Avoiding Cliches Like the Plague

According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, a cliché is (a) a hackneyed phrase or opinion or (b) a very predictable or unoriginal thing or person. I used to have a dictionary of clichés, I think also published by Oxford. The precise purpose of such a reference source eluded me. Perhaps it was so people could check they were not using clichés in their writing or speech.

Because, of course, we must avoid using clichés. In this post I’m not so much concerned with the first definition above. We all recognise these things for what they are pretty quickly:

Not in a million years…

For all intents and purposes…

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks…

As heavy as lead…

Millions of these things are espoused daily and eliminating them isn’t too hard with a careful edit. But today I want to discuss the other definition, which is far more insidious in writing and film. The situational cliché. The story that goes along predictable lines and ends the same way lots of other stories have in the past.

There are lots of these too. I mentioned one years ago when I reviewed a film, Hansel and Gretel. There it was what I called the “too cool to look” hero walk. You know the one. The hero has just beaten the bad guy and lit the fuse for an explosion. As the bomb detonates in the background the hero is seen walking towards the camera, dead-pan expression on his face or maybe lighting a cigarette, not bothering to glance over his shoulder as the explosion blows the final shreds of the villain away. It’s meant to show that the hero is ultra-cool, so cool in fact he can ignore an event that would have everyone else ducking for cover or at least turning around to look at*. So cool he doesn’t need to run.

It’s been done a lot. It’s a cliché. It’s the sort of thing writers need to avoid.

I myself had a recent problem with a cliché ending to a series I’m writing at the moment. My cliché was “the hero sacrifices herself to save the world but isn’t really dead and comes back when everyone least expects it and manages to destroy the bad guy…” I wanted to avoid it and it took a while to do so.

The Star Trek film franchise did this a lot. In The Wrath of Khan Spock is killedHe’s back in the next movie, not really being dead at all of course…well, sort of but not really. Even the Enterprise has been destroyed a number of times but there is always a new one just being completed the crew can transfer to. Handy, that.

There are book series out there that have cliché endings. Lots of them. The Harry Potter series for instance. Harry gets killed and brought back to life because he’s not really dead…well, he is, but not really. In his book Destiny Unfulfilled: A Critique of the Harry Potter Series, Jim Adam states that J. K. Rowling uses the cliché of the Christ-like sacrifice to save mankind (or in her case Wizard-kind). The hero needs to die, to sacrifice his or her own life, in order to save the lives of others.

That’s been done too.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the Christ-like sacrifice, except that it’s been done. A lot.

And this was the problem I had. It took a while to solve it, required me to consult with my editor, and is going to necessitate a heavy re-write of the last part of my final book in the series, but at least I am happier with the ending.

Cliché is an easy trap to fall into. Movies, especially the plethora of prequels and sequels they engender, are full of them. Books, too. A good writer should be careful to spot them as they arise and deal with them before it’s too late.

Damn! Before it’s too late… A cliché!

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* It always strikes me as a bit weird: surely the only person not looking at the explosion is the one who set it off. Think about it. The villain blows something up and the police don’t know who to arrest. Try arresting the only person in the street NOT looking at the explosion!

Russell Proctor  http://www.russellproctor.com

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A Different Way to Write Realistic Characters – Part 3: Affective Memory

In the last two parts of this short series (don’t worry, this is the last) I proposed a method of character creation for the writer which is based on the method actors use to create a persona for stage or screen. It’s called the Method, and was developed through rehearsal by Russian director Konstantin Stanislavsky.

In this last part I’ll discuss two other means that can be used to flesh out story characters, and to help when the writer is a bit uncertain how a character might act in a given situation.

The first is called The Magic “If”.

You’re writing a story. It’s going well, and suddenly you place your character into a situation and wonder how they might behave or react to what is going on.

“Well, let me see…” you think, staring out of the window at the passing parade of human beings, and suddenly realise you have no idea what they should be doing in terms of the story. “I’m not him!” you wail. “I created this person but I’m not him! How would he react?”

And you suddenly realise that you’ve created a monster, someone who doesn’t behave like you at all and so you have no idea what to do. “He’s a serial killer. I’m not a serial killer…how do I know what to do in this situation?”

You just solved your own problem. The Magic If means asking yourself “What would I do if I were in this situation?”

