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Coincidences are a fact of life. They’re also a method authors sometimes use in plotting a book. Fantasy lends itself to invention, but the author can come to rely of coincidence as a way to get out of a situation in which she’s backed herself into a corner. I used to do critiques as a business, and this is one of the situations I’d run into with pre-published writers. Overuse of coincidence can make a reader feel cheated because the author hasn’t plotted the book carefully enough to avoid most of them.
“I just can’t imagine that it’s only a coincidence. I think they feel that it’s kind of getting out of their control, and they’re trying to tighten it back up.” – Ken Matson, Ohio University Professor
A striking occurrence of two or more events at one time apparently by mere chance.
There are two TV programs running now that depend heavily on coincidence, so much so that they wouldn’t exist without them. In “Awake,” a police detective has lost both his wife and son in a tragic car accident. He finds that he is spending time in alternate worlds, one in which his wife died but his son survived, and the other in which his son died but his wife survived. The switchover happens when he is asleep. Is he crazy? That’s yet to be determined. What is certain is that happenings in his professional life as a detective in one world affect events in the other world. For example, in world A, a crime scene brings him to a numbered parking spot. In world B, the number of that parking spot turns out to be the address important to solving the location of a crime. This type of coincidence happens in every episode, more than once. In the program, it adds to the eerie feeling that one or both (he could be dead himself?) of these worlds is beyond our understanding. In a book in which we aren’t questioning the sanity of the main character, repetition that often as a major plot device would get old—fast. You’d flip to a new chapter and think, “Here comes another whopper.”
Another program, “Touch,” is based entirely on what seem to be puzzling coincidences to the father of Jake, a mute, special needs son. The premise is that people are linked together and their lives intersect in ways that can be understood by the son. The father struggles to communicate with Jake to understand the knowledge the boy is attempting to pass on. Each program builds up actions we don’t understand when taken separately, but then links them together through Jake, and everything falls into place by the end of the hour. The message to take from this is that there is no such thing as coincidence; it only seems so when looked at by someone who doesn’t see the whole picture. With this idea, it’s okay to have a book that uses a lot of coincidences as long as they are explained and made to seem inevitable in the end.
What’s an author to do?
When I was beginning my writing career, I was told that the solution of your major plot probably shouldn’t hinge on a coincidence, but that you could use coincidences in a book as long as you didn’t overdo it. Vague advice, I’ll admit. In a fantasy, the author could be exploring coincidence as a supernatural event, so there might be quite a few of them in the book, as there are in the TV programs “Awake” and “Touch”. The more reality-based the fantasy is, such as in urban fantasy that mimics our world but with a twist, the less likely it is that readers will open their mouths wide and swallow a steady feeding of coincidences. That means maybe two or three per book, none of which resolve the main plot. In a story that isn’t exploring coincidences, if the only way the author can come up with to end the book is with a coincidence rather than something that logically flows from the events in the story—well, I’d say more thought is in order. A great tool for that is the synopsis, a five (or so) page summary that can be written before starting the book. When boiled down to a mere five pages, showing only the bones of the story, it will be clear whether coincidence is playing too large a role. The synopsis will also point out other broad weaknesses in a plot.
I was thinking about this issue as I wrote Deliverance. The opening action scene, where Maliha chases a bad guy, occurs by coincidence. She wasn’t actively hunting the guy at the moment; she simply spotted him when traveling to another city and the chase started. This is great for putting her at a disadvantage. She’s unprepared. The weather is icy outside and she’s running barefoot, in shorts and a t-shirt, straight from her hotel room. She doesn’t have her usual full complement of weapons. But she’s determined to go after the man and put a stop to his activities in the human slave trade. What does this provide in the book? Drama. Fear that Maliha is really going to mess up big time. Admiration for her motivation. An opportunity to run around on ice-covered rooftops, drawing the reader into the action right away. So after careful evaluation, I decided that this coincidence was worth it. I don’t think there are many, if any, other coincidences in the book. Besides, I take this to heart:
“Having no unusual coincidence is far more unusual than any coincidence could possibly be.” - Isaac Asimov, author of science fiction, fantasy, and a lot more. A crater on Mars is named for him.
Here’s an excerpt of Chapter One of Deliverance, showing all those features I considered. Was the coincidence worthwhile in this case? What do you think about coincidences in general in books?
"Maliha Crayne placed her feet carefully on the old clay-tiled roof. Freezing rain made the passage treacherous. Xietai, the man she was chasing, seemed as sure-footed as a gazelle. She had already sent a tile sliding to the street three stories below.
It was three in the morning, and although New York never sleeps, the residents of this neighborhood did. Most of them, anyway. As another tile clattered to the sidewalk, a window was flung open and a woman’s head appeared, her neck twisted to look up at the roof.
“What’s goin’ on up there? Think yer Santa Claus or somethin’? Get off my roof!”
