Thursday, November 11, 2010

Coincidences in Writing, or Oh My Gosh, You're My Long-Lost Twin!

Over the past few months, I've been doing a lot of thinking on this subject.  What brought my attention to it in the first place was a book that I acquired from a free box of LDS fiction. Someone had graciously brought the box to church, and I dove in before another girl there, with arms already full, could snag all of them.  I couldn't blame her, though. On Black Friday I'm as timid as a nun in a bar, but put free, clean books out and I'd tussle with the best of 'em.

First, I looked for names I recognized from Storymakers.  I managed to get a Rachel Ann Nunes and a couple of J. Scott Savage's works.  The others were chosen by publisher, then by cover.  (Don't judge--I was speed-grabbing, here.)

I picked up a book with a neat cover. I hadn't heard of the author (not surprising since I live in the Midwest), but the back cover looked promising.  I like suspense, so it got added to the pile.

Once I started reading, I knew I was in trouble.  It seemed like every other page there was foreshadowing of some connection between the characters.  For example, the mafia boss's long lost son (let's call him Junior) appears out of nowhere and wants a job, so he's employed to kidnap this 18-year-old high school girl (we'll call her Lisa).  The guy--SURPRISE!--turns out to be FBI (saw that one coming a mile away).

That's only the beginning.

Junior has a partner (Bob) who's working to protect Lisa's father (Larry), who the mob guys are after.  Larry left years ago, and Lisa never knew why.  She has some angsty teen problems as a result, but is at heart a good girl.

Lisa and her mother find out that Larry is still alive.  Cue Lisa's parents running to try to save their daughter, the bad guys running after them, and the good guys always one step behind until the end, where they're (predictably) one step ahead.  In the end, not only do we find out that FBI partners Junior and Bob are stepson and stepfather (assigned to Junior's mafia boss father's case together, no less), but that the last big bad guy who shows up in the end is--get this--some rich dude that Lisa's mother was engaged to years ago!  Of course, he is shown what a catch he missed out on!  The bad guys get their bums handed to them royally, and everyone else hugs at the end.  Oh, and not only was Lisa a less-active member of the LDS church,  Junior was an active member, and since she had just turned 18 (and a couple of weeks away from finishing high school) she was fair game to start a relationship with.  Everything was tied up into one big, happy, perky, pink bow with ice cream and blargh on top.

I closed the book in disgust. I wanted to poke my eyes out.   The premise had so much promise, the author a great imagination with some cool moments, but all I wanted to do was rip the book into little shreds and throw them in a moat filled with piranha fish. I was a little bothered by my strong reaction, because being a writer, I look forward to the day I get published with both excitement and trepidation.  I'm hoping the golden rule applies to writers--treat others' books like you want your own to be treated. It would bother me a lot if someone had that big of a problem with what I wrote, so I let my feelings melt and simmer down for a month or two until what was left consisted of exactly what bothered me, condensed, strong, and unmistakable.

The boiled-down result? Coincidence.

Writers like to evoke a strong emotional response.  We revel in being creators of our worlds, pulling the puppet strings of our victims readers.  If we can touch your soul, make you care about creations from our brains, make you feel, that is the highest compliment there is to a writer--at least to this one.

Coincidences are neat things.  In real life, coincidences happen that we'd never put into writing fiction, because they would come across as too coincidental to be believable!  However, because of the mystery of coincidences, we writers are tempted to put them into our books.  "Wouldn't it be so cool if Aunt Shelley turned out to be her niece's adopted baby's birth mother?" Well, maybe.  Then again, maybe not.

The thing is, when we write coincidences, they're not coincidences, but contrivances.  The reader knows this.  They can't be true coincidences because we, as writers, make them happen. So, for a coincidence to be believable, we have to provide a way for the reader to suspend disbelief and believe that the coincidence is the real deal.  I think one of the best ways to do this is to write strong, well-rounded characters that leap off the page and become real to the reader.  It's hard to argue storyline with a character that your mind and heart is attached to in some way, a character who feels like a real person to you.

Coincidence can also, in some cases, be an excuse for laziness.  It's a lot easier to think up a coincidence than to do the work in weaving the story together, which can involve bringing in more characters and angles, which isn't necessarily an easy thing to do.

I hope to learn the ins and outs of writing coincidences myself.  In my current manuscript, there is something that happens in a different town that makes the reader question (at least I hope) if the unlucky thing had to happen for the 'coincidence' to happen, or was it just rotten timing and would have happened another way at a slightly different time if circumstances were different?  It's a tricky thing to work in.  I want my readers to end up being so immersed in the story that they can't stop to question why I put something where I did.

So, it may be a great idea for a single girl to run into her true love literally, with her car, while he saves a cute puppy's stuffed toy from getting run over--or it may not be.  Just go over your choice several times, and if it still sounds like a contrivance than a coincidence, scrap it or approach the idea from a different angle.


Karen said...

Well done. You made sense of what I've felt before! I felt like this with "The Da Vinci Code". Even though it was a huge hit, I was disappointed at the lack of creativity in the riddles. Even I guessed many of them, including the last one. A total let down!

kbrebes said...

Great post, Rebecca! Thanks. You helped me think through my nano WIP looking for coincidences!

The Joe said...

And so it is that you have discovered why I don't rad LDS fiction. :) I don't watch LDS film for another reason entirely. That has to do with production value and sappiness.

Danyelle Ferguson said...

LOL! I think I totally know what book you're talking about. I believe I gave it a not so great review, too.

I really loved your thoughts about co-incidences and suspending disbelief. And excellent article for a NaNoWriting break. Thanks, Rebecca!

thecrazycantwells said...

Fantastic! I have felt the same way when reading books in the past. Then I have thought that if they can get published...then maybe one day, so can I! I always enjoy your perspective.

charrette said...

I'm so glad I read this. Very entertaining for a Monday morning. Plus I was actually considering such a coincidence/contrivance in my next book. Thought it might be ironic. Have now permanently crossed it off as implausible. Unless it ends up back in the final book. In which case it was totally meant to be. :)

Robbin said...

Loved your post--I too have thought about coincidence in fiction lately. Jack Bickham talks about it in one of his books. In real life you can get away with coincidence because it really happened, it's there before your eyes so it's believable. In fiction it requires much more work to make life believable.
This is my first visit to your blog and it's fabulous! Great job!

Elizabeth Mueller said...

One of the masters of coincidence-writing is JK Rowling. Every time I came across some insignificant piece of info, I wondered, "ooh! I wonder how she's going to tie this in!"

She always did an ingenious job, even when it stretched far into the other books!!!

Rebecca, guess what? You have an award waiting for ya! :)

L.T. Elliot said...

AMEN and AMEN, sistah! I couldn't have said this better, myself. I hate contrivances. Nothing irritates me more. Although I loved what Lizzie said about J.K. and how the little things were big things that actually mattered.

Kimberly said...

Rebecca, this post is pure genius! Truly! I've had the exact same feelings so, so many times, but have never boiled it down to that one word the way you did. Coincidence versus contrivance - heck yes!

Now excuse me, I have some scenes to rewrite... =P

Peggy Urry said...

Yah, I'm a little behind on my email, but this was such a great post that I had to comment. As Kimberly said, now excuse me I have some editing to do. Thanks for a great post.