If I were a serial killer…

If I were a King…

If I were in love with a handsome man…

If I were a fifteen year old boy who just got kicked out of school…

There are millions of situations we never encounter. But that doesn’t stop you writing about them. Just mentally put yourself in the same situation as your character and write about what you would do.

And that’s what your character would do.

The other technique for creating realistic characters, linked to the Magic “If”, is called  Affective Memory.

You may have heard the phrase “Write what you know”. It is often regarded as a misunderstood phrase, and it is, since it tends to limit fledgling writers to writing only what they have personally experienced. New writers run the risk of limiting themselves to certain places and character-types, since they think they can’t write about something about which they have no experience.

But, as a number of other writing tips sites have suggested, “write what you know” is about emotions and sensations rather than actual experiences. A writer should write about being scared, sorry, angry etc rather than try to re-create a place or time or situation they have never actually encountered.

The thing, is, I don’t think those sites go far enough. This is where affective memory comes in.

A person who has never lost a family member might find it hard to write about a family member dying in a story. How do they know the sense of loss and gut-wrenching sadness that such an event entails? How do they take their character through that experience if they’ve never done it themselves?

Here’s the problem: you have a great character on the boil, she’s rolling the story along at a fantastic pace, she’s funny and engaging, emotional and thrilling all at once. The readers are going to love her. You love her. “Why can’t I always write characters like this?” you think to yourself, as you slurp coffee and go along for the ride.

And then, in the course of the story, something happens that you have no experience about. And you – and the character – come up against a wall. How will she react in this situation? What would she do? You’ve never experienced this situation in real life, so you have no idea how anyone would behave. How do you “write what you know” now?

Affective memory is applying personal experiences to fictional situations. You, the writer, recall experiences that produced an emotional response at some time in your life and write about how you felt. If you have never experienced the death of a family member, you write your emotional responses to something that you have experienced. Maybe the loss of a pet, or how you felt when you broke up with a friend. Something – anything – that could produce a similar emotion. And write how that made you feel.

Actors and writers are different species. As I pointed out earlier, an actor on the screen usually has to worry about just one character. A writer has to worry about all the characters she creates, and make them real so the audience cares about them. So a writer has a harder job than the actor, in one sense. Using Objective/Obstacle, the Magic “If” and Affective Memory will aid the writer to make characters that are alive on the page.

Russell Proctor   www.russellproctor.com

A Different Way to Write Realistic Characters – Part 2: Objective and Obstacle

 

(http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/activityandadventure/10197830/The-worlds-most-dangerous-mountains.html)

If you’ve read Part One of this short series of writing tips, you will have seen the importance of creating interesting and realistic characters, even if they aren’t human. Your characters need real human emotions for your readers to relate to them.

There are many, many blogs and books that tell how to create such characters. My purpose here is to suggest a way of doing it that is the same as how actors prepare a character for a film or play. As a professional actor myself, I’ve used this method lots of times, and I find it works just as well for creating fictional characters in stories.

The essential difference is that actors usually prepare representations of characters that another person has already out down on paper. The playwright or screen writer has already dreamed up the character and the actor uses her art to bring them to life for an audience. A writer of prose must create the character from scratch. Also, an actor usually only has to worry about one character at a time. The writer is responsible for all the characters in the story.

That’s the one main difference. But the writer can use the same techniques as the actor to help invent the characters.

The method I propose here is, in fact, called ‘The Method’ (Great name, wish I’d thought of it). It was developed by Konstantin Stanislavski, a Russian actor and director who developed it as a rehearsal technique. Method acting, as it’s called, is one of the foremost acting  methods used in the Twentieth century (and is still used today) and is particularly effective in realising consistent, realistic and natural characters.

In this part of the blog I will focus on two things that any actor – and certainly writer – needs to develop for their characters. The first is called Objective, and the second Obstacle.

Every character must have an Objective and an Obstacle.

In a story, all your characters must want something. Not just the protagonist. Each character you create, be it the hero or a walk-on extra with one line, must have something they need to achieve. An objective. The more immediate and important the objective, the better.

I’ll illustrate this with a hypothetical example. I could refer to any one of the millions of books and stories written, but because not everyone might have read the one I pick, I’m going for an imaginary story I’ll create for the purpose of this blog.

