a clue that the man knew the main character in the distant past. But when I sent the first three chapters to an agent, she rejected it, saying that the plot relied too much on coincidence. But it didn't, I wanted to protest. It just seems like coincidence, but all makes sense later! But it was too late. (And that might only have been the ostensible reason for rejection anyway.) So I'm not sure how to hint that it's only LOOKS like coincidence. Thoughts here? What about in the query letter? What about in the scene of seeming coincidence itself?



Phyllis said...

I don't know how to give a hint that a coincidence is not real, but I'd like to defend the agent who rejected you. For how long did the reader assume it was a coincidence? When is the story resolved? The reader can only judge what they've read so far. When the reader can't suspend their disbelief in a given coincidence, they will put the book down that very moment and not 200 pages later.

For me, the key to believable coincidences is the motivation of the characters. Everybody needs a very good reason to be in that place, and the reasons are individual. If the motivation is random or far-fetched, it stretches belief, and the coincidence becomes obvious.

I've read past loads of well-motivated coincidences without batting an eye, and later when I analysed the plot, I thought, wow, there's a coincidence, why didn't I see it before.

Just my two cents.

Dave Shaw said...

Alicia, I'm always more forgiving of coincidences if the characters acknowledge that the coincidence is unlikely, and look for hidden reasons. That makes it part of the mystery, and I'm a lot more willing to wait for the resolution in that case. When the characters ignore the implausibility, that suggests to me that the 'invisible hand' is nothing more than the author's need, and that I have more difficulty with.

I hope the characters looking for the unknown reason for the coincidence works for other people, because I have a fair bit of that in my WIP. I'm proud to say that there are perfectly valid in-universe reasons for the 'coincidences', but they're not discovered until the main mysteries are also resolved. I think it works, but I'm only the author who needs it to work. Grin.

Julie Harrington said...

I suppose in a query one could say "In what seems to be coincidence" or "Fate seems to bring" these two people together yadda yadda yadda. Then wrap it up with something about being a purposeful event like... What seemed to be a casual meeting was a carefully designed plan for revenge." Dun dun dun! ;) Okay totally cheesy, but I'm just working off the top of my head and it's late. LOL.

I don't know about hinting at it in the opening chapters. I mean, I'm assuming you wouldn't want to give too much away too soon, right? So maybe some sort of comment/detail/mention about how said character doing the "coincidental plotting" is a very meticulous person, always thinks all their steps out, is a list maker or someone who can see problems light years before everybody else. That could be a hint that, in his world, there are no coincidences. Only plans. Heck, that could be something s/he actually says before they get axed. Give it enough room so that the reader might not make a mental connection with that comment in the situation at that time and their murder.


Edittorrent said...

Phyllis, I agree-- can't blame the agent for noticing the seeming obvious. She noticed it. She didn't know that I'd meticulously set it up to just LOOK like a coincidence. I think I should have explained in the query-- "By coincidence (or maybe no coincidence at all, they run into..."

But I'm thinking actually I might have made it more intriguing in the chapters, like the man thinks that this is too big a coincidence, or...?

Doesn't really matter-- if she'd have liked it, she would have asked me to fix and resubmit, so I think she probably had more problems than that. :)

India Drummond said...

I had that problem in my latest MS. I had to really go through and root around with my characters, trying to understand real motivations for why they were doing what they were doing, when, where, etc.

Overall, I think this made it a much better book!

Some coincidence is fine... in my case it was just me being lazy.

Thomas Sharkey said...

Dear Theresa.

First of all my sincere condolences.

I have followed your comments on writing for a while, and as a beginner author (with nothing published) I found them of value, or so I thought.
Please clear something up for me, as I try to write the "modern" way", using active structure, showing and not telling where possible, using (if that is the correct phrase) narrative distance, concentrating on POV, as opposed to head hopping, also reading "good stuff".
In order to compare my efforts with "bestseller authors" like Mark Billingham, I purchased, with some difficulty (I live in Germany) his latest work, “Bloodline”.
It is difficult to describe how I felt (sick, is the nearest) when I came across passive structure and "telling" without any "showing" and with enough "padding" in the book to fill the Wembley stadium. In fact I found his "best seller" totally boring. Talk about disengage! I finished up reading the pages containing the most dialogue and after a while I ended up going to the last page, out of curiosity.

In his first book, Gallows View, first published in 1987, Peter Robinson gives a good example on head-hopping on page 2 in the last two paragraphs. His prose is corny, lamentable, it wouldn't pass your 1, 2, 3 test.

So, should I concentrate on passive structure, ignore POV pad my work with uninteresting facts and narrate the whole story, while disregarding my characters, or should I try sky-diving without the parachute?

Suggestions welcome.

BTW I would run "onto" the street, and not "into" it.

green_knight said...

Thomas, in my ideolect (British), you run into the street.

Anonymous said...

I judge 5 or 6 contests a year for unpubbed authors and I've found that if there's a major coincidence that sets up the plot or gets it rolling, there are usually other plot and conflict issues. I think it can be deemed another one of those marks of a newbie. Do you guys find the same thing to be true of submissions in your slush pile?

green_knight said...

I don't think that inciting coincidences are anywhere near the problem as coincidences in the conclusion of a story. After all, we decide to tell the story of the moment _things changed_ - not the years where the protag goes to work and comes home, but the day they find the seven-sided coin in the street. (On the next level, there's got to be a reason for the coin to be there.)

I'm always unhappy when writers don't explore the consequences of their storylines and handwave events; but stories where _everything_ has a watertight explanation can feel boring and contrived, too.

Riley Murphy said...

Thoughts here? What about in the query letter? What about in the scene of seeming coincidence itself?

