people-reading-a-book
writing a novel,  writing fiction

Too Coincidental

Have you ever read a book and said, “That’s too coincidental. I just don’t believe it?” Or felt like you were manipulated through the story? I hate when that happens.

I finished reading a book the other day and thought there were far too many coincidences in the story line. In fact, by the end of the book I felt like I’d been “schmoozed” by the author. Not a good reaction from a reader.

Definitely not the reaction we want from our readers.

No one wants to feel manipulated.

As readers, we want to feel like we experienced a real story with real characters. We want to feel like we are “there,” in that moment, experiencing genuine emotions with the characters.

As authors, we want readers to finish our books and say, “That all made sense.” Stories make sense when the events and characters aren’t manipulated by the author. The things that happen must feel like they should happen and aren’t placed there for the convenience of the plot. The plot works for the story, not the other way around.

As we are writing our stories, we know that certain things must happen within the framework of our plots, but how we arrive at these different points should feel like a natural outgrowth of the story.

Coincidences in Real Life

Before you start listing off all the coincidences you’ve experienced in your life, let’s recognize that, yes, coincidences happen in real life. I’ve experienced coincidences. Like the time one of my kids needed some money for school, but I didn’t have even a dollar bill in my wallet. I went into the closet to put on a jacket and happened to find the exact amount I needed for my son in the pocket of that jacket.

Or the time I needed a babysitter and wasn’t sure what to do and a friend happened to call and offered to watch my kids.

Those were coincidences. They happened in real life.

But we’re not writing real life, we’re writing fiction and in writing fiction, things that happen must not only have a purpose, they must grow organically out of the plot. Otherwise, it feels forced. If a character needed money and happened to find some in the pocket of her pants, that would feel a little contrived.

If a character needs to know a secret, and that secret is crucial to the story line, find a way to allow that character to naturally discover it. If you have another character blurt out important information, especially if that character had been keeping the secret for a long time and it wouldn’t be natural for him to blurt out guarded information, it won’t ring true.

It takes ingenuity to work in “coincidences” naturally so they feel organic and true to the story.

Ask Questions

Ask yourself as you write, “Would this character really say or do this?” “Would this really happen the way I’ve written it?” “Are my events growing organically from the plot?”

If your answer is no, then rewrite the scene. Staying true to the characters and story is important so the reader can suspend his/her disbelief. You don’t want to give a reader any reason to put down your book. If the event or conversation feels natural, then it’s fine to leave it in

Foreshadowing is an effective tool to create natural coincidences.

For example, if you need a character to learn information or meet another character, foreshadow it so when it does happen, the reader feels like it’s just part of the story. It feels expected and makes sense. Don’t just plop a character in a specific place because you need to do so to advance your plot. Give the reader reason to believe the character should be there, naturally.

Again, ask yourself, “Is this believable?”

Consider Plot Points

As you write your story, consider your plot points and make sure that one point leads to the next in a logical way. Don’t force a plot point because it will be evident to the reader. Don’t rely on coincidences to move your story forward because a reader will feel manipulated and as soon as he/she feels that way, you’ve lost him/her.

You don’t want that!

On a macro level, plot points should be cause and effect. One point leads to the cause of the next one. On a micro level, each scene should be cause and effect. Point A should cause point B, which in turn, causes point C.

If you see your story as one big cause and effect, you’ll be able to come up with events/plot points that move it along and the events won’t feel forced.

Events Must Feel Natural

What happens in your book (the plot) must feel realistic, even if your story is set on a remote planet in a distant galaxy. Readers need to “buy into” your story world and think of your characters as being real and natural to the world you have created.

That’s really the key: readers need to feel like the story could actually happen. No matter where it’s set or which characters populate the story, readers must feel like this story is happening as they read it.

Too many coincidences will ruin the suspension of disbelief. It will make readers angry and make them want to throw your book across the room.

Make sure that you ask yourself:

  • Why is the character there?
  • How does the character know ____?
  • Does this scene make logical sense?
  • Did the character learn this information naturally?

Conclusion

As authors, we want to make it easy for readers to read our books. We want them to feel like the characters are real people and the events could actually happen.

Even if coincidences happen in real life a certain way, that doesn’t mean readers will buy those coincidences in fiction. Fiction is not the same as real life. It needs to make sense and feel complete and natural.

If your characters “happen” to find out information or go to a certain place or find a certain item crucial to the plot, make sure it happens organically and that you’ve planted enough prior “hints” for readers to say, “A-ha,” instead of, “No way.”

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