It’s the story of a man who wants to climb a mountain. Let’s called him Bob. Bob’s father was a mountaineer who tried to climb the same mountain in his youth (let’s call the mountain Mt Tain, because that’s…well…Mount Tain, get it?) Bob’s father tried to conquer Mt Tain and never made it. He died in the attempt. Bob now wants to honour his father’s memory be conquering the peak himself.

All well and good. Bob has an objective: to climb Mt Tain. But notice that it isn’t just any old objective. It’s spiritually and psychologically important to Bob that he do this. It will honour his dead father who tried to do the same thing. In a sense, Bob is climbing the mountain for both of them. When you think of your character’s objectives, go for strong action verbs. To climb is better than to attempt. To conquer is even better than to climb. “Be bloody, bold and resolute”, as a certain fictionalized Scottish king once said. Give your characters important, even desperate, objectives.

Right, so Bob has an objective, and an important one. What we need now are obstacles to his achieving his objective. Bob’s problem is he has never climbed a mountain before. This is his obstacle. Mt Tain is a known killer of climbers. That’s another obstacle. Bob wants to do it alone, like his father did. Another obstacle.

Actors don’t act. They react. They respond to events that happen around them. Another character says something and their character responds according to the personality that has been devised for them. An event occurs and they react to it. This is the heart of acting, and it should, in my opinion, be the heart of writing. Let your characters react to what is flung at them.

So Bob sets out on his mountain climbing attempt, and must face certain obstacles that you, the writer, place in his path. How will Bob react to the fact that he’s never climbed a mountain before? Will he train? Get lessons? He wants to do it alone so he doesn’t want to take a more experienced person with him. How will he react to the mountain’s reputation as a killer? Will he seek local knowledge? Will he study what previous climbers did in order to try and avoid their mistakes? And what about going alone? Is he a loner naturally, or will being alone be a new test for him? As a writer, you answer these questions as the story progresses.

Bob reacts to what happens to him in the story. He faces obstacles that prevent him from achieving his objective.

That’s what your characters should do in a story. They must overcome certain obstacles you place in their path. They may not overcome all the obstacles. Solving some may cause other obstacles to spring up. But in reacting to the obstacles, the character moves towards their objective.

One more thing today: your character should not have just one objective. Bob could have a number of objectives in the story. His main objective is to climb Mt Tain. But there can be a whole lot of sub-objectives that must first be achieved. He needs to get climbing lessons. He needs to get enough money, and perhaps even sponsors, to pay for the attempt. He needs to convince his wife to let him go on this mad enterprise. He needs to get to the base of the mountain. He needs to work out the best method of climbing, etc.

All of these are objectives that must be reached before the main objective, climbing the mountain, can be realised. And of course, each of these sub-objectives have their own obstacles. Bob may overcome some of these, and be defeated by others, but they are necessary challenges in his path.

This is what makes conflict. And it is by placing your characters in conflict that you create story. How your characters react to the obstacles is what reveals their personalities.

So: (OBJECTIVE + OBSTA CLE) = CONFLICT → CHARACTER.

Don’t stint on your obstacles. Don’t be weak with your objectives. The stronger, more dangerous choices make for more conflict, and the more your characters can bounce off the conflict the more real they are.

I said earlier that every character needs an objective and obstacle. Even the taxi driver who drives Bob to the airport when he is about to fly to the mountain needs an objective, and an obstacle. The former might be a simple as “Get this guy to the airport in time to meet his flight”. His obstacle might be that he thinks Bob, who has told him of his plans as they chat on the way, is crazy and will die. But the driver, of course, wants the fare. So he overcomes the obstacle by keeping his opinion to himself. That shows the reader something of his personality.

Determining a character’s objective and obstacle is vital for the actor in creating a part. This same technique can be used to create dynamic characters in stories and novels.

Next time I’ll move on to something called the “Magic If” and how it can be used in writing. It’s trickier than straightforward objective/obstacle, but is magic indeed when used properly.

 

Russell Proctor   http://www.russellproctor.com

A Different Way to Write Realistic Characters – Part 1.

(http://shakespeareslines.tumblr.com/)

Everyone who teaches creative writing will tell you that it’s important to have realistic characters. They must be people the reader can relate to — even like — and the reader must be concerned for the protagonist. This is good advice. After all, it’s characters that make the story interesting.

