You can picture the scene. It’s a mystery-solving, crime-stopping TV show, with a main character who can drop witticisms even as he finds clues and shoots people. Despite his capabilities, however, he isn’t much for technology— but that’s okay, because he’s got his bespectacled techies to search traffic cams and enlarge photos for him. This week on TLA: Big City (TLA short for Three-Letter Acronym), the main character must solve the murder of a middle-aged woman, dead by a combination of prescription drugs she didn’t need. It’s a murder that slowly but surely unravels, until the main character hits a wall. None of the suspects has had any of those drugs, or has a history with them. It’s a dead-end.
Meanwhile, the main character’s sister buys him a smartphone, much to his chagrin. He has no idea what to do with the thing, and gives it to one of his techies at work to figure out. She sets it up quickly and begins telling him about the features, at all the wrong times, when he’s trying to concentrate on case-related things. Finally, he’s fed up with the case and decides to sit down with the techie and learn how to use his device. She shows him the basics as he watches, barely comprehending; setting up email, social media, and subscribing to news alerts. She even shows him how to use Google. As an example, she Googles the victim’s pharmacist and, scrolling through the results with the main character, finds an old news story. That story gives the clue the main character has been looking for, which casts suspicion on the pharmacist and solves the case.
Minus the witty banter and specifics of the case, I just gave you a one-hour crime show plot. I didn’t bother with character development, character conflict, or even character names. I didn’t bother with the detective’s jurisdiction, or scary buildings they have to investigate, or any of the red herrings they find along the way. Even without all that, though, I gave you a rudimentary plot that would fit almost any crime show.
Here’s the deal, though. That plot has a contrivance, a coincidence that makes it resolve within its one-hour slot. It was a complete accident that they found that information about the pharmacist. As we know, coincidences are okay if they help out the villain— if they help out the main character, they’re not.
But that’s the thing— crime shows use this sort of thing all the time. The main characters will stumble upon the case-solving clue more often than they do by trying a new approach. By the low point, they’ve done all that they can think to do. The only thing that saves them is, yes, a coincidence.
And yet these shows get away with coincidences, week after week. How do they do this? What makes them so special and invincible?
It’s the subplot. The infamous crime show subplot which begins just after that chilling prologue detailing the murder. The main character will have an argument with someone, or one of the techies will be distracted by an upcoming gadget reveal, or— in this case— the main character’s sister will buy him a smartphone. Watch any crime show and you’ll see the subplot, making sure we engage with the characters as well as the mystery itself.
But how does that help to dissolve the coincidence? That’s easy. As I said in my recent post about subplots, when you use a subplot, the least you can do is resolve it. In this case, resolving it was simple— it meant having the main character sit down with the techie. In order to make the resolution tie in with the main plot, that talk gave the final clue to the mystery. And because the coincidence grew naturally from the subplot, and because the subplot grew naturally from the main plot, the coincidence was no longer a coincidence. The coincidence became allowable, and the subplot became less distracting, all in one blow.
This is the sort of thing which, in revision, will blow your mind. As you’re working hard at your novel, you’ll find yourself stuck on a contrivance— how do I make sure this character is in the right place at the right time? Then, all of a sudden, you realize the character can be there to meet her friend who she hasn’t seen for years. The subplot ties in with the main plot, curing a coincidence at the same time. Happy accident!
But is revision the only place to do this? Of course not. This sort of thing can be done in the outlining process or the first draft. In outlines, I’ll often say things like “MC discovers clue” or something like that. If I don’t write it correctly, that could become a contrivance— why not fix that now? Brainstorm a subplot that fixes the problem, and maybe paces things correctly in the earlier parts of the novel. If I decide not to outline the novel, there’s still opportunity. Writing through a contrivance you know is there is like torture. Instead of suffering, fix it then and there. Write a note in the text that tells your future self to go back and add a subplot that culminates in fixing that contrivance. It’s easy enough, and it’ll save you plenty of pain.
Subplots are the answer to many problems, even that of coincidences. Try it out for yourself, and watch just one crime show episode to see what I mean. Provided the show has been running for a while, that subplot will be there.