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Friday, June 6

What a Coincidence! Creating Plots That Don’t Feel Like Accidents

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series (and Amazon bestseller), Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, 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, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, the Amazon bestseller, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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  1. Oh, wonderful! My muse just dropped a bomb 65K words into my story. This post helps me tweak previous chapters to lead up to this new (awesome!) twist. I also find that asking questions...And keep asking questions - about your characters, the events, what they want etc. keeps those unbelievable coincidences at bay.

  2. Beautiful and well timed. It's so easy to forget to make things happen naturally out of plot when you already have the plot in mind. Thanks!

  3. Amen, and that's all I'll say on this today. I've done enough "Editorials" for one day.

    Okay, I will say this, you can over-plot in the attempt to avoid excessive coincidence, and readers can spot that too and still be mad that you left nothing to the imagination, and feel just as disappointed awkward for the same reasons as being too coincidental.

    Unless I'm mixing up being over-coincidental with leaving nothing to the readers imagination.


    Now I'm done.


  4. I hope my protagonist has to work for his goals enough. I don't usually enjoy storylines where the protagonist succeeds by virtue of twists of fate rather than by their own choices and resolution.

  5. Roberta: Oh good! I love those bombs, even when they make me rewrite :) That's usually my subconscious putting together pieces I didn't even know i was leaving behind.

    Elizabeth: It is. You can get so caught up in what you planned you get word blinders. It's good to step back sometimes and look at the bigger picture.

    Taurean: Oh definitely, over plotting is a problem same as under plotting. And I think you just gave me next week's post! Thanks :)

    Paul: Same here. The journey is way more fun than the destination.

  6. Brilliant post Janice. I feel very shaky on coincidence and believability. You've given some great pointers to guide me.

  7. Anon: Oh good :) Glad to hear that.

  8. Thanks for your advice.

    I relied on such co-incidents in my work. Well, I now part-understood what could go wrong in the WIP.

    Thanks dear

  9. Great post. Also, it's important to give coincidences a reason. If people happen to meet somewhere, give them a reason to be there. If your protagonist needs to meet a certain type of person, have them decide to go where that kind of person would be. If they "just run into" someone from their past, make it at a place they'd both be likely to go. If they need an item, have them seek it - maybe even have them overlook it a few times.

    The CRITTER Project and Naked Without A Pen

  10. All My Psts: Most welcome!

    Lemur: Oh totally, thanks for bringing that up.


    This is the best - and funniest! - advice I ever saw regarding contrived plots. :-)

  12. My first manuscript had all kinds of coincidences. Thank goodness for critique partners!

    1. They are worth their weight in chocolate, aren't they? I think first drafts can be prone to a lot of coincidences as well. Might take a second pass before we can figure out a logical way for what we want to have happen, happen.

  13. Very helpful! I am working specifically on this problem in my first draft and this article is specifically helps me think about it. Solution: Person A (protagonist) runs into person B (someone mentioned in a letter for whom she is looking) because she know he loves hiking a certain trail and so she continually goes to that trail for exercise and enjoyment as well to look for person B.

    1. I would believe a "coincidence" in that case. She's actively trying to make that happen.