As a teacher, it’s often my job to get students interested in a particular film or book or, God help me, poem. But kids these days seem more interested in action than people. I tell them that all the chases and gunfights in the world won’t make a story interesting if the audience isn’t interested what happens to the people involved in the chase or fight.

“Ah, but, ” they say, thinking it’s possible to outwit a teacher (innocent lambs!), “what about giant robots? What about aliens? We get concerned for the robots in Transformers. We get worried for Chewbacca in Star Wars if he’s in a fight. And they aren’t human.”

I calmly explain that the reason we’re concerned for them is that they may be giant robots or aliens, but they have human emotions. The reason we think Optimus Prime is one cool dude is because he behaves like one. He doesn’t behave like a robot, he thinks and feels like a human being.

It’s not only convenient that we personify aliens with human emotions so that the reader can relate to them. Human emotions are the only ones we can give them. We don’t know how an alien would emote or think. Chewbacca acts like a human because from our limited anthropocentric perspective that’s the only way we can imagine him acting.

So we think Chewie is a cool dude too.

So we need to give our characters emotions that will get the reader concerned for their welfare. If we don’t care what happens to the character, the writer has failed. It’s the same with the bad guys, too. Every protagonist needs a good antagonist. I’ll write about antagonists later, but for the moment I’ll stick with our protagonists and getting the most out of them.

The problem for the writer is, how do we create different characters? How do we distinguish one from the other? Hollywood is full of actors who only play one character or type of character, usually someone very similar to themselves. I won’t mention any names for fear of getting burned at the stake, but as a professional actor I can definitely say that some other professional actors (some big names too) are the same person in every single movie.

For the writer it’s the same problem. We run the risk of writing the same person over and over because that’s who we are, or who someone we know is, and it’s easy to put them down on paper. But in order to give variety, and above all realism, to our characters we need to bring them life, to make them colourful and vivacious.

So I’m going to propose a way of doing this similar to how actors do it. It’s pretty easy but does take a bit of practice and a lot of self-awareness.

I’ll go into more detail in the next blog, but I’ll leave you with a classic example (literally, an example from a classic).

Hamlet.

andre_skull_tennant_800

(http://andretchaikowsky.com/miscellaneous/skull.htm)

One of the most complex characters ever written, from what is arguably the most famous play of all time, at least in the English language, Hamlet is not just one person. He presents as someone different in every scene. This makes him hard to act, but fascinating to watch, as he runs through a plethora of totally different character types in the course of the play.

When we first meet Hamlet in Act One Scene Two, he presents as a depressed and rather lazy university student. However, he quickly moves on to fearful ghost hunter, determined criminal investigator, pretend lunatic, ruthless psychological manipulator, angry ex-lover, suicidal wreck, whining mummy’s-boy, wanted criminal, pious Christian, fierce warrior, resigned fatalist, murderous avenger and repentant tragic hero.

Phew!

english-what-shakespeare

(https://www.englishclub.com/english-language-history.htm)

That’s what makes Hamlet one of the greatest fictional characters of all time. We never know what to expect from him. That’s also why he’s so hard to act, as the performer has to justify each of these Hamlets to the audience in a way that stitches together seamlessly.

It’s possible to write characters like that, obviously. Shakespeare did. But Shakespeare was pretty darn good, so what hope do we less gifted hacks have?

That’s what I intend to do in the next few blogs, to show you how an actor creates a character. The same techniques can be used in writing. Stay tuned for more.

Male Fantasy Action Heroines, or Gender Writing by the Opposite Gender

It’s a great scene in the movie Alien. Ellen Ripley is the last surviving member of the crew of the mining ship Nostromo, who have been wiped out by a marauding alien monster. In a desperate bid to reach the lifeboat before the self-destruct timer reaches zero, she grabs a flamethrower, rolls up her sleeves and does a great Sylvester Stallone impression as she fights the evil critter and avoids becoming dessert.

alien-ripley-flamethrower

(Screenshot from Alien, 1979, Brandywine Productions and 20th Century Fox).

In fact, she’s acting just like a man would in the same situation. Later, of course, there is the even more famous scene where she strips down to her underwear and still manages to defeat the alien (admittedly by clambering into a space suit first, but we all knew she was still in her undies inside it). What a woman! Not only can she defeat a giant killer xenomorph, but she can do it in her cotton socks!

