No matter how exciting a story may be, if the plot hinges on coincidences and contrived events, readers will feel cheated. Does the protagonist always seem to find the right person at the right time, who happens to have the exact item she's looking for? What about the hero who overhears conversations that reveal the information she needed? If solutions to problems seem to fall into the protagonist's lap with little to no work, odds are your plot is going to feel contrived.
Plots work best when events happen for reasons rooted in character goals and motivations and not just because the author wanted it to unfold that way. There’s a fine line between situations that read plausibly and ones that feel like a series of unlikely coincidences.
Unlikely is the key here. Coincidences do occur in real life, and often we'll find one or two in a story. Two people visit the same spot at the same time, someone walks away at the right moment, an item lost shows up at the worst possible time. It becomes troublesome when a high percentage of those events rely on coincidence to make them happen, because that stretches credibility for the reader. When reader stop believing it, they stop reading it.
The coincidences to worry about are the ones where the protagonist does nothing to bring about the desired outcome but be there. Your protagonist needs to find X and X shows up exactly when she needs it. The person your protagonist needs to meet just happens to be at the restaurant where she stops for lunch. Your protagonist is always in the right spot to overhear critical information.
The protagonist needs to act and make plot happen. When things fall in her lap, the sense of wining is gone and the story feels stale. It’s no longer about seeing someone struggle for victory, it’s watching them get handed that victory.
(Here's more on creating strong character goals and motivations)
Look at the important plot moments in your story. The ones that couldn’t be taken out without the story falling apart. Ask yourself:
Does the protagonist act in a way that causes this event to happen?
This can also be the result of something she did earlier, such as a previous action that resulted in this consequence. But your protagonist should have done more than just show up at the right place at the right time. The goal led directly (or indirectly) to this event happening.
(Here's more on scene structure and how it affects goals)
Does this event complicate the protagonist’s goal in some way?
While bad things happen all the time, random bad things in a novel usually feel, well, random. Just making it harder seldom makes it a more compelling problem, and it can even verge on melodrama if you take it too far. The event or complication should relate to the protagonist’s goal, or a choice she made. The complication is a result of an action. For example, the protagonist chose to ignore A to deal with B and now A is coming back to bite her in the butt. Or she tried to fix X and that made B happen.
(Here's more on how character choices affects a scene)
Do the other characters in the story, especially the bad guys, have a plan?
Antagonists with plans and goals of their own make much better bad guys, even if you never get inside their heads or see them on screen. But their actions have meaning and that keeps them from feeling random. Their plan is grounded in strong motivations and goals just like your protagonist, so even when the protagonist is trying to solve one problem, the antagonist is chugging along on his own causing trouble.
(Here's more on plotting from the antagonist's perspective)
Is there a plausible reason for the coincidence to happen?
When you need a coincidence to make the plot work, just give it a good reason to occur. If two strangers both have kids attending the same school, them running into each other at a school event is plausible, even if it happens to be the right thing at the right time. But those same strangers running into each other on a random street at a random time will feel contrived. Readers don't need much to maintain believability--they want to buy into your story. Show things aren't entirely random, and they'll go with it.
(Here's more on maintaining believability in our stories)
If your characters are always after something for a reason, you reduce your coincidence level considerably. But they also have to work for it. They have to uncover clues, overcome obstacles, face internal struggles, do the things that make figuring out the solution plausible.
The more they work for it, the more they’ll earn it, and the more believable the outcome will be for your reader.
And that’s no coincidence.
What are some contrived plots that have always bugged you? Have any worked for you?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound