December 7th, 2012

Plot Fixer # 9 Plots That Rely On Coincidence and Contrivance

Writers In The Storm welcomes back double RITA finalist, Kara Lennox, a.k.a. Karen Leabo with her Plot Fixer blog series. Don’t miss Kara’s writing tips the first Friday of every month.

KaraHere are the links for Parts 1-8:

Part 1 – Your Premise Isn’t Compelling
Part 2 – How To Fix a Weak Opening
Part 3 – A Lack of Goals
Part 4 – Is Your Conflict Strong Enough?
Part 5 – Raising The Stakes
Part 6 – 5 Tips To Help Improve Your Story’s Pacing
Part 7 – Pick Up the Pace
Part 8 –  Is Your Plot Predictable

By Kara Lennox

In my critique group, I am known as the Coincidence Nazi. I cannot stand when an author uses a coincidence to further the plot, because it’s easy. That’s just lazy writing.

Here is Kara’s Rule of Coincidences: One per book. That’s all.

Coincidences do occur in real life. And if you’re writing, say, a paranormal, where you have a curse or a spell or some object that keeps landing in the possession of brides left at the altar, that is one thing. The coincidences are part of your world-building.

But if you need to have a scene between the hero and heroine, so you have them run into each other at the grocery store, and then at the post office, and then in an elevator, and then at a ballgame … ugh, ugh, ugh. If your character is trying to solve a mystery, and she keeps stumbling on clues by total dumb luck, another triple ugh.

Many romances are fueled by a hero and heroine who are initially antagonistic toward one another, but because they are forced to interact, they eventually learn things about each other and come to understand each other’s motivations, so they can work out their conflict. But simply throwing them together haphazardly is not the way to do it. You have to craft a plot that forces them together–naturally, logically. The best stories move along due to the characters’ decisions and actions–not by stuff simply happening to them.

Sometimes a coincidence, or bad luck, or an accident can be the inciting incident that gets the ball rolling in a book, so to speak. Say, a woman is getting a manicure, and she overhears the conversation at the next station involving the manicurist’s boyfriend. And the woman realizes that the manicurist’s boyfriend and her boyfriend are the same person. This is a coincidence. But it could happen, and it could work as a first scene, the inciting incident that causes our heroine to cancel her wedding and go on to do … whatever.

But you can’t have that same woman continue to overhear conversations to further the plot, That would qualify as a contrivance, when the author manipulates the plot for her own convenience. Now, what you could do is have the heroine deliberately eavesdropping for the purpose of collecting information she needs. Do you see the difference? In one case, she overhears crucial information by dumb luck. In the other, she is deliberately pursuing the information. The first case is contrivance; the second is a legitimate, character-driven event.

Some luck plays a role in every life, and can be included in your book. (I confess, I’ve thrown a tornado or two into my books.) But having the character drive the story, rather than the author, is much preferred.

Paranormal authors are particularly guilty of manipulating the plot for convenience’s sake. They take liberties with their magical world. If the heroine has telekinetic abilities, then suddenly in the middle of the book she develops telepathic abilities because the author needs her to learn something from the villain that the villain would never tell her, but those telepathic abilities are never explained and never occur again … that is a contrivance.

But even in romantic suspense, or straight romances, authors sometimes have their story people behave irrationally or against character, because they need something to happen.

Here is what I do. If, as I’m writing, I discover that my character needs a particular skill that has never been mentioned before, I go back to the beginning and plant that skill. As an example, at the climax of a screenplay I wrote, the heroine swings from a chandelier and catches a flying gun with her feet. (Okay, this was a comedy, remember!) This woman was a former stripper, and I already had a short scene at the beginning where she was doing her act onstage. So I added a trapeze and had her catch a flower between her feet as part of her act. Later I revealed that she was a former child gymnast with Olympic hopes whose career ended with an injury. It all fed into her character beautifully.

Now I will tell a story on myself. I wanted to write a book about a tough guy who was stuck taking care of a baby. I wanted it to take place in a remote area of the Ozarks, and when the baby gets sick, I wanted the heroine to be the one who could step in and help him take care of the baby. So I needed the hero isolated. Where he couldn’t just drive to a hospital.

So here is what I came up with. He was a secret service agent, charged with protecting a Chinese diplomat’s baby who had been threatened during some sensitive negotiations. I had him and the baby delivered to this remote cabin by helicopter. Then I had him LOSE his satellite phone, his only means of communicating with the outside world. The heroine found him when she trespassed on his property hunting for a medicinal herb, which was fine. But then I had him hike off the mountain with her so he could get to a phone, and then I just have him hanging out in this tiny hill-country community so he and the heroine can be together and fall in love.

How can I begin to list the problems with this story? I just read the rejection letter from my editor (and looking back, she was incredibly kind, she should have blasted me out of the water for this one). Really, it makes no sense. Why would a man who knows nothing about babies be assigned to do this, without any help? Why would he be left in a remote area, with no possible means of back-up should something go wrong? Why wasn’t he just taken to a normal safe house? Why did he incompetently drop his phone down a crevasse? Is he a bad agent or what? Once he hikes to a place where he can make a phone call, why does he stay there? Why doesn’t he return to his cabin or request a different safe house?

I had this picture in my mind of all these hill folk coming to the aid of our hero when the bad guy descends, defending him and the baby Ewok-style, with homemade booby traps and what not. This, in fact, was the ONLY thing my editor liked about the story! But to get there … surely I can come up with something that makes more sense.

I mean, we are writing fiction, and fantasy, but logic must still prevail.

Look at your story now with fresh eyes. Do you have any coincidences? Do you manipulate events to further the plot? Are things happening to the character, or is the character making things happen? Are your characters’ actions properly motivated? Report back, if you make any key discoveries.

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