There are countless examples of this trope in cinema and books. I call them “male fantasy” action heroines because basically they are designed to appeal to the following things male viewers/readers like to see in such a character:

(a) knowledge of how to use weapons, mainly ones that go “bang” and fire endless rounds of ammunition without the inconvenience of needing reloading;

(b) being good-looking, preferably in clothing that is as tight as possible, or else clothing that has been torn and shredded by past encounters with the antagonist (or, like Ripley, in as little clothing as possible);

(c) the propensity to swear, drink and/or spit, combined with an ability to level an opponent with one punch or with a well-placed high kick while suspended in mid-air (I’m looking at you, Trinity). Preferably all of these at the same time.

I’ve never met a woman like that in my life. I’m not saying I wouldn’t like to, but I never have. Maybe I don’t get out enough.

The question I ask is, can a male writer write effective, believable female characters, particularly main characters? Can a female writer write effective, believable male protagonists?

It’s hard writing the opposite sex, particularly from that character’s POV. There have been some howling errors in the past, and some authors have eschewed writing opposite gender characters at all in order to avoid the issue. Even the greats have faced this problem. Isaac Asimov, for instance. I doubt many readers would say he wasn’t a certified genius in the science-fiction field. He was even a feminist. But his list of strong, story-important female characters is terrifyingly small.

Now of course, it’s easy to say that male dominated science-fiction and fantasy books at the time Asimov was writing were the norm. Even Tolkien had few female characters. It was also true of other genres where action scenes were expected, like James Bond. Of course women weren’t seen in those times as action heroes or even necessarily important for a story other than as “peril monkeys” that needed rescuing by the athletic male lead.

But times have changed. Unfortunately, it means that a lot of writers now think women have to be just like men in order to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, I think a lot of women writers think the same thing.

So, what do we do? Well, what I do with my stories is have strong female protagonists who act like women. All my books so far have featured female leads. The guys are there, and taking major roles, but the lead protagonist role is female. And I’m a guy. So writing from a female POV is tough. (Especially in my book Plato’s Cave, in which I write as a female in first person POV. My mother didn’t understand it at all.) But what I’m not trying to do by this practice is have female characters that act and sound like men. Women have better things to do with their time than be just like guys.

And they can be far more effective as characters  by not doing so.

Sure, it’s tough. When I was a teenager and writing lots of books (none of which saw the light of day of course) all of my female characters acted like teenage boys. Fair enough, I was a teenage boy myself at the time and didn’t really have enough writing skill to create more realistic characters. But the trick is to avoid that mistake now.

So female writers should try to write strong male parts. Male writers should try to write strong female parts. Just don’t make them reflections of how you want them to be. Make them how they are. And if that means getting a second opinion and maybe doing some research, then that’s what it takes. But don’t shy away from the idea.

So, for what it’s worth, here are my tips for writing strong female leads (especially if you are a guy):

1) Get a woman to read what you’ve written. Someone you can trust to give constructive feedback. Ask her if the character behaves as she (the reader) expected.

2) Before a female character does something, stop and think. Is this cliché? Would a guy do this? But be careful to avoid going too far the other way. A female character who makes sure her lipstick is right and checks her hair before going into battle is going to get you just as many howls from your readers as making her too “butch”. Maybe even more so.

3) Is there some way the character can solve a problem without resorting to immediate violence? Can she think or talk her way out of the situation? What are her priorities? Immediate personal survival? Protecting others? She might be able to side-step around the issue and approach the problem from a different angle.

4) Show the reader how the character is feeling as much as what she is doing. Women tend (please, don’t get mad – I send tend) to focus more on emotional response and be more aware of their emotions than guys. If you can’t emote with your characters and show the reader how they are feeling at any given point there are two problems: (a) you aren’t used to expressing your own emotions in the real world; or (b) you’re an emotionless robot.

Female action heroines can be girls as well. Give them the chance to do so. I love Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal of Ellen Ripley. I really do. But the story could just as well  have been about Edward Ripley without any change to the plot*.

Russell Proctor www.russellproctor.com

* I do admit that in the later movies of the Alien franchise, and Alien3, Ripley does act more nurturing and caring.

The Sequel Got Me!

I’m writing a sequel.

