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“But people don’t act like that.” [W. Somerset] Maugham pointed to the grave dangers coiled in that treacherous phrase. Our demand for probability grows more and more stringent. We balk at coincidence and accident. We invariably expect the characters who are presented to act like ourselves. “People don’t act like that?” True enough — MOST people don’t act like that. Your story is not ABOUT most people. The true enemy of your fiction is not improbability but imaginative unbelief.
— Stephen Koch, The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction, (page 185)
As I’ve been working through my current draft of All’s Fair, there’s a certain element that keeps coming up that I think needs to be addressed: contrivance and coincidence.
We’ve all see or read stories where characters end up in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. Or they find what they need to beat the bad guy minutes before facing off in the final fight. Or they are about to die and rescue arrives just in the nick of time with no explanation of where they were and how they got there so fast. It’s more blatant in some stories than in others. When done badly, it can destroy the suspension of disbelief necessary to maintain a story. No writer wants that to happen to their story. Events are supposed to be seamless, flawless, inevitable. We want to present them in the most effective, realistic, and logical manner possible. We don’t want anything to seem contrived.
Well, I’ve some bad news for you: all stories are contrived.
Real life is a bizarre mish-mash of cause, effect, probability, and random chance. If you define “coincidence” as “happy accident” then life is made of nothing but coincidences. The personal historical narrative we construct to give ourselves a sense of meaning is an illusion; we all do it, but we connect the dots in hindsight, assigning and reassigning meaning as time passes and circumstances change. Life, if I may steal a line from the Doctor, is just made of:
Or, in the vernacular, “Shit happens.”
Not so with stories. Stories are an artificial construct given shape and order by human imagination. We try to keep things spontaneous yet inevitable, keeping our readers guessing and yet always stringing them along a path of breadcrumbs. The essence of a story’s construction lies in contrivance, in both events of the plot and actions of the characters. Stories (usually) must make sense in a way that real life does not. The cause and effect and apparent coincidences must be carefully structured in order to maintain the illusion of reality. Sure, there are some books and movies that present slice of life character sketches that meander along, but they are few and far between and it’s difficult to execute it well. More importantly, it’s for a niche audience. Most folk aren’t going to bother with it, even if they can appreciate the artistry. If your goal is to reach a broad audience, well… literary traditions aren’t just there to justify the existence of English majors.
Now, just because a narrative is contrived, doesn’t mean you should be obvious about it. Unless you’re doing a parody or some kind of comedic story, you probably want those underlying mechanics to be as incongruous as possible. You won’t be able to get away from it entirely. (My entry “Everything Old is New Again: How Not to be Afraid of Cliches” touches on related ideas.) But some stories (and audiences) are more forgiving than others.
I think that genre, not just personal taste, has a great deal to do with it. In my personal experience, the closer the story is to real life, i.e. regular or historical fiction, the less likely I am to excuse coincidences or contrivances that turn up. One or two, perhaps, but too much and it starts to seem fake. More fantastical stories, like space operas, fantasy, and superheroes, get more passes, at least from me, due to the nature of the story. We’re already dealing with things that aren’t part of common experience. You already have to go in accepting the premise that, in this particular story’s universe, people wearing capes hunt dragons with laser-swords. World-building and plot development are crucial to bring such tales to life, but the contrivances and coincidences are more likely to be seen. Sometimes it’s still too much, but usually you just have to accept that as part of the implicit contract between you and the work, and just roll with it.
So as you are writing or editing, or if you find yourself calling foul on an obvious coincidence in the media around you, don’t sweat it. Try to see why the coincidence exists. Why does it stand out? Is this event or character action key to the development of the story? Is there another way it could have been done, and if so, how? Is it a minor quibble, something you can let slide as just part of the process of storytelling? Is it truly a deal-breaker that warrants abandoning the story? Or is it truly a result of lazy writing? And if something done in a movie, TV show, or book bothers you, try not to make the same narrative choice in your own work.
Contrivance and coincidence are part of a writer’s tool kit and should not be shunned or feared. Like all tools, they can be wielded skillfully, minimizing seams and maximizing entertainment, or they can clumsily call attention to its underpinnings and fall flat. Be mindful, and contrive wisely.
2 thoughts on “Contrivance and Coincidence”
A story doesn’t have to make its audience believe. It only needs to avoid knocking the audience out of the belief they entered into at the start of the story. We come to fiction with a yearning to be pulled in. Most of us aren’t looking for things to complain about. But after a build-up of contrivances has pushed us out (and pushed us out again, if we tried to come back in), the complaints that follow will probably devolve into knick-picking things that otherwise would have been forgiven. After all, most of us don’t call foul after a single obvious contrivance, but after a dozen.
A contrivance is something that causes things to happen in a story in a way that does not seem natural or believable. When too many of these add up, the audience is pushed out. Different people have different thresholds, this is true. And some things are considered contrivances by some people that are not by others, this is true also.
But you absolutely do not need to look solely in the slice-of-life genre for characters, dialogue, situations, or reactions that seem realistic. Characters don’t need to behave like most people in order to behave like real people. An unusual
and interesting person is still a person, after all.
I agree; stories need to avoid knocking their audience out of the world and after a lot of contrivances it is understandable for the audience to pack up and leave or, if they stay, to start seeing all of the flaws, not just the large, unavoidable ones. Sometimes I can still enjoy a story despite large flaws (see the movie “Thor: The Dark World” or Johnny Depp’s “Alice in Wonderland”) and other times I cannot tolerate it (see the book trilogy “The Dragon Circle” by Craig Shaw Gardener).
I wanted to point out that an entire story is really a contrivance, even though the smaller coincidences and contrivances should be minimized in accordance with the needs of the story.
Oh no, I don’t think that only slice-of-life or realistic stories have realistic characters. I’m saying that my personal threshold for tolerating contrivances is lower for those kinds of stories than it is for other genres; it’s so close to “real life” that I don’t give it much wiggle room. Regardless of genre, the characters do need to be interesting in some way, to feel and act real. But I do think that reality can be flexible, depending on the world and the characters themselves. The reality of characters on a space ship will be different than the reality of characters in a New York coffee shop. While that doesn’t excuse utterly outlandish or out-of-character plot devices, it does require more artifice and therefore the seams and underlying contrivances are more likely to show, which is why I tend to go easier on them. Obviously, not everyone is going to feel that way about it; this is just my personal preference and experience.
Thanks for reading and commenting!