With flat roofs all around, he has to choose one with tiles. Should have gone around and picked up his trail on the other side. Maliha 0, Xietai 1.
Xietai had been in her sights twice before, and he’d eluded her. He ran a human trafficking ring, bringing Asian girls to America, and then sending American girls to Asia. Round-trip profits. Complicating matters was that Xietai was the son of one of Maliha’s dearest friends, Xia Yanmeng. Maliha planned to bring Xietai to justice but with his record of confrontation, it was possible she’d have to kill him.
Kill Yanmeng’s son. Not sure how he’d feel about that, even though the two of them are estranged. If my daughter Constanta had survived her birth and grown up evil, would I be hunting her?
Maliha came to the end of the tiled roof and paused briefly. Xietai’s footprints led her on into the moonless night. Using her ability to view auras, she could see the outline of his footsteps and the tendrils of red and black twining together, rising from them. Normally she used her aura vision for a few seconds at a time, a quick check to see if someone was lying or to make sure she faced a truly evil person before plunging her sword into him. Constant viewing, as she was doing now to track Xietai, was draining. His aura footprints were clear, but her surroundings were a little out of focus. As long as Xietai kept out of her normal sight, he had an advantage.
Maliha felt a touch on her shoulder, as soft as if she’d been brushed by a bird’s wing. Yanmeng was a remote viewer, and he was signaling her that he was viewing her now. He’d been trying to increase his remote presence to the point that he could move objects. He’d made some progress but it was erratic. She could extend her arm and make an L-shape with her fingers, the sign they’d agreed upon for him to withdraw, and he would immediately stop remote viewing her. At least, she trusted that he would.
She didn’t make the withdrawal sign.
It’s his son. Yanmeng’s not going to like this, but it’s not right to hide it from him.
She swung over the edge of the roof, hung briefly by one hand, and dropped down to an adjacent flat roof. Landing with a forward roll to break the momentum of the fall, she put out a hand to avoid sliding on the patchy ice. She scraped the side of her hand raw on the rough roofing material. She wasn’t an accomplished traceuse—tracer—so her hands weren’t calloused. The man ahead of her was a highly skilled practitioner of parkour, a method of crossing obstacles in the most efficient way and the shortest time.
She ran barefoot, with loose black shorts, a black t-shirt, a belly bag with a few throwing stars secured inside so they couldn’t shift and hurt her, knives strapped to her thighs, with her thick black hair flowing behind her. It was late November, and an icy rain pelted her face and other exposed skin. Maliha wasn’t prepared for this pursuit, but when Xietai crossed her path, she had to try it.
Maliha jumped to a building a dozen feet away. She rolled, then ran and dropped to the fire escape.
Could he be Ageless?
Her bare feet landed lightly on the fire escape’s icy stairs, and at each landing, she vaulted the railing to the next run of stairs. She dropped the last ten feet to the ground. Thin red wisps spiraled eerily up from slushy puddle he’d passed through. She cleared the puddle in a small hop. Ahead a wall loomed. He’d taken her down a dead-end alley. Using the momentum of her run, she stepped up the brick wall to a balcony, used a spring from the rail to power another couple of steps, and then muscled up to the roof.
No good. Blind corner...
Anticipating a trap, Maliha threw one of her knives, then ducked and rolled as a sword swung powerfully where her neck should have been. She lashed out with her second knife, scored a deep gash in Xietai’s calf, and felt the splash of hot blood on her hand.
That should slow him down a little.
Xietai took off into the night, running away before she’d come fully out of her roll. She retrieved her thrown knife from where it had landed. Her opponent took them down to street level. She was gratified to see a blood trail in the pale cone of light from a street lamp.
He bleeds too much to be Ageless.
Then she spotted Xietai on the roof of a run-down theater, standing next to the marquee with its hundreds of broken bulbs. His aura was blacker than the night sky washed by city lights, and the spidery electric red web of his anger had intensified since she’d wounded him."
Twitter: @dakotabanks or http://dbanks.me/DBtwit
A demon's assassin for centuries, Maliha Crayne has gone rogue, determined to save a life for every one she's destroyed in order to free herself from an eternity of enslavement, damnation, and excruciating torment. But as the powers that sustained her in the past fade, she is wary of trusting those closest to her-especially her lover, Jake. Should Maliha listen to her heart or the alarms going off in her head? Then her closest friends begin to disappear, one by one. Amid her anger, suspicion, and sorrow, she feels her life spiraling out of control.Worse still, a beautiful, Renaissance murderess is recruiting Maliha as her new assassin. Maliha is turning into a lethal puppet with an evil Immortal pulling the strings, forced to kill innocents or see her missing friends die horribly. Suddenly trapped in a moral no-man's land, Maliha is damned if she does and damned if she doesn't…and time is rapidly running out.
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