Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Curiously Non-Causal Quality of Coincidence

Does the “curiosity” in the title above merely add alliteration? No, because, sadly, novelists don’t necessarily treat causality and coincidence as antithetical. What’s the cause of that?
A loose definition of plot. Ideally, it stems not from a sequence of events but the sense that choices, usually dreadful until the end, produced this result. E.M. Forster famously observed

“The king died and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it...If it is in a story we say “and then?” If it is in a plot we ask “why?”

Only causality can explain “why.” Forster published Aspects of the Novel back in 1927, but nothing has changed since. A recent Editor’s Blog reminds that “Coincidence messes with the suspension of disbelief because it so quickly and thoroughly reminds readers that they are reading fiction.”

And the cause of that one? With the same probability each time, life can deliver victories or catastrophes. Fiction doesn’t work that way. The bar for credibility is far higher than for anything based on fact. That’s why you risk sounding contrived any time you record exactly what happened.

Beware these trouble spots.

  • Planted Clues
She never checked for phone messages, but because she did, Ellie found the note.

  • Fortuitous Accidents
Before Ed could respond, the doorbell suddenly rang.

  • Convenient Backup
Good thing Mark remembered to take his gun after all.

  • Improbable Meetings
Her first love, out of Sue’s life for thirty years, stood on the subway platform.

  • Impossible Rescues
Though unsure of the sergeant’s location, the troops arrived just in time.

Tip: Without credible motivation, responses and actions seem convenient, if not contrived.

How to fix the coincidence issue?

~ Plan your plot—and causally.
As Don Maass put it, “Every scene should be so essential that if you omit one, the whole thing unravels.”

~ Introduce objects and people in advance.
Never add characters, details, or characteristics only as the need arises.

~ Transform sequentiality into causality.
            Build your story not on what happens, but what motivates subsequent events.

Isn’t it curious how often coincidence crops up in fiction?  Convenient as that might be, only causality can earn an ending satisfying to both you and your readers.

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