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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30 Responses to Plot Fixer # 9 Plots That Rely On Coincidence and Contrivance

  1. philangelus says:

    Thank you for this. I recently read a novel that takes place in New York City, and the sheer number of time that otherwise-unrelated characters met one another went beyond the point of straining incredulity. I lived in New York City for 23 years, and in that time I believe I randomly met someone I knew twice. Twice. And this is with me taking the same subway line as many of my friends, thousands of relatives (well, dozens) and classmates and co-workers.

    It just doesn’t happen that you meet someone in a party on the Upper East Side on Friday night and then on Monday you go to a cute little restaurant in Flushing and hey, there’s the guy you met at the party!

    I now live in a town of 5,000 people, and it doesn’t even happen here.

  2. Laura Drake says:

    Kara, Thanks for this. I’m putting together a proposal, and something was bothering me about it. Now I realize there’s an element of contrivance in it. Not huge, but something that’s MUCH easier to fix at this stage than 6 months of hard work from now! Thanks so much!

  3. Love these posts, Kara … and I had almost escaped the “contrive” or “coincidence” in my last book until the end. Then I heard it and thought … no, she would not do that. It also helps to have great BETA readers pick up the slack when you slip and put something “off” into the story🙂

    • karalennox says:

      Ramblings, sometimes it is hard to see the forest for the trees in your own work. My editor at Harlequin is pretty sharp at spotting when a character does something that just doesn’t seem quite right.

  4. marsharwest says:

    Thanks for this post, Kara, and the great examples. I’m better at catching this than I used to be, but gosh it’s hard in your own work. Usually, after I’ve put the ms away for a while and then take it back out, these incidents pop out. Be better if I could catch it as I go along.🙂

    • karalennox says:

      See previous reply to comment–it really is hard to catch things in your own work, sometimes, particularly if you are writing it over a long period of time and you forget what you put at the beginning when you get to the end! I wish I had the luxury of putting work away but lately it seems I am always up against a deadline.

  5. Jenny Hansen says:

    I get so mad when I read a ton of coincidences in a book! Thanks for laying it out like this, so I’m not tempted to try my hand at it.🙂

  6. Sharla Rae says:

    It’s so easy to use coincidence that I think we sometimes don’t realize what we’ve done. Thanks for this wake up call!

    • karalennox says:

      I think everyone does it at some time or another. And, coincidences do happen in real life. You just have to be very careful how and when you use them.

  7. This is a great post–it’s forcing me to look closely at one particular moment in my NaNo novel. Thanks for the challenge!

    • karalennox says:

      LOL, I don’t even want to think about what’s in my NaNo novel. I had to put it aside to work on revisions so I didn’t make my 50,000 words😦 . It’s going to be ugly when I get back to it.

  8. Pingback: Plot Fixer # 9 Plots That Rely On Coincidence and Contrivance | Hunted & Gathered | Scoop.it

  9. Alina K. Field says:

    Great post, Kara! One more thing to look for in my mss.

  10. Karen Duvall says:

    Aw, it’s too bad your story didn’t work out because I love those kinds of fish-out-of-water plots. But I guess a fresh water trout in the ocean doesn’t work so well. Sigh. I’d still like to read about a hero stuck with caring for a baby even though he has no experience, but learns “on the job.”🙂 That would be fun!

    I can’t think of any contrivances in my current project, but I try to be wary of that. It’s true such things can be easily missed, especially if we’re so close to the work that our objectivity is questionable. My agent has the eagle eye for catching such things. Thanks for the reminder that coincidences can create potential problems in a plot.

  11. karalennox says:

    Karen, maybe someday I will revisit that book idea, but I’ll start over.

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  13. Pingback: Plots That Rely On Coincidence and Contrivance | The Funnily Enough | Scoop.it

  14. Julie Glover says:

    Awesome post! This is always one of my questions to beta readers: Is it believable? I’ve read way too many novels and seen too many TV shows in which I pause to roll my eyes at some ridiculous coincidence. And yet on the writing side, I can how tempting it is to throw a few in–especially with all of the “raise the stakes!” cheers.

    I’ll be thinking about this yet again as I edit my current YA. Thanks!

  15. Yvette Carol says:

    Yeah, I agree with what everyone else has said about this post. Indeed, it’s tempting to fix a hole by sticking a coincidence in it. In my book at the moment, I suspect there may be a coincidence in there somewhere. So, I have to say, it’s kind of nice we’re allowed “one”!🙂

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  17. Wonderful post, Kara. Thank you.

  18. Reblogged this on Ella Quinn ~ Author and commented:
    More things to look for in your WIP.

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