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Posted by on Apr 3, 2013 in Thoughts on Writing | 4 comments

C is for Coincidence

Day 048/366 - February 17thWhat a coincidence, we’re talking about coincidence today.

Personally, I’m not much of a believer in coincidence. I’ve always been one of those people who’s in exactly the right place at precisely the right time. Some people would call it fate or destiny, but that implies having no control over your life.

I prefer synchronicity.

And when it comes to books? I HATE coincidence. In fact, I’m going to go so far as to say that the use of coincidence in fiction plots can kill an otherwise great read.

How coincidence killed the book

There was a time when I thought I would be a romance writer, so I read all the romances I could get my hands on. Some were amazing and some made me wish I’d spent the time scraping bird crap off city benches with my fingernails instead. When I went back to examine why I had such a visceral reaction to these books, I realized it was because sheer coincidence drove the ending.

In one book I read, our hero and ingénue were off in some foreign country trying to steal something valuable…or maybe they were trying to recover something that was stolen. Doesn’t matter. Near the end, hope is totally dead. They’ve been taken by the evil henchmen and are about to be killed. Local authorities are crooked and won’t help. They don’t have a weapon. They don’t have leverage.

They’re screwed, y’all.

Instead of something brilliant and exciting happening, the chick looks at them and is all “You’ll want to lower those weapons. While I was out in the market buying mangoes for that fruit-inspired sex scene that happened about 10 pages back, I just happened to run into a guy I used to blow back in summer camp. Turns out he’s a mercenary now and his men will be repelling in from helicopters in three…two…one…”

Okay, so I might’ve embellished that dialogue a bit, but that was the gist. Did we get to see her meet up with someone in the market? No.  Basically, the writer wrote their characters into a corner and couldn’t think of a logical way to rescue them.

Not only did they cheat the characters, but they cheated the readers.

Deus ex machina doesn’t work in modern fiction

For those of you not down with Latin, deus ex machina is “god from the machine.” It’s also what we call the tired plot device where the unsolvable problem is magically resolved by seemingly divine intervention. Now, if I’m reading The Iliad then I’m okay with this because the gods are all pulling strings to make things happen during the battle anyway. If I’m reading a romance where the characters get themselves into a jam…?

I expect the characters to fix it themselves.

No, I demand that the characters fix it themselves. And I don’t think I’m being particularly unreasonable, either. Let’s face it; bad things usually happen to characters because they did something stupid to land themselves in the bad situation. Unless the characters are kids in trouble, I don’t want the metaphorical mom and dad to run in to the rescue.

Especially if I just spent 250 pages reading about how supposedly awesome these characters are. If they can’t save themselves – or have already put a plan in place to handle things – all the time I’ve invested in them is a waste.

And to be clear, putting a plan in place is totally different than after the fact saying you bought mangoes from a secret mercenary BFF.

When coincidence works

Although I can’t stand it when characters are saved by sheer coincidence, I’m a big fan of when their situation is made worse through coincidence.

I mean, come on. It’s not like all evil in the world is because a mob boss is sitting up in his penthouse pulling strings and making bad things happen. Sometimes you’re going to be late because you just happened to spill coffee all over your shirt and had to go home to change. Sometimes you aren’t going to be able to get the ransom money you need because your bank doesn’t have a vault of gold coins you can swim in like Scrooge McDuck.

Seriously, I think we’ve all had one of those days where it felt like the very fabric of the Universe was out to destroy all our plans and make us take of our rose-colored glasses. I would probably still argue that all these seemingly random events are ensuring that you aren’t where you aren’t supposed to be at the wrong time, but…whatever. We’ll call it a big crappy coincidence.

So, when our hero is under a time crunch to get to the location where he believes the kidnapped child is being held, do we want him to hit all greens on the way? No. We want his ass to get stuck in all the unforgiving traffic pileups that Dallas can dish out.

Did the kidnappers orchestrate these traffic jams? Unless we’re dealing with Professor Moriarty, probably not. It’s just sheer bad luck; coincidence.

So, if the coincidence is going to make your hero’s quest that much more difficult to achieve, it’s a good thing in writing. But when coincidence suddenly makes your hero’s quest easier to achieve, you might want to consider a rewrite.

Otherwise, you just killed your plot.

Next up: D is for the DFW Metroplex

What are your favorite coincidences that complicated a book’s plot? Which instances of deus ex machina made you want to throw the book across the room?

© 2013 – 2015, Sydney Katt. All rights reserved.

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  1. I don’t have a prob with random instances. I’m not sure I understand despising randomness that improves a situation but applauding ones that improve things. I’ve read crappy books that included both situations.

    • The problem is when writers use them as a crutch. Let’s say the protag is having trouble finding the witness to a crime and their car breaks down. If someone who knows the person they’re looking for just happens to come by to offer assistance…awesome. No problem with that. The protag still has to do some work to get to the payoff. But if they knock on the door of the house they broke down in front of and the person they’re searching for answers (and it’s not their house), that’s not the same. The protag is just having everything handed to them from the clear blue sky. While that could totally happen in real life, it’s nonsensical. Life doesn’t have to make sense, fiction does.

      Unless it’s a comedy. More forgiving genre.

  2. Hey Sydney,

    My two Canadian cents worth, which is about 4.5 cents American now. I prefer to call coincidence or synchronicity, “purposeful alignment”. The universe brings us people who are in alignment with our purpose in life at that time. It’s kind of like a universal telegraph system is working all the time energetically, because after all we are “energy”.

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