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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » How to avoid coincidence?

   
Author Topic: How to avoid coincidence?
Alye
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For instance ďThe Wheel of TimeĒ series By Robert Jordan uses a device to explain all the imposable coincidences that happen throughout the story by saying that the 3 main characters are taívaern <sp> and it is excepted by the players as well as the readers. This is fine but I would rather know how to avoid using such a device or make all the events that must happen to devlop my plot seem less coincidental. Any suggestions?

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J
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Life is a series of coincidences. Most of what happens to anyone during a day is completely random, and, taken piece by piece, largely improbable (e.g., what were the odds that McDonald's would give you THAT particular hamburger? What was the likelihood that you would pull out of your driveway and end up right behind the particular car that you did? Pretty low).

It's okay to have a story full of coincidences. If a coincidence seems too improbable (e.g., the car you pulled behind is your mother's who lives in a different city but just happened to be passing by), or you have too many, then you might want to consider making some of them deliberate, rather than random, acts.


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RMatthewWare
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You have to have some coincidence, otherwise your story will get no where. How many times have you watched a crime drama on television and when the case seems to stall out something happens to put everything in place? Most of these shows end with the case being solved. In real life most cases are not solved. Real life is boring. In your story, just try to avoid being trite.

Matt


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Alye
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I agree, to a point. I guess I am just to set in writing non-fiction. Usually real life is just ironic with very little coincidence. Writing about a police raid of a local "crack" house is as boring as you can get.

I just groan when I read over something that just reeks of the imposable.


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AstroStewart
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I haven't read the WOT series, but there's something about the fact that your main characters are, in fact, your main characters that makes coincidence more likely to happen also. Or, phrased another way, if you bother to write a chapter at all about John Doe at a random day at the office, and something coincidentally amazing happens to him, we, the reader, won't be surprised. You, the author, are focusing in on this character, on this day, in this setting, precisely *because* something interesting will happen to him.

Assuming any author only writes about scenes that matter to the story, the odds of any main character coming across something important, seemingly coincidental, aren't that bad odds after all. Or maybe these plot-forwarding coincidences aren't what you were referring to.


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ChrisOwens
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Watch Lost. There are absolutely NO coincidences on that show.

As a reader, as long as the story is gripping, I don't care if the hand of destinty aids the protagonist. I guess there might have to be many milestones that the protagonist must attain by thier own efforts so that when the aid comes it doesn't seem like a god-in-machine.

In the WOT, Rand, Perrin and Matt sometimes strive try to buck destinty and fail. It's the striving that's important, not whether they succeed or not.


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InarticulateBabbler
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In WOT ta'veren are not just the centers of coincidence, they are much broader than that.

Ta'veren--as defined by Jordan--is a person whose "Web of Destiny" entangles all surrounding life threads (perhaps ALL life threads) in an Age. This concept isn't JUST coincidence. One manifestation was everyone in a certain area getting married. Another manifestation is Mat never loosing a dice roll. People act oit-of-character when ta'veren are present.

The events that take place surrounding Mat, Perin, and Rand are arguably indicative of--even precursors to--the destinies of the ta'verens. All the marriages were alluding to Rand's three future marriages.

I don't think--with the Wheel of Time, atleast--they were coincidences, but carefully planned allegories. In every instance that you see the major affects of the ta'veren on their surroundings, you will find something similar in the ta'veren's presonal story.

That's my humble opinion, anyway.

A couple of questions:

1) Are there all tha MANY coincidences in your story?
2) Are you trying to write a story similar to WOT?


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pantros
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I don't think you need cooincidence.

I think WoT is going to spawn a million misled writers because, frankly, Robert Jordan cannot write a story. Describe a scene, yeah he can. Create a setting, yep. Tell a story, not to save his life.

Every cooincidence in a story will make it weaker. Its best to have every possible event happen for a reason and ideally stemming from a decision made by a character. And most of these should be by your Main Character.

The more the event affects the plot the less it can be cooincidental.

There will always be some events that are more setting than plot events. A convenience store getting robbed, for example. It's the MCs reaction to the robbery that is the plot event, not the robbery itself which is actually a property of the setting.

Its cheesy to have the best swordsman, best wizard, and best healer all show up to gamble at the same tavern. Don't do it.


