What A Coincidence!

Your main character is walking down the street.  “Hey,” he says to himself, “this walking business is tiring and inefficient.  I really need to get to the villain’s secret headquarters, and this sign says it’s still three miles away.  I wish I had a taxi.”

A taxi pulls up beside him and the driver leans out.  “You called, sir?  Your phone must have pocket-dialed, and I heard you ask for a taxi. I was only a few feet behind you, so I figured I’d help out.  There will be no charge, sir– my last passenger overpaid me, and I feel generous.”

What is this?  It’s a coincidence, of course!  How does one pocket-dial a taxi just when one is about to ask for a taxi?  How does one even know a taxi driver’s number?  How are taxi drivers polite?

And how does all that happen by accident?

These are called coincidences, and they have a bad habit of resolving plot twists too easily.  Your main character needs a gun?  Waddayano, the crate he just crashed through is full of them, even though it just passed through airport security.  He doesn’t know how to shoot it?  It has a little sticker on the side that says “Point at anyone wearing angry expressions and pull little crescent trigger thing.”

Suddenly, your main character is waltzing through plot twists, plowing through every problem that presents itself.  There is no conflict anymore– he forces a henchman to tell him the direction of the secret base, hails a taxi by accident, and drops a convenient refrigerator on the villain.  Look at that, the story is finished in three pages.  Is there suspense?  No.  Is there conflict?  No.  Are there stunning plot twists?  No.  Is it a classic good-vs-evil story?  Yes.

Stories have to be hard for the main characters.  What fun would they be to read if they weren’t?   The finish isn’t spectacular unless the journey is, and the journey isn’t spectacular unless it’s hard.

Deus ex machina, on which I recently posted, is just a big coincidence.  The same technique is used to solve both: foreshadowing.  If the main character is in the shipping area of a gun factory, it wouldn’t be surprising if he crashed through a crate full of guns during his battle with a henchman.  In that case, it’s a coincidence that works– he still can’t shoot the thing, but that’s a small problem.

But not all coincidences are bad.  Let’s look at the example again.

Your main character is walking down the street.  Or rather, running.  He is being chased by a large crowd of minions, led by the villain himself.  Several of them are shooting at him, and none of them have such lousy aim that they might shoot each other.  The main character hears the villain say to himself, “This walking business is tiring and inefficient.  I really need to catch up to this hero quickly so I can kill him.  I wish I had a taxi.”  Suddenly, a taxi pulls up and offers its services free of charge.  Could this be the hero’s final hour?

It’s not, let’s be honest.  The hero will succeed, defeating the villain and blowing up cars as he gets the girl with time to spare.  But still, was there suspense?  Yes.  Conflict?  Yes.  Plot twists?  Yes.  Classic good vs evil?  Yes.  All this simply because of…

Coincidences!  Funny how that works.  (Coincidental, maybe?  Let’s not go there.)  But instead of coincidences in the hero’s favor, these coincidences were in the villain’s favor.  There doesn’t have to be any foreshadowing for the villain, either.  He wants to find a recently-sharpened axe lying around a pacifist’s house?  Sure thing, boss.  The main character and the reader might be incredulous at his good luck, but they won’t be put off by such a blatant contrivance.  After all, it makes the journey harder and the story better.

The audience is remarkably callous in that respect.

Coincidences for the main character are bad.  Coincidences for the villain are good.  Know when you use them and know which is which.

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75 thoughts on “What A Coincidence!

      1. Sure. In one of the first scenes, Cluny the Scourge finds out about Redwall abbey and the fabled treasure within. (Coincidence.) Cluny actually rides a horse (coincidence) down the road toward the abbey (coincidence). He could have found no transportation and gone the wrong way, never even knowing about Redwall. He had a fighting force already (coincidence) and took up residence in a church nearby (coincidence). The people within were easy to drive out (coincidence), and the people at the abbey aren’t good fighters like his group (coincidence).

      2. Thank you, sir. That is a lot of coincedences. I found another as I was reading a random section last night. When the Shadow steals the tapestry, the guards are all asleep.

        Question: are coincedences in a protagonist’s favor always a bad thing? Like if a character gets badly injured and someone happens to show up (or lives down the road) who can help. I don’t mean a paramedic.

      3. Yep.

        No, but it can’t solve a major problem for them. If they were perhaps walking down a deserted country road, hoping someone will come up from behind with whom he/she can ride for a while, that person can come up to them just a few minutes late and find him bleeding in the road. If that makes sense. Whatever coincidences you give the protagonist, make sure they’re outweighed by the bad.

