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Robert's Rules of Writing #50: Don't Push Your Luck

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

Wow. We've made it virtually halfway through the book. I want to take this moment to thank those of you who have chosen to accompany me on my journey so far, and I hope you'll stick around for the second half. When I started these mini-essays commenting on Masello's rules, a lot of people seemed interested. I hope people have continued to enjoy these posts, and if you have constructive suggestions, by all means please let me know in the comments.

Masello's rule #50 is one I've run across before in other writing guides. Boiled down to one sentence, it is as follows:

Coincidence can start a story or make things worse for your protagonist, but it should never be used to make things better.

To be honest, there isn't much I could say to improve on Masello's own essay about this rule, and rather than quote him extensively I urge everyone to go out and buy the book (if you haven't done so already). Basically, readers will accept a coincidence to kick off the story, especially if the characters make it clear as well how bizarre they find it. They'll also accept anything that works against your character. But using coincidence to make things better smacks of cheating. Readers prefer it when a protagonist solves his or her problems through skill or ingenuity rather than through coincidence.

I briefly considered citing examples of coincidence from my own fiction, but at the moment I'm having trouble thinking of any. (Although I'm sure that they exist.) So instead, I'll end this post by opening it up to comments on the question of coincidence. Have you ever read a story where coincidence threw you right out of the fictional world? Or have you ever read a story where a piece of coincidence worked extremely well for you? Feel free to share.

Copyright © Michael Burstein


This rule is resoundingly broken by Connie Willis in To Say Nothing of the Dog. But! This only works for a reader in the context of the book, where it is revealed that increasing levels of coincidences is a symptom of a bigger problem. If you miss that part of the book, it becomes stupid and pointless (As I've heard other people report about it) instead of brilliantly structured.
But that novel is a deliberately humorous work. Coincidence can work far better there.

Peter David tells a story of the time he was writing the Hulk comic book. He had forgotten to get Rick Jones, the sidekick, off an exploding Skrull spaceship. So he decided to make the problem work for him. In the next panel, Rick falls gently to Earth using a parachute. He explains that ever since he started adventuring with the Hulk, he always wore a parachute just in case he would have to escape from an exploding Skrull spaceship. When someone points out to him how ridiculous that sounds, he simply replies, "Why? I had to, didn't I?" For which, of course, there is no reply.
For some reason, all I can think about are examples of the opposite. Examples of writing that disrupts my suspension of disbelief by containing "coincidences" that turn out to be "on purpose".

An example, in "Ender's Game" Bean finds a coil of some flexible, spring like wire, which becomes important in the plot. It helps kick Ender out of the depression he keeps tending to slide into. It's presented as a coincidence. I have no problem with it being a coincidence. By itself, the wire just is, but it's the talented Ender that sees the wire as something useful, rather than a distraction to be discarded or ignored. In "Ender's Shadow" we find out Bean went through a complete inventory of the station and asked the authorities for it, to help even the odds for Ender (and to prevent Ender from having a complete nervous breakdown). I liked it better as a coincidence.

I honestly don't remember the coil of wire. Still, that doesn't strike me as such an egregious coincidence.
well, this is basically the problem with the entire Ender's Shadow book: everything in Ender's Game, which was a great book, is part of the genius Bean's planning. It was really, really stupid.

There's even a part where they reveal that Ender's parents are actually geniuses, but they pretend not to be for no good reason, which is why they seemed like average people in the original. That whole book (Shadow, that is) just made me angry.
Interesting. I too watch Lost, find the coincidences ridiculous, and am assuming that there is a rationale behind them that will eventually be revealed.

I hope.
Arrrgh, I know that this has driven me crazy, but I can't think of any examples! I feel as if it's pretty common in police procedurals, though. In my own work, I decided early on that a coincidence was acceptable if it started the story, but they should otherwise be carefully avoided. I don't know that I always succeed at that; I've had moments in which I've noticed that some element just happens to work, though I'm again having trouble thinking of a specific example.

I feel as though I came up with my rule in reaction to something specific I read, though. This is going to drive me crazy all day -- thanks, Michael! :>
Always a pleasure to help out. :-)
I've definitely still been enjoying these mini-essays. Thanks again for posting them.
You're welcome!
I have a problem sometimes with coincidences that make things worse for the protagonist as well as coincidences that make them better. It isn't always bad, but if they keep happening, I roll my eyes and go, "the only reason this crap keeps occurring is that if it didn't, they'd've wound things up on page twelve and couldn't sell a book." It can be frustrating when a protagonist's good plan, well-executed, keeps running into arbitrary glitches.

That said, one of my favorite little-known movies ever relied, as its primary plot device, on a freak string of incredibly good luck. _Let It Ride_, a Richard Dreyfus picture about a small time horseplayer who has one really incredibly good day at the track, works partly because the suspense about whether it will hold up through the last race gets to be incredible, and partly because the actual interest in the film isn't really plot based, it's about how the people involved *react* to the luck, and what decisions they make about how to handle it as it progresses.
You know, I've had that movie recommended to me before. I'm now trying to remember if you were the one who recommended it...
like other say, I don't know is bad coincidences are always acceptable. To me, any kind of coincidence looks like laziness, or just poor planning. Once the story starts sounding unrealistic, it starts to lose me.

If you really need something unlikely to happen, at least foreshadow it a little bit. If the gritty detective needs access to the subway system, then he shouldn't say 'Hey, my uncle worked as a conductor for 20 years!' all of a sudden. The uncle should have introduced on page 2 for some other reason.

likewise, if you want the hero's car to break down at a crucial juncture, establish early and often that he drives a piece of junk, and it breaks down all the time.
One writing book I read noted how the lightning bolt that causes a fire in The Dead Zone is set up quite nicely, by an early scene of a lightning rod salesman testifying as to the unpredictibility of the weather.

It's really the only way to do it.
Thank you! Sometimes I think a wild coincidence makes the story humorous, whether intended or not....
Irene Radford is guilty of coincidence overloard. Especially in her later volumes of the series started with The Glass Dragon. Maybe it was just that I read the earlier ones when I was younger, but reading the later volumes at 19-20 I was thrown off by how many times two characters would just HAPPEN to be in the SAME place at the SAME time to hear/exchange/see a CRUICIAL piece of information, that could have happened at any time or place.


Haven't read them, but I know what you mean....
I'm assuming that if people are responding here, then they're actually enjoying these. :-)
Although I do always like to point out that even logic must give way to physics.
It isn't fair that coincidence, which we know happens all the time in real life, is so risky in fiction. On the other hand, most real-life coincidences are quite meaningless - you see someone's name just after you've been thinking about them, you discover that someone you've just met shares some of their past history with you - and the things which threaten belief in fiction are aften ways to kick the plot in a certain direction.

And, of course, if you do them right I'll be so absorbed in the plot that I won't notice that they're coincidences (not to mention that, as others have pointed out, if you do it right you can prepare them enough that they'll barely be coincidences).

Count my vote against the "coincidence is OK as long as it's bad luck" argument, too, please!

December 2016

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