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J
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Unless they are all trenchant gamblers, and the tavern is having a winner-takes-all dice tournament for high stakes.
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Alye
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A couple of questions:

1) Are there all tha MANY coincidences in your story?
2) Are you trying to write a story similar to WOT?


1) There are some, not allot as of yet. Iím only on about 5000 words right now, and I donít want it to become an issue. Iím close to scraping it because Iím lacking a solid outline to work from.

2) Other than a fantasy setting, no.


Which brings me to another question?

Are there any outline creation/word processor programs that you can store reference material in? Like character description, town descriptions, or maps that can be accessed while you are writing? Maybe with a sidebar or tree that you can click to expand. I would love to have a tree'd outline that I can click on and it bring up that portion of the story or chapter with out endless scrolling.

[This message has been edited by Alye (edited February 21, 2007).]


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InarticulateBabbler
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Robert Jordan CAN tell a story. He wrote a bunch of Conan stories for TOR--Conan: The Destroyer was made into a movie.

The WOT is a very, VERY dragged out story, but it's basically a Milieu story, such as Lord of the Rings.


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Survivor
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Robert Jordan is having some fun with his audience in the final years of his life. And perhaps extending those years a bit in the process. Whether or not he could tell a story to save his life, he certainly seems to have mastered the ancient art of not finishing it...to at least keep himself in the thoughts of a good many fans

Leaving Jordan aside, I think that a coincidence that creates a problem for the protagonist is fine. A coincidence that solves a problem for the protagonist is a definite no-no. What are the chances that an intelligent species that has only mastered the basics of normal space interstellar travel will chance to send a colonization mission to the planet of another intelligent species within, say, a thousand years of technological parity? Almost zero. But it happens all the time and nobody blinks, because that creates a problem. How often does a miracle drug come out that cures a condition that was previously incurable? Several times a year, but how would you like a story where the character's struggle with something was solved by somebody else like that?

Chris hit on this a little by pointing out that Mat, Perin, and Rand are often trying to "buck destiny" one way or another and being tavawhatsit isn't really useful for that.


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Elan
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Keep in mind that coincidence DOES happen in life...

For instance, my family was making a drive from Seattle to Portland. After 3 hours on the freeway, we found ourselves driving alongside my aunt, who was making an unrelated (and unbeknownst to us) trip from Seattle to the Oregon coast. What's the chance?

My two best friends met a guy, Rick, in college. After they graduated, they took a trip to Europe. After touring through Scotland, England, and Germany, they found themselves on a small tourist boat in the middle of the Mediterranian. One of the guys crewing that boat was Rick. What's the chance?

There's a theory that you know everyone in the world within six people. Malcolm Gladwell has written an interesting essay that delves into that subject in an article entitled Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg."

In some ways, if your characters never meet anyone they know, or encounter anything familiar, it's equally unrealistic.

That said, if you feel you have too many inplausible coincidences, take yourself through a 30-minute brainstorm. Kick around random ideas. If character A does this, what if XY happened? Or ZB? Or AZ?" Come up with ten different alternatives for the scene. It might get you thinking down a different path. The advice courtesy of "Plot and Structure," by James Scott Bell. It's helping me get past a similar issue.


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rstegman
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Elan

Write a story where one guy does data searches, tracing down exactly where someone is and their normal lifestyle.
They then arrange to "accidently" meet by "chance" like traveling and happening to be at the grocery store where the other character normally shops. The first person might be doing it for "evil" purposes.

"It is a coincidence that they met then and there."


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Christine
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I think Survivor said it best -- you can have coincidence in a story as long as it doesn't solve problems for the MC. The MC has to solve his/her own problems. You may be able to break this rule a little bit, but the more times you break it and the more extreme the breaking, the worse your story will be.

I'm not sure if Robert Jordan uses the ta'veren (I have no idea how to spell that word, either!) to explain coincidence. He uses it to explain Matt's luck...it is more than coincidence that every game of dice he got into came up with all 6's. The concept seems to be more a combination of destiny, luck, and charisma. Coincidence is something else -- something more sinister.

