The Problem Of Coincidence

CoincidencesI’ve submitted my new manuscript, and am busy brainstorming new story ideas. Some have potential, and some don’t. One didn’t fly because it depended on a coincidence. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction, and coincidences seem to happen all the time in real life. Some people don’t believe anything occurs by chance. They put coincidence down to some sort of cosmic plan – synchronicity. Paths always cross for reasons that are more important than you think. I quite like this theory, it resonates with me.

However there’s one thing I’m absolutely convinced about – coincidences don’t work in fiction. They’re the quickest way to ruin the suspension of disbelief that all authors rely on in their readers. They’re a bit (dare I say it) like Doctor Who‘s magical sonic screwdriver – all a bit too convenient. For your information, if you’re not a mad Doctor Who fan, some functions of the sonic screwdriver are as follows:

  • sonic screwdriverTo pick locks
  • Burn and cut all kinds of substances
  • Amplify sound-waves and the power of an X-ray machine beyond its normal capacity
  • Disarm weapons and electronic
  • Intercept and conduct teleportation
  • Act as a microphone
  • Conduct medical scans
  • Remotely control the Tardis and other devices
  • Track alien life forms
  • Control the properties of atoms
  • Operate computers
  • Provide Geo-location
  • Get cash from an ATM
  • Light candles
  • Act as a mobile phone
  • Disclose and deactivate camouflage
  • Destroy Weeping Angels
  • Disarm robots
  • Scan and classify matter
  • Create an “acoustic corridor” for speaking with someone far away
  • Act as a defensive weapon
  • And last but not least, to tighten and loosen screws

CoincidencesYou see, I think that’s cheating. Along with allies or enemies appearing at just the right moment, un-foreshadowed random secrets and questionably handy skiIls possessed by the hero. Coincidences fall into the category of lazy writing – a sure sign of poor plotting. Readers roll their eyes. It’s alright to use them to get characters into trouble, but not out. Of course, it’s not a coincidence if it’s adequately foreshadowed. If a convenient character needs to appear, mention him earlier. If your hero can speak Latin, show him learning it, and for a plausible reason. This will keep the magic of pretence alive.

Congratulations to Carol Warner for winning the prize in last week’s draw. A copy of Turtle Reef and Billabong Bend will be heading your way soon! I’ll email you for your postal address.


An Original Idea + Book Giveaway

story ideas 3I’m envious of other writers who have umpteen story ideas swirling around in their head at once. I was talking to an author friend the other day about getting inspiration. She has twenty different story outlines in her bottom drawer. ‘I can look at the headlines in a newspaper,’ she said, ‘and get three or four ideas for a novel then and there. My problem is that once I’m 150 pages into a novel, my mind is already ranging ahead to the next project.’ I looked at her askance and made some unfavourable comparisons. When I’m 150 pages into a novel I still have no idea what my next project will be about!

Story ideas 1But being a novelist means writing new books, so an idea is kind of essential. It’s the foundation for your new story, and I’m always overjoyed when it finally comes to me. I don’t mean a fully realised plot –  It could just be a theme, or a main incident. It could be a character, or scene. A line of dialogue or setting. It’s simply that first kernel of an idea, and for me it’s my guiding light. Everything else might change, but not this.Then I think about my characters, who emerge pretty quickly at this point. Who are they at the beginning and who will they be at the end? A little thought at this early stage ensures well-developed character arcs, and saves a lot of hit-or-miss writing. By this time a theme will be emerging, and I like to have it in mind before I start. It will keep the book heading in a consistent direction, and add emotional depth.

Story Ideas 2Then I play the ‘what if?‘ game. Your initial idea might be a selfish man decides to turn his life around. Then play what if. What if the man is a cat burglar? Better. What if he wants to put stolen stuff back? What if his plans are frustrated by a detective that is getting too close? What if he needs to put stuff back in that detective’s own house? The original idea is getting fleshed out.

Now, whenever I read a book or watch a film, I try to work out what was the original idea that the creator had. Babe – what if a pig was raised by sheep-dogs? The Verdict – what if an alcoholic lawyer took on a hopeless case against the best attorneys in the land? Gone With The Wind – what if it fell to a spoilt southern belle to defend her family’s plantation during the Civil War? The Wizard Of Oz – what if a little girl is stuck in a strange land and can’t get home? This game is fun, try it. It can also give you the tagline for your book, distilling the narrative down to its essentials. What if a repentant cat burglar decided to put everything back? Good idea. It’s probably been done before, but each telling of a story will be different.

Anyway, I’ve got an idea for my next story, and Penguin have given it the nod. Now all I have to do is write it!

To celebrate my new contract, and reaching 40,000 views on this blog, I’m giving away 2 copies of Billabong Bend. (If you’d rather another one of my books just say.)Thank you to all my readers. To go in the draw, just comment on this post. (Aust and NZ only) Winners announced 22nd December.