This isn’t necessarily something odd. A lot of writers write sequels. I’ve just finished writing a trilogy* myself, so that’s two sequels one after the other I guess. It’s even expected these days that writers write sequels. Series, we are told. sell. Movies are the same. No one just makes a movie these days, the make entire franchises. They even split books in half to make two movies out of them. All right, that’s fine…a little desperate, but fine. However, this time it’s a bit more noteworthy.

You see, I’m writing a sequel I never intended to write.

A few years ago I finished writing a book called Days of Iron, which was a science-fiction thing I had started writing when I was 17 and scribbled at and tinkered with for years and years until eventually I self-published out of sheer frustration to get the damn thing off my mind.

Signature cover1a

By the time I’d finished it (140,000 words in total), I pretty much had the story out of my system. I killed off one character and made sure the others had nothing left to do by the end. I tied up loose ends and added enough information for the readers to piece together any minor plot points not explicitly resolved.

Then it got published. Then I had people reading it (which is something every writer wants to have happen when they publish) and people were suddenly asking me when the sequel was coming out.

‘What sequel?’ I would reply innocently, my heart going pitter-pat just a little faster because (a) I was excited that readers liked the book enough to want more and (b) There was no sequel. Who sent round a memo saying there was a sequel?

What I’d forgotten in writing the thing was that when I was 17 (which was deep, deep in the Twentieth Century) sequels were not the thing. Writers occasionally wrote series, but they weren’t expected to if they didn’t want to. By the time I’d finished writing it (it took me the best part of thirty years) things had changed drastically. Now it was you write a book, you write a sequel. And follow it with a series. Personally, I blame Star Wars. George Lucas made a block-busting ride-of-a-lifetime movie and then casually announced it was the first of nine films. Suddenly Hollywood wanted sequels. And so writers were expected to write series, to the point that publishers and agents now expect writers to write series. And so did the fans.

And don’t get me started on prequels, which as a word didn’t even exist when I was 17. In the old days if any prior information was needed to understand the book the author wrote a Prologue. J. R. R. Tolkien of course went the whole hog with The Lord of the Rings, including both a Prologue and a novel-length set of Appendices. But we can forgive genius its excesses.

So anyway, here I am, writing a sequel, Shepherd Moon, that I am contractually obligated to produce. Actually, it’s rather good fun visiting the old characters. And I have no need to world-build, given that the world already exists. The politics, economics, social structure and cultures of the universe in question are already in place and I just have to write.

But it wasn’t that easy to think of a story I didn’t know existed. It’s there now, and simmering away quite nicely. Now I’m into it, I’m as interested in the story as I hope readers will be. I discovered that the story was there, lurking in the corner, desperate to make itself known. And once I got into the story, I managed to slam down over 90,000 words in a couple of months.

Now I have to turn it into something worth reading, which is where the work comes in. Of course there are inconsistencies, plot holes and that eternal question of which characters do I bring back and which do I let go their merry ways, and are my new characters interesting enough to belong there and yet not too interesting that they over-shadow the efforts of the regulars?

I have until December this year to deliver the manuscript, which might seem like a long time but isn’t really. Not for me. Being a perfectionist with detail isn’t doing myself any favours.

So there we are, a sequel in the works. And the really scary thing was that I discovered lurking in the corner of this new story was another one, that hints of its own existence and put its hand up tremulously to enquire, about half-way through, ‘Excuse me, when is it my turn?’

So Days of Iron looks like becoming a series. But that’s a good thing.

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*The first volume of The Jabberwocky Book is now out from Permuted Press. The Red King. The rest of the series, An Unkindness of Ravens and The Looking-Glass House, will be out this year and next year.

TheRedKing_EbookCover

Russell Proctor http://www.russellproctor.com

 

 

What a Coincidence!

Often when reading stories, I come across what can only be described as a million-to-one shot coincidence. You know the type I mean – a character in the book just happens to come across the secret letter that reveals who the villain is. The person the detective met in a random encounter at the café just happened to be the murderer they were looking for. The magic spell needed to unlock the hidden room was the one the hero accidentally stumbled across in the wizard’s book the day before. And it’s a million to one shot. Of course, there’s no alternative for the poor writer: if those coincidences weren’t there the story wouldn’t happen.

But actually, coincidence happens every single day. To every single person on the planet.

