A Coincidence in a Story Can Be a Good Tactic

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I’ve blogged on coincidences, and Steven James’s article, “What a Coincidence” (Writer’s Digest November/December 2017) hits on similar ideas. But James discusses a fresh angle.

James says that at the beginning of a story, we can capitalize on using a coincidence, because at the onset of a story readers are open to coincidences. He adds that the coincidence can be the catalyst—the inciting incident—that sends the character on his journey.

That’s exactly what happens in the opening paragraph of my work-in-progress. But I’ll still heed James’s warning that the farther the coincidence gets from the beginning it becomes more unbelievable. It’ll take work to make a reader buy a coincidence mid-story. And a coincidence at the end rarely works.

So let’s test this with an example.

1. Coincidence in the beginning

image by MabelAmber

Down and out, Dillion sits on a park bench with the hotdog he bought from a vendor. He drops the mustard packet. When he leans over to retrieve it, he spots two tightly rolled cylinders under the bench that look like their formed from crisp greenbacks. He picks them up and unrolls one of the powdery cylinders. The apparent coke-sniffing device is formed from three one-hundred dollar bills. The other cylinder is the same.

This financial boon allows Dillon to reclaim his guitar from the pawn shop and pay the entry fee for a music competition that sends him on his musical career. The story is off and running.

2. Coincidence in the middle

If the above happens in the story’s middle, the reader might think Dillion finding the money too easy to get back his guitar and enter the contest. Readers have gotten to know Dillon and want to see how he solves his money problems.

image by ArtisticOperations

It could be more believable if Dillion considers selling drugs and is meeting his first-time contact at the park bench. The contact is checking out Dillion when a cop cruiser creeps by. The contact digs into his pockets and throws the two money cylinders under the bench and flees. Dillion saunters away from the bench. When the cops stop and question him, he tells them the man had approached him about buying drugs while he was minding his own business. They search Dillion, and finding nothing, leave. He goes back for the cylinders and heads for the pawn shop.

3. Coincidence at the end.

Readers like to see some kind of growth in a main character, or at least a realization. In this case, the story ends with Dillion finding the money cylinders under the bench, and now he has a chance to enter the music world.

Readers will be unsatisfied, even if the second scenario of outsmarting cops is employed. During the whole book, readers have watched Dillion’s downfall, and those two coincidental solutions show the reader that Dillion is lucky and little more. Readers don’t see him overcome anything. The ending based on a lucky coincidence doesn’t give readers any reason to believe Dillion will make it in the music world.

How coincidences can make or ruin a story. Click to tweet.

How do you feel about coincidences cropping up in a novel?

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Amanda Larrowe’s lack of trust sabotages her relationships. The English teacher and award-winning author of middle-grade adventure books for boys has shut off communication with friends and family to meet her January 2 book deadline. Now, in the deepest snow accumulation Richmond, Virginia has experienced in years, Camden Lancaster moves in across the street. After ten years, her heart still smarts from the humiliating aftermath of their perfect high school Valentine’s Day date. He may have transformed into a handsome, amiable man, but his likeability doesn’t instill trust in Amanda’s heart. When Cam doesn’t recognize her on their first two encounters, she thinks it’s safe to be his fair-weather neighbor. Boy is she wrong

A 50-Item Checklist You Won’t Want to Leave Your Scene Without

“Scenes are capsules in which compelling characters undertake significant actions in a vivid and memorable way that allows the events to feel as though they are happening in real time.”

—Jordan E. Rosenfeld (Make a Scene)

checklist  

Scene Checklist

Purpose

[  ] Has 3 reasons the scene should exist. Possibilities:

  • Progresses or changes character’s goal
  • Moves plot forward
  • Adds conflict between opposing characters
  • Introduces a character
  • Develops a character
  • Foreshadows
  • Raises stakes

Structure

[  ] Clear beginning, middle, climax (disaster), and end. 

[  ] Opening hook – lines that grab reader.

[  ] Opens mid action – not description or explanation.

[  ] Action scenes – goal->conflict->disaster. 1

[  ] Reaction scene – response->dilemma->decision. 1

[  ] Point of view (POV) character – character with the most to lose in the scene – reveal immediately.

[  ] Reader immediately grounded in who, what, where, when, why.

[  ] Setting – revealed through what POV character reacts to, sees, hears, does.

[  ] Something’s at stake, or story stakes are raised or reinforced – make situation worse, or stakes matter more.

[  ] Fear hovers – character might not meet her scene goal.

[  ] Actions –interesting; advance plot or exhibit character; performed in real time. 

[  ] Pace – appropriate for what’s happening.

[  ] Mood, tone, or author’s voice – realistic for scene, and the book’s genre.

[  ] Obstacles – people, events, emotions, secrets get in the way of characters meeting their goals.

[  ] Climax (disaster) – relevant to the plot or characterization.

[  ] Element of suspense, surprise, twist, or foreshadowing – creates anticipation; delivers a worthy payoff relevant to plot or characterization.

[  ] Metaphor or symbol.

[  ] Ending hook – transitions to next scene; entices reader to read on.

