Today our ongoing discussion about plot, and the most invasive (yet common) plotting flaws, will focus on coincidences. Readers love to complain about them…. When your plot gets so convoluted that the only solution is a coincidence that’s too convenient, too lucky, and too farfetched, you know you’ve got some rewriting to do.
I’ve totally been there. My very first novel has lots of coincidences like that, which is one of many reasons why, as dear as that awful story is to me, I’ll never attempt to publish it.
Here are some coincidence examples from my cliche-ridden story about a knight and a princess who fall in love, realize it can never be and decide to move on, then join together to save their kingdom from a scheming duke whose allies kill them in the process:
(Yeah. It’s that bad.)
- The knight and princess meet by chance at one day when she sneaks out of the Palace to go to the market and walk around
- When they meet, the knight is with his best friend’s sister, who happens to be in love with him but is too shy to say anything about it
- The knight’s father, who left his wife and son years ago, happens to be at a tavern, with his lover, one day when the knight and his friends also make an appearance.
- Eventually, when on his way to meet the princess, the knight hears about the princess’s impeding betrothal by eavesdropping on a conversation between two dukes who are walking together after dark in the same deserted market streets where the knight and princess first met.
So, how bad actually are these coincidences? There are lots of factors to weigh in deciding whether a coincidence can work for you in your plot.
After all, coincidences happen in real life, and no rule says they can’t happen in your fiction. Anything that’s a part of life is fair game for a believable, good, and cohesive story.
(There are very few hard and fast “rules” I apply to myself or to others in writing. Even if a device is generally overused, abused, or used poorly, there are a story and an author out there that can make use of it to great effect.
I advise second guessing, and getting beta reader input, and making sure you can articulate WHY you are using a device such as coincidence. I suggest making sure you can defend what that device brings to your story that you can’t deliver another way. I don’t say, “Never write coincidences.”)
Coincidence is one of those plot devices that work best when used sparingly. Consider:
- HOW MANY COINCIDENCES DO YOU HAVE? One good, solid coincidence can fit well within the suspension of a reader’s disbelief. Four or five? Not so much. That was one big problem with coincidence in my first novel: the sheer number of coincidences was just too much to feel credible.
- HOW LIKELY/ BELIEVABLE IS A COINCIDENCE IN THE WORLD OF YOUR STORY? Remember how my princess and knight ran into each other in the market? I made sure to write into the story that the princess sneaks out to the market pretty regularly, if not every day. That makes the coincidence of the meeting a bit more believable than if this was the first and only occasion their meeting was a possibility. The obvious correlation here: the more unlikely a coincidence is to happen, the weaker it will feel to your readers as a legitimate plot progression.
- WHAT ROLE DOES COINCIDENCE PLAY IN YOUR PLOT DEVELOPMENT? Generally, I feel that coincidence works better–in that it feels much less forced–as a device to begin a plot or subplot rather than to end one. When you need coincidence to wrap things up, you disappoint readers because you have written characters, and asked readers to invest in characters, who can’t get things done without substantial help from the universe/fate/karma/God.
- HOW CRITICAL IS COINCIDENCE TO PLOT DEVELOPMENT? Is it the hinge on which everything turns? Or is it a smaller factor, one of many pieces that work together to solve a puzzle? Another obvious connection, but one that it’s worth breaking down as a writer: The more critical to the story mere coincidence is, the more likely it is to weaken the fabric of your plot.
THE COINCIDENCE THAT ISN’T A COINCIDENCE
One thing that I’ve always loved as a reader, at least in the mystery/whodunit genre, is the surprise “coincidence that isn’t.”
You know what I mean: what a main character, and you the reader, judge to be a coincidence turns out to be the product of carefully planning and/or manipulation. It’s not a coincidence at all.
This can be a fun device if, again, not too much hinges on it (depending on genre) and the “coincidence” isn’t too unbelievable or ridiculous.
Remember, there will be a period of time that a reader will judge the “coincidence” to be a genuine, real chance occurrence. And if it’s just too outlandish or unlikely, some readers might stop reading before the truth comes out. That’s never good.
ALL ISN’T LOST
Never forget that editing after the fact (after a draft or two) might help you tone down a problem coincidence, if you have one.
Reforming your plot in a major way might be your best option, but depending on the circumstances, you might be able to lower the prominence, up the degree of likelihood, and bring down the importance factor of a trouble coincidence.
I’ve done this…. I’ve changed dates and locations of coincidences to settings that make more sense. I’ve altered the setup of coincidences–the “just before”–so that a coincidence feels less forced and feels less critical. I’ve toned down the content of coincidences, cutting some factors so that my coincidence involves two things lining up instead of three or four.
Don’t underestimate the value of a little tweak, or even two or three little tweaks to the scenario that is too coincidental! The effect of small changes can prove larger than the sum of their parts.
So, what do you think about coincidence in plot? Where for you, as a reader, does the line get crossed? When is something just too lucky? What are your guidelines for coincidence as a writer? How do you handle it as a plot device?
If you liked this post, you can sign up to follow my blog by email at the top right of the page. You might also enjoy these other posts on plot…. and don’t forget to drop by Wednesday, for the continuation of this “plot issue” series. We’ll be moving on to pacing your plot development.