Look more closely at that million-to-one shot. I live in Brisbane, Australia. Population: 2.2 million. For the sake of argument, let’s round that down to 2 million. What are the chances that a million-to-one shot happens on any given day in the balmy, sunny (but cyclone-and-flood-prone) metropolis I love? You guessed it: about 2:1. So each day in Brisbane 2 million-to-one shots happen. Each day.

What about the planet as whole? Earth’s current population is 7.3 billion. Now that means that 7,300 million-to-one coincidences happen each day. Read that again: every day 7,300 people shout, ‘What just happened?’ as they face-palm themselves in disbelief.

So what about coincidences in stories? To what extent does the reader accept that the hero just happens to come across the key that unlocks the safe containing the documents everyone is after? How is it that the detective just happens to see the murderer talking to another witness, which forms the ultimate clue that solves the crime? What, he walked into the restaurant, out of all the restaurants in the city, at that exact convenient moment?

Yeah, right.

The bounds of credulity are often stretched (or ignored) for the sake of the story. In The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, Bilbo Baggins is lost in caverns under the Misty Mountains. Blindly groping through the tunnels, his hand just happens to touch the One Ring – the ownership of which will determine the fate of the world for years to come, cause wars and lead to the deaths of thousands – and he picks it and puts it in his pocket. Had this blindingly unlikely chance not happened, none of the ensuing story would have taken place. Tolkien tries to explain away the Ring’s million-to-one shot discovery in The Lord of the Rings:

‘Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker.’

(The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien: Book One, Chapter 2)

But is it enough just to put it down to fate? Of course, the heavily veiled Christianity in Tolkien’s works, which is in no way intrusive, could satisfy the reader, perhaps, that some ‘higher power’ is working through its mortal agents to defeat evil. But let’s face it, in the end it’s just a coincidence that Bilbo finds the One Ring.

And, in the milieu of that story, the coincidence can be ignored. The reader takes it for granted. We turn the page on Gandalf’s dismissive statement above and just accept that now the Ring has been found, all we have to do is worry about what’s going to happen to it.

The film Slumdog Millionaire is based on the premise that the events that occur during the childhood of a competitor in a game show just happen to provide him with the knowledge he needs to answer questions in a TV quiz. Somehow, the questions just happen to relate to events in his life which, by the sheerest good luck, give him the precise bit of knowledge he needs to answer. Coincidence? You bet. Big, fat coincidence stuffing its face with unlikelihood. But it’s a great movie, and we accept its excesses of credulity.

Real life is full of coincidences too. Millions of times a day. But here we are.

So what does the writer do? How far can he or she take that lucky shot?

I’m guilty of it myself in my writing. I would venture to say all writers are faced with this dilemma. Will the reader believe this? I lie in bed at night, tossing and turning as I try to work how such an unlikely chance as I plan to put in my book can actually be believed. Will the supposed ‘suspension of disbelief’ the writer aims for actually carry it off this time? It’s a tough call.

In the end, I think it comes down to careful writing. Surprising the reader at the climax of the story that the hero just happens to be an electronics engineer and can open the locked security door by tinkering with the circuits using the handy tool-kit he just happened to have in his pocket won’t fool anyone. The reader will curse the writer and toss the book away with a vow to never again read anything written by that particular pathetic hack. But, if the writer were to foreshadow somewhere near the start of the book that the hero has a degree in electronics and always carries tools around in order to tinker with various bits and pieces as he goes about his other adventures (in other words, giving him business to flesh out his character) then the fact that he has the appropriate knowledge and equipment at the necessary time is more acceptable.

So there’s two rules I guess that can help sell coincidence to some degree at least:

1) Don’t underestimate your reader. Readers are smart people, otherwise they wouldn’t be readers. And writers are smart, too, otherwise they wouldn’t be…no, hang on, that doesn’t work. But anyway, don’t stretch things beyond what you, the writer, would accept yourself if you were reading someone else’s story.

2) Use foreshadowing to ‘set up’ the coincidence long before it appears. If the reader can think at the appropriate moment, ‘Of course! The railway station porter saw the villain hiding the diamond in the safe-deposit locker on page 45! That’s how the hero knew where to look! Man, this guy’s a good writer!’ then you have done well.

Coincidence has its place, but it’s a dangerous toy to play with. However, it shouldn’t be something to fear. Just tell a good story and the reader will play the game.

I keep telling myself that, anyway.

Russell Proctor   http://www.russellproctor.com