I would have to disagree, too, that Jordan can't tell a story. You may not like his stories (and they do have some failings that you can latch onto and run with) but dismissing him as a bad storyteller...well, obviously people think he is a good storyteller or they wouldn't keep buying his books. (after book after book.... )


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Robert Nowall
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It used to be said of Edgar Rice Burroughs's work, that if a man, a woman, and a saber-toothed tiger were all within a thousand miles of each other in the wilderness, they would all meet up.

I think a certain amount of coincidence and dumb luck gets a story going. (Why, after all, in real life, does anybody, say, walk through a door into such-and-such store?) But try to be a little realistic about it. (Give your hero some reason for going into the store, like he needs to buy something they sell.)


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ChrisOwens
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Though this is sort of off topic, I too, for what it's worth, cast my lot for Robert Jordan. I think it's highly unfair to say he cannot write a story.

True, he can be overdescriptive. Like all writers he's not infallible and thus is open to critisim. It might not to everyone's taste or choice, but he can write a story. And a good and highly publishable one at that. I doubt it's possible for him to have many publishable imitators. Many might try, very few would succeed.

If you can do better, than by all means do so. When you earn more credentials he has, then you can come back and throw stones.


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InarticulateBabbler
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Does yor MC notice these coincidences, or just you? If the MC starts to notice a lot of coincidences, maybe he's having a psychic experience. I would CONSIDER that as a solution, if it fit in with the plot.
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RMatthewWare
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Oh come on Chris, we can throw all the stones we want. That's the point of being less published than someone. If someone has more money, more credentials, more fans, they're an easy target. If we have more than him, it won't be fun to throw stones. You don't have to be a writer of novels to be a book critic.

People like Robert Jordan, though, with all their success can buy stone-proof windows. I doubt many successful writers care what us underlings say.

In all seriousness, have you noticed the level of sainthood that is bestowed on some authors? It seems you can't criticize CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, or JK Rowling (the fact that each of these authors uses only initials for their first name is purely coincidental). It seems once a writer achieves a certain level of respect they can do no wrong. There's stuff by Tolkien and Lewis I don't like. Even some aspects of Harry Potter I may not like (though not much). Try going into a Harry Potter forum and say anything negative about the books. I doubt it will be pretty. I wonder why this is?

Matt


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EricJamesStone
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quote:
I think Survivor said it best -- you can have coincidence in a story as long as it doesn't solve problems for the MC. The MC has to solve his/her own problems. You may be able to break this rule a little bit, but the more times you break it and the more extreme the breaking, the worse your story will be.

Ditto.


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Max Masterson
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"I would have to disagree, too, that Jordan can't tell a story. You may not like his stories (and they do have some failings that you can latch onto and run with) but dismissing him as a bad storyteller...well, obviously people think he is a good storyteller or they wouldn't keep buying his books. (after book after book.... )"

After the fifth (I think) book I kept reading mainly to find out how it ended. The actual books made me feel frustrated as much more than entertained because he dragged the story out for so long, introduced so many more storylines and never tied any off. For this reason I own knife of dreams but won't start reading it till I know there will be a final book.

That being said I do think he does a lot of things right, and I would love to be as good a writer as him. I just hope I can avoid frustrating any readers I might one day have in the same way he frustrates me.


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Survivor
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I've said this about Jordan before, but the first three books form a dramatically complete and cohesive narrative that properly resolves the primary tension introduced early in the first book, namely whether Rand is the actual Dragon Reborn or just some poor sucker who's going to be hunted down and severed by the Aes Sedai[sp?] or meet some even less pleasant fate.

There are more than three books because Jordan isn't insane about "artistic integrity" and whatnot. He's a pro who's getting paid, and he probably also likes writing about the "continuing adventures" of Rand al'Thor and friends.

I've also said that I have no problem with JK Rowling, but her books are completely unreadable, though I enjoyed each movie better than the last until I made the mistake of really trying to read one of her books I still haven't watched The Goblet of Fire because of having tried to read the book. Eventually, I'll probably recover, or at least forget how horrible the writing was, and then I'll be able to watch the movie without any problem. Or maybe I'll just skip that first scene, the one that forced me to recall the chapter I read.

The thing is, my personal opinion of her writing style isn't a big deal, and if I harp on it I'll probably remember that chapter forever and then I'll never be able to enjoy the movie. I don't want that.


