I read a book yesterday. It was entertaining, but there were certain aspects that bothered me. One of which was the string of coincidences that it took to construct the story. Now, I've never done any sort of informed study on coincidence in narrative, or discussed it to any great length with anyone but the voices in my head... err, umm, ignore that last comment... but I've been working out my own little theories etc., recently, and now you shall fall victim to my ramblings and said topic. Or you'll go away and not read this.

I think a major coincidence can be used in narrative, but I think its best usage is when it is the initial crux of a story. That coincidence can be the reason the story is worth telling in the first place. The problems arise when coincidence is used to bridge some plot points because the storyteller doesn't take the time to think out a logical filling to their hole. I would imagine much of this is done without thinking on the storyteller's part. They just see the resolution and fail to think about the full impact.

Now, what I have found, from both myself and others, is that if the audience is sold on the story they will usually overlook these monumental coincidences. They are at this point along for the ride and will buy anything the story throws their way. When people are fully immersed in their entertainment, that is the world they perceive in, and they believe what they are told. There often takes some sort of mental disconnect for people to start seeing plot holes and incongruities and the more painful brand of coincidences.

An example of this would be the most recent Star Trek movie. I was discussing it with a friend who enjoyed the movie much more than myself (though I did enjoy it, just to a limited degree). And I cited one of my complaints as a very large coincidence that occurs in the middle of the movie in order to get some major cogs in the mix. He had not thought about it because he was fully immersed whereas I was being a bit stuck up about the whole thing and looking for holes. (This does not make me a better critic. In fact, I think I have lost something in my audienceship that often removes me from my story experiences. That is a discussion for another time. (probably never, heh) So again, it does not make me a better critic, it makes me more of a naysayer who does not represent the worthwhile audience, and thus should probably not be speaking. (That was your queue to stop reading.)) Anyways, in this example, the coincidence is a very crucial bridge/information dump to get the final resolution in motion. If I wasn't out of the movie before, this really took me out, and then I started finding other nonsensical circumstances etc.

I would say the thing to look for in a coincidence is whether or not it betters the story. Not the effects of the incident but the incident itself. The very fact that it is a coincidence needs to be worthwhile to the efforts of the story. Otherwise things start feeling unsettled. Now again, the beginning, or the beginning of the crux is often a fine place for a coincidence. An example; I have heard Dickens referred to as a wide user of coincidence. I have limited experience with him, and all I can recall from what I have read is the major crux of A Tale of Two Cities being built on a rather rare coincidence. However, if you took this away, or made it a logical conclusion (like if they were brothers, or perhaps related) I honestly don't think the story was worth telling. Often even in non-fictional storytelling, it is the coincidence that makes the story get told.

Now, what exactly falls victim to the usage of an unneeded coincidence? What does it hurt? Well the first thing would be believability. Now one might argue, "So you are arguing for believability in a movie called Star Trek... are you seeing a disconnect, Mr. Selfimportantblogperson." Well yes, any fictional story permits any degree of coincidence, and some degree of believability gets thrown out the window when every you watch a movie steeped in fantasy, future or faery. But coincidence is a universal occurrence and people have a limited tolerability towards it, and if you rely on it too awkwardly you will start dropping the curtain hiding the man controlling the show.

Another victim to the coincidence is the storyteller misses a key opportunity to build their characters. When you make the event happen outside of the character they are not movers. This works well to start out, but you want to start making your characters movers of events, even if they are moving wrongly and faulted. There is a place for a character needing to react to things out of their control, in which case they aren't the mover but that is what you have other characters and systems for. Save the coincidence for the initiation of the story (or again a key beginning).

I have seen another approach to this, which was quite ingenious, though potentially dangerous to the story. (I bet Robert Jordan/James Rigney danced a jig when he thought this idea up). And that is build into your world system a means for a coincidence to actually make rational sense. Now, you need to again be wary of the second problem I discussed, and not over use this to the detriment of making the characters active in their problems and resolutions, but despite many other things that went wrong with the series, I don't feel that his use of the rational coincidence was detrimental.

Now there is another important factor to discuss: I believe in divine providence. So is my reluctance to accept an amazing coincidence to resolve a plot gap but would rather the human factor be key in bringing about the resolution my personal desire for humanity to control its destiny? Am I doubting God when I have this natural aversion to coincidence for resolution? I would argue no. Though there may be more substance to these questions than I would like to admit. But I will ignore that substance to make myself feel better. (Okay that's not entirely true, but I have no idea where I'd go with it in the midst of this writing. Heck, I'm having a doozy of a time trying to start this next paragraph as it is.)

I am growing amazed by the number of various discussions this just created in my head. (Did I just admit to having voices in my head again? Drat!) And there are certainly far more I have yet to stumble on. Several more, which my limits hinder me from stumbling upon. I feel bad ending this at an unresolved point which is probably my most interesting of the write, but I cannot find a means to resolve the can I just opened. Especially not succinctly, and I have already out-written a digestible length of blogspeak.


Stuart said...

Ah, sad. I don't get to hear the ending. "Snip, snap, snout. This tale's told out."

I can comment more constructively if I get some free time. =)

AedonTor said...

Phew. That means you won't comment constructively. Then I might have to respond and be smartish.

avallak said...

I definitely agree about Star Trek. I thoroughly enjoyed the film, but the major coincidence at the turning point did throw me for a bit.

Another corollary is the use of luck as plot devices. That was one of the biggest problems in Episode 1. Anakin wasn't necessarily active, just lucky.

Lazy storytelling is always fun.