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.