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

In Defence of Adverbs

Horror writer Stephen King would have us get rid of adverbs. He hates them. He considers them timid writing. And to some extent, he’s right. Of course, he’s sold a gazillion books and has the perfect right to tell other people how to write. I’m not denying that. But I’m not sure he is totally correct on this score. You can’t eschew all adverbs in your writing.

So, for those who aren’t quite sure what an adverb is, let me explain.

An adverb is a category of word that modifies verbs, adjectives and other adverbs. Many adverbs in English end in -ly. Many don’t. For example, adverbs ending in -ly include:

quickly, firmly, silently, appropriately, suddenly, sadly, wearily, etc.

Adverbs that don’t end in -ly are sneakier. They creep into our writing when we don’t even know they are adverbs.

afterward, already, almost, even, often , more, near, too, etc. Even malapropos.

If we follow Stephen King’s advice, we must dispense with the sneaky adverbs as well as the -ly ones. But looking at a list of sneaky ones, that would be difficult. They are just so damned useful.

The problem is exacerbated when you consider that adverbs aren’t always just one word. There are adverbial phrases and clauses, groups of words that together do the work of an adverb. For example, in the sentence, He ran as if his life depended on it, everything in bold is an adverbial phrase, telling the reader how he ran. And not a -ly to be seen anywhere,

Of course, the above example constitutes a cliché as well, and should probably be avoided for that reason anyway. But it’s just an example.

So what do we do? Can we never use an adverb? Well, my opinion is we shouldn’t use them too much, but we shouldn’t avoid them altogether (altogether is an adverb). Stephen King declared the road to hell is paved with adverbs. Good for him.

Too much of anything is bad for you. Too much water, too much oxygen, too much red meat, too much running, too much work. Even too much Penfolds Grange 1956, although that last one is hard to believe. The point is, using adverbs without being judicious about it (that’s an adverbial clause by the way) does constitute what King refers to as fearful writing. A writer who fears, he claims, uses adverbs as a prop for their writing.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t use them at all.

It all goes back to “show, don’t tell”. Your writing should show how something is done, without you having to tell us. Adding an adverb to tell us how someone says something, for instance, is a lazy way of doing it.

“Don’t you dare!” she shouted angrily. In this sentence, the word angrily tells us how she shouted. It’s a classic use of an adverb. But the context of the sentence should show us the speaker is angry without having her anger pointed out to us.

This is a fair enough criticism. But like all rules, there are exceptions. The judicious use of adverbs where they add something to the sentence should not, in my opinion, be avoided. Adverbs are words. There are lots of them, and they deserve a place in writing.

For example, take my own sentence above: Of course, the above example constitutes a cliché as well, and should probably be avoided for that reason anyway. Now, this contains an adverb: probably. Its job is to modify the compound verb should be avoided to show the degree of advisability of avoiding the use of a cliché. In that sense, it creates modality. If I was to avoid the use of the word, what are my options?

I could delete it altogether. The sentence then becomes Of course, the above example constitutes a cliché as well, and should be avoided for that reason anyway. But that allows no modality; my advice becomes a command to avoid the cliché and allows no exceptions. Probably (damn – there is it again!) a bit strong. I could use other modal words, or a modal phrase. The trouble is, modal words are adverbs and adverbial phrases. That’s what modality is.

Alternatively (another adverb! Heavens!) I could give a reason why it’s best to avoid clichés: Of course, the above example constitutes a cliché, and should be avoided for that reason anyway, since clichés are also an example of lazy writing. The trouble is, this still allows for no modality.

Adverbs have purpose. They are useful. They have a job to do. So avoiding them totally is not correct advice.

Don’t overuse them. Avoid them when modifying dialogue (but not always – even here they are useful). But feel free to plant a well-chosen, effective adverb within your writing when the need arises.