I’d definitely spell it out in the query letter. Example: The hero knows his well-orchestrated plans are working, when the heroine accepts their impromptu meeting as accidental. Or something along those lines.

In a scene? That’s an interesting idea. I mean, you could make the reader aware of the fact that it isn’t a coincidence - without revealing the importance of the why it isn't. Example: Burke was glad she accepted his reason for being here. He congratulated himself. His plan was coming together perfectly.

Personally, I’d probably have the heroine directly focus on something else during this initial meeting - maybe on the hero’s rudeness. Then I’d have him think the above - about him purposefully being there and his plan. That way, the reader wouldn’t be sure if his plan was just to throw her immediately off track by being rude, or if there was more to it than that.

Murphy :D

Adrian said...

I, too, believe that a coincidence that gets the story going is not a problem. (If it's one big coincidence and not a series of them.) My favorite stories are those in which the average Joe or Jane is pulled out of there everyday lives and into another world, an elaborate conspiracy, or a larger-than-life challenge of some sort.

Concluding on coincidence is bad. The conclusion has to be driven by the hero/heroine's actions. They may begin the story by being passive, but there has to come a point where they turn and start driving the plot--or at least trying to. More power if the actions they take near the end are ones they definitely would not have taken at the beginning of the story, as that demonstrates that the character has grown or been changed by the events.

Again, a coincidence to get into trouble doesn't bother me at all. If average Jane is abducted by aliens in the middle of a corn field, you could say that's a coincidence. Why her and not someone else? Because she happened to be the one in the corn field. I'm OK with that. There doesn't have to be some larger plan--like the aliens selected her in advance because of some quality she possesses and waited for just the right moment to grab her. That's been done.

Luke Skywalker was just some kid who longed to get off his boring planet and got more than he bargained for when he met the droids. In a sequel, we learn that he has a special connection to the larger events. That's fine, but it felt a little too pat. And then the story goes crazy with coincidences. Luke partnered with Obi Wan, who just happened to have been Darth Vader's teacher. Darth just happened to have captured Luke's twin sister. It gets a little soap-opera-ish if you think about all the unlikely things that had to happen to make Star Wars.

If you feel you must acknowledge an inciting coincidence, simply having the characters acknowledge the possibility ahead of time might diffuse the concern. Perhaps the English inn couple are actually having an illicit affair. As they plan to visit the inn, one is concerned that they might be seen by someone who knows them. The other could remark, "it's in the countryside, what are the odds?"

Jami Gold said...


I'm not Theresa or Alicia, but I'll give you my take on your question.

Unfortunately, it's not uncommon for best-selling authors to get lazy. Whether from tight deadlines or ego, they are sometimes not edited by the publisher as closely as they used to be - or should be. Many authors will start with a critique group or partner and will stop getting that feedback once they're under contract and faced with deadlines that don't allow 2-3 months (or more) of critiquing. The marketplace doesn't discourage this behavior in many instances, as once an author has a loyal brand-name following, readers will buy their books just because they buy everything by that author. If they're still bringing in the sales, no one will insist that they change their ways.

All this adds up to some best-sellers being the worst role models for us newbies. We aren't allowed to get away with the same things they are. :)

Let me share the best way (in my opinion) to see the level that we need to perform at if we wish to break into the industry. Find a relatively new successful author: debuted within past 5-7 years (so the market is more comparable to what we're currently facing than the way it was 20 years ago) and has 5+ successful books published with real publishers (many authors will fizzle after the first 1-3 books, due to declining sales) Read their 3rd and 4th books. These books might show some improvement from their debut and shouldn't be lazy-writing yet.

The absolute worst book I've read in years (and only the second in my life that I ever considered literally throwing against a wall - luckily for its sake, a neighbor had lent it to me) was by a huge matriarch in the industry - and I didn't finish it. It was filled with "As you know, Bob,..." info dumps. Well, if Bob knew it, they wouldn't be talking to each other about it, would they??? *sigh* I really hate crap like that. Could the author have gotten any more lazy? Anyway, I hear you, and it drives me crazy. Fine, they may have paid their dues earlier, but that doesn't mean that I have buy it now. I'm just glad I didn't pay for that book. :)

Hope that helps!
Jami G.

Jami Gold said...

I agree with the other posters about how to deal with coincidences.

As Dave said, if the characters acknowledge it, it makes the coincidence part of the story and not just something the author did for convenience sake. And if it ties into the larger story (maybe even the theme), it can enlarge the story. Otherwise, coincidences can make a story feel smaller, almost like a small town where things just "happen" to tie together and overlap.

And JT and Murphy gave some good ideas about how to make this understood in a query letter and how to hint at it in opening chapters.

Adrian pointed out that trouble coincidences feel different that lucky coincidences. Readers are more likely to believe in unexpected tragedies. We know bad things happen to people for no good reason - random car accidents, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, etc. But most of us don't know someone who has won the lottery. :)

I think the way to make lucky things work is to make sure they grow out of the story: Character A helped B, so later it would make sense for B to return the favor, or disguise good luck as bad luck (have character suffer, but in the end, it works out better for them). Those types of things happen in the real world as well, so they're believable.

Jami G.

Elizabeth Lynd said...

Thanks for this helpful post. I referenced and linked it over at my own blog. Thought you'd like to know. :)

Edittorrent said...

Thomas, see blog, because the answer got too long, so I put it on the actual blog. :)

Bethany, good thoughts-- that's another "mark of the amateur"!

And yes, all who said an initiating coincidence isn't the big problem. That makes sense. A coincidence that makes things harder for the character (by causing conflict) is more fun than one that makes things easier (like the cavalry just happening to show up in the end to solve things).