Once upon a time, back in the days when the big summer blockbusters were Greek and Roman tragedies, it was common for a god to be delivered on stage by a crane-like machine to determine a play’s final outcome, bestowing consequences and resolutions from out of the sky. Today, we call that Deus Ex Machina (God from a machine), and we use it to refer to a sudden, all-too-convenient and inexplicable coincidence that provides a neat and tidy solution to a complex scenario.
As authors, we’re told to avoid this trope at all costs, and for good reason, as it pushes the limits of our audience’s belief and risks turning them off when we present a too-convenient coincidence to solve everybody’s problems.
But sometimes we just need a little help from fate to see our stories all the way through. And that’s ok. But there are more effective ways to set up those coincidences than dropping them in right at the critical moment.
In a recent article for Writer’s Digest, novelist and critically acclaimed storyteller Steven James suggested seven ways to turn heavy-handed coincidence into believable scenarios. The whole article is worth a read, but here’s my number-one takeaway:
To Make Coincidence Work, Be Proactive
To begin, James reminds us that every story starts with a coincidence.
“Stories begin when the author dips into the stream of cause and effect and pulls out a moment that initiates all that will follow. Readers accept this without consciously identifying the event as coincidental.”
Use this to your advantage, setting up any of the otherwise-random situational details and giving characters any hidden talents that will be required to solve things in the end, at the beginning, while readers are accepting coincidences as the inciting incidents and background information for the story.
For example, if speaking French is going to get your protagonist what he or she wants later on, be sure readers know at the outset that il parle français. Or if the family dog is going to save the day by digging up the missing heirloom at the crux of the conflict, introduce the dog’s uncontrollable digging habits early on.
And the opening scenes aren’t the only opportunities to alleviate coincidenc, according to James.
“Of all the scenes in your story, the climax should contain the least amount of coincidence. Foreshadowing is a powerful tool that can serve to remove coincidence, and thus the climax should be foreshadowed more than any other scene.”
Anything that ends up being critical in the climax needs to be introduced long before, or else it will seem too contrived when, suddenly, the protagonist suddenly has the skill/tool/characteristic/knowledge he or she needs. By equipping our characters with everything they need (and our readers with everything they need to believe) early on, we make the climax about causality rather than coincidence and, as James says, we let the hero save the day rather than being saved.
There’s a classic Anton Chekhov quote that says, if there’s a gun on the wall in act one, it had better go off by the end of act three. His point is to avoid red herrings, but if we reverse the advice, it’s equally valid:
If a gun’s going to go off in act three, we’d better see it on the wall in act one.