Hero/Heroine

[  ] Clear wants, emotional and physical – drive actions, dialogue, thoughts.

[  ] Pushes away from something negative; pulls toward something positive (emotional or physical). 1

[  ] A hint of victory; two hints of failure. 1

[  ] Conflicting values.

[  ] Reader can identify or empathize; knows whom to root for.

[  ] Secondary characters – clear purpose for being in scene.

[  ] Hints of wounds, fears. Or competencies.

[  ] Reactions shown – to stimuli that affect feelings.

[  ] Balanced emotion, dialogue, internalization (considering scene type).

[  ] 5 senses included – sight, sound, taste, touch, smell.

Dialogue

[  ] Tight, every word needed.

[  ] Interesting; moves scene forward.

[  ] Natural – leaves out boring parts of actual dialogue.

[  ] Characters’ voices – distinctive; could know speaker by his word choices.

[  ] Reveals or hints at emotions, undercurrents, or secrets.

[  ] Reveals character, plot, conflicts, or bits of important information.

[  ] Includes a zinger – jibe, bold truth, dry or humorous comment. 1

[  ] Action beats or simple speaker attributes (said) – identifies speaker.

Avoid

[  ] Clichés – in dialogue, characterization, plot.

[  ] Coincidences (something drops in to save the day).

[  ] Vagueness (it, that, pronouns that don’t tie, etc.).

[  ] Clever writing that adds nothing; confuses.

Remove

[  ] Boring, purposeless sentences and paragraphs.

[  ] Detailed body movement descriptions.

[  ] Unnecessary explanations.

[  ] Weasel words – except when they work in dialogue.

Style

[  ] Shows often; tells as needed.

[  ] Clear, concise, uncomplicated sentences.

[  ] Correct words (dictionary and thesaurus).

[  ] Power noun, verbs.

[  ] Short narratives when necessary (getting from one place to another).

[  ] Active voice – limit “was.”

[  ] Positive form used when possible.

[  ] Backload – ending words (sentence and paragraph) that tie to passage’s meaning.

Idea from Susan May Warren’s MBT Deep Thinkers Retreat manual.

Transform your scene with this comprehensive checklist. Click to tweet.

What would you add to this checklist?

You Should Rethink the Coincidences in Your Stories

“Coincidence cannot replace motivation.” — Debra Dixon

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I’ve been reading Debra Dixon’s GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. Her discussion about coincidences spoke to me.

I wanted a scene between my hero and his widowed sister-in-law, the heroine, concerning an ugly secret they share. Their low opinions of each other cause them to avoid each other’s company.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

1.  A solution: At an apartment complex, the heroine hears bad news regarding the secret. The hero drives by and sees her exit. He stops to talk to her, which irks her.

2.  Why it doesn’t work. Ms. Dixon might say something like this: “The reader will roll her eyes, Zoe. She’ll want to know why the hero stops to talk to the heroine when you’ve already shown he’s uncomfortable around her and glad he’ll never have to help her again. He’d more likely pretend he didn’t see her.”

 The hero has no motivation, no good reason, to stop and talk to her.

3.  The needed stake. Fortunately, I developed a prior scene between the hero and his mother. He mentions he’s glad God’s one-time call for him to help his sister-in-law is over. His mother is upset the heroine has been distancing herself from the family. She thinks her son is God’s answer to draw the heroine back. She implores the hero to befriend the heroine.

The hero loves his mother and dislikes her being upset, and him feeling guilty. So, he’s motivated to contact the heroine. 

Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

4.  A more satisfying solution. The hero knows if he calls his sister-in-law she’ll invent an excuse to avoid him. So, he’s motivated to drop in on the heroine. But he sees her car leaving the parking lot. He doesn’t want to disappoint his mother when she asks again if he’s befriended the heroine. So, he’s motivated to follow her. At an apartment complex, she enters before he can reach her. He decides to wait awhile for her to exit. He’ll ask her to dinner, and if she declines, he can tell his mother he honestly tried.

This solution gives the hero a reason to meet the heroine at the complex.

5.  Why Motivation helps tension. If the two bumped into each other, the heroine would have little reason to think he’s trying to make her life miserable.

In the first solution above, the heroine and the reader would be baffled that he stopped to talk to the heroine without a good reason.

The more satisfying solution supplies tension and growth:

Image courtesy of photostock at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of photostock at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When the heroine appears distressed as she exits the apartment, sympathy forms in him. She’s surprised with his presence. She declines dinner and demands why he’s there. With her attitude, his sympathy wanes. He privately blames his mother for getting him into this situation. Frustrated, he blurts his promise to his mother. This, the bad news she received inside the apartment, and her need to tell someone causes her to weep. Pricked by guilt at his selfishness, he realizes his mother is right. The heroine needs a friend. They talk.

 

Ms. Dixon teaches more about different kinds of coincidences. I recommend her book.

Why coincidences hurt your story and how to fix them. Click to tweet.

 What kinds of coincidences in a book bother you?

Calculated Risk by Zoe M. McCarthyApril 9-10 enter a chance to win Calculated Risk on author Sharon Srock’s blog.