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RMatthewWare
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I personally love JK Rowling's writing. But I find it refreshing that other people don't. It gives me hope to know that successful writers aren't these monolithic overlords of the written word. They're just normal (well, not normal, because I doubt any writer is) people trying to share their imagination with us.

Matt


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Survivor
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I actually did like some of her prose style, I think. I'm trying to avoid remembering anything I didn't like, though. Before, I've always quit after a page or two and waited for the movie. This last time somebody had the bright idea of encouraging people to read the book before seeing the movie.

I don't think that's a particularly good idea even if you know you'll like both. Books and movies are just too different. The better either or both are, the more different they're going to be because movies and books have different strengths as fundamental media. As long as the adaptation is faithful to the basic dramatic structure of the original, that's good enough. I mean, even though it would be fun to see the Starship Troopers version of Harry Potter where magic really is just evil and Voldemort is the hero because he seeks to divorce it from the mundane world for the protection of the innocent and all, that would clearly be completely opposite of the book, rather than simply a different way of telling the same story.


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quantumphotonkid
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The problem problem with coincidences in fiction is that fiction needs to be more believable that reality. The idea is that you can believe the unrealistic/highly improbable when it really happens, because with reality you're inclined to believe things. In fiction, the unrealistic/highly improbable shouldn't occur, because readers already need a suspension of disbelief, and these kinds of coincidences break that suspension. (I actually presented this discrepancy in a philosophy paper I wrote. Basically I argued that given the real world and a virtual world, you can identify the real world because it will feel LESS real.)

On the other hand, Survivor is right in saying that coincidences that create problems are generally fine, although if overused it can get really annoying. I think it's best to have someone consciously resist the MC's. You want to avoid the Deus Ex Machina, or the happenstance miraculous event that SOLVES everything. I'm alright when characters get lucky every now and then, but if they're getting by on luck, then they're probably in the wrong occupation.

As far as software goes, I don't tend to use outlines and such, it's usually all in my head. What few maps/outlines/character descriptions I DO have are usually either on paper or just at the end of the document I'm working on so can hit CTRL End and go there quickly. You could just try having multiple windows up and using ALT Tap to switch between them.


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Christine
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quote:
The better either or both are, the more different they're going to be because movies and books have different strengths as fundamental media.

I agree. This is why I found the first two movies in the series so utterly deplorable. hey tried to "stay true to the book" and ended up being animated summaries rather than movies.

I will continue to read the books first, though, because I tend to like that medium better and so when it comes to the reveals and the surprises, I would rather experience them through that format.


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Alye
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I didn't mean to say that Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time is bad or written wrong. I enjoyed it, as long as I skipped over his descriptive monologue. And I believe he coped with an excessive coincidence problem with using his tav'eren device.

In my story I'm trying to get 6 different people to meet up and Iím having a hard time making it work out. Mostly it seems like "Oh look the Blue valkery needs food badly." "Hey I have Food. Letís group." So, I scrapped it and started over

So far I have decided to have a war break out that is pushing the outlying farmers and small townís people to the bigger cities and that is helping. I think I am going to have to cut down the size of my world, they have to travel to far at this point to meet up by chance.


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RMatthewWare
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Christopher Columbus has no imagination (compare Harry Potter 1-2 to 3-4).

Speaking of Deus Ex Machina, didn't it seem that Harry survived the first two books by pure dumb luck? If he weren't the main character, he'd be dead. Of course, it doesn't hurt that he has Hermione, who is smarter, calmer, better at magic, than Harry could ever hope to be.

But you do have to rely on coincidence a lot. Otherwise plot would never happen. I think the measure is you: if you say 'gee, all of this seems to happen a little too easy', that should be your clue.

Matt


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Christine
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I have been working on the climax of my novel this week (yes, I'm almost done!!) and I thought I could add something to this discussion. As I'm working through this elaborate chase and escape scene, I keep hitting a block and thinking, "How do I get them out of this without a huge coincidence?" The answer...plants. I don't go back and do them until the end, but I have a companion file for every novel I write and as I realize that I need something to have happened earlier in the story for things to work, I make a note of it. Things like, "Her father gave her this special device before he died." or "Someone mention the underground bunker beneath the palace."

When things are properly set up, very little needs to look like coincidence. You can either make this work through extensive planning or, as I prefer, by planting seeds in the redraft after you figure out for sure what you'll need.


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