  1. “The audience is remarkably callous in that respect.” Liam…does that count the writers who are reading? Just curious.

    And also wondering, although perhaps I should look it over for myself, how are plain old coincidences different from deus ex machina?

    1. Yes, it does.

      Deus ex machina is enormous, wrapping up entire plot lines in one fell stroke. Coincidences do the same thing with tiny conflicts and large ones. Deus ex machina is a coincidence, but not all coincidences are Deus ex machina.

  2. Must say that I’m not keen on using coincidences much, but sometimes they’re just . . . neccessary. Regrettable, but true. They’re not terribly interesting.

  3. In defense of that coincidence with the taxi driver, the same exact thing happened to me the other day! Except on the way to pick me up, the guy accidentally ran over the villain, who happened to being going out to get a new vacuum, since his last one had malfunctioned.

    1. And in addition to coincidences in the protagonist’s favor, I also hate when the villain decides to take the time to explain every little plot detail right before he kills the main character, since “You’re going to die anyway.”

      1. Good example. The monologues get boring, but they must happen if the protagonist depends on something to come a few seconds later. I think someone ought to find a different way to defeat the antagonist.

      1. I see. As of now I wouldn’t recommend it, but then again I’m not finished with the book. (The reason I’d not recommend it is because of the massive amounts of swearing and the fact that I was completely bored with the main character and her flashbacks.)

      1. I thought maybe you had changed your blog design. This is better than some other things I have only just noticed. Only a few years ago, I realized that Trespassers Will is not short for Trespassers William.

      2. Oddly enough, shooting trespassers is not what I associate with Piglet. Rabbit maybe, but not Piglet.
        But Pooh Bear is an imposter. He lives under the name of Sander’s. GASP! You don’t suppose that they are ALL undercover agents, do you?! And all this time, I thought they were just stuffed animals!

      3. Owl can spell. He can write, too. But just because you can write, doesn’t mean you are a writer.
        But Owl could be a writer. He is a storyteller. And his style is like Victor Hugo’s in that he could stand to learn brevity.

        Did you figure out how to summarize Les-Mis in six words?

      4. One who writes is a writer. One who reads is a reader. One who sails is a sailor. One who computes is a computer. One who types what they write is a typewriter. Therefore, in order to be an author, one must auth. That’s just logic.

      5. *GASP!!!* Look at part of this article Mom sent me!

        “Secret documents saved from a skip have shed new light on Winnie the Pooh author AA Milne’s clandestine role as a propagandist in the First World War.
        All evidence of MI7b, the secret military intelligence unit where AA Milne was based, was feared lost – because government officials ordered the destruction of its entire archive.
        But 150 classified documents were taken home by Captain James Lloyd and remained a secret for nearly 100 years, including a never-before seen satirical poem by Milne.
        It imagines what famous great writers like Tennyson and Shakespeare would have written had they been propaganda writers in MI7b.
        Milne became a pacifist after the war and the verse shows his struggle with the work he undertook.
        The secret stash of files were due to be dumped into a skip during a house clear-out, but fortunately was rescued by Captain Lloyd’s great nephew Jeremy Arter, 61.
        The document-filled trunk is the only surviving evidence of MI7b’s existence and provides a crucial insight into how the children’s author responsible for Winnie the Pooh worked for Military Intelligence.”

        I WAS RIGHT! THEY ARE SPIES!!!

      6. Ooooh. The streaks. I didn’t notice. *facepalm* Not observant enough, yet. (I’m training to be a spy. Okay, so not really. But still.)

    1. Brandon Sanderson, writer of epic fantasy, completer of the Wheel of Time saga formerly by Robert Jordan, writer of the Mistborn trilogy. Howard Tayler, creator of Schlock Mercenary, the comic space opera. Mary Robinette Kowal, Hugo-winning author of several short stories, author of regency novel Shades of Milk and Honey. They’re all fantasy-ists, and all but Mary were there from the beginning of the podcast.

  4. When a coincidence works in the villain’s favor, it’s called Diabolus Ex Machina 🙂 I thought I was clever for making it up, but then I googled it. Alas, it’s already on TVTropes.

  5. “He stopped. Something was definitely not right. He changed the capitalized words to two very much smaller words: “the Phils”.”

      1. And now you can brag that someone has called you awesome instead of just saying you’re awesome. If you want to wait until I’m a bestselling author, that’s fine. It might even be better to wait.

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