Walking backwards into the future (hindsight)

Coincidentally, before the terrorist shootings in San Bernardino, I had been thinking about coincidence, and unintended consequences as topics for today’s post.

I read some sensible advice years ago that an author should allow himself no more than one coincidence per story. They are plausibility’s foe, and thus the writer’s foe. I know. They happen. But that’s in real life, which is allowed to be less logical and plausible than fiction.

You’re safely past this piece’s token coincidence now, so let’s talk about the fiction writer’s friend and reality’s foe – unintended consequences.

The difference between coincidence – chance, and something you could have seen coming is twofold – for the writer. The first is that unintended consequences are obvious… in hindsight. Having people who were not assimilated and felt greater bonds to a foreign theocracy with dominates every aspect of their lives, socially, politically and ethically, rather than the country they live in and people of that country… has to end in tears. Some people, too close to it, or too insulated from it, were able to deceive themselves. In hindsight: the tragedies in Paris, and in San Bernardino feel like a natural consequence, plausible and obvious from the beginning, that this terrorism was going to happen.

The reader may be surprised (see part two) but coincidence was not invoked. It was a logical consequence, one foreseen by some folk, just unforeseen, particularly by those who didn’t WANT to see it. How often is that not just like a character in a story? How often is that not like any of us? We all – some to a much greater extent than others – see what we want to see.

The second is that given the close proximity of the character to events… if you do it right, if you draw your reader in to a close bond with the character, it’s perfectly plausible that the reader doesn’t see the bigger picture until later (when it seems perfectly logical). And if the reader didn’t see it, he has no problem with the character not seeing that. We do not see the vast forest for the close trees ourselves. There’s nothing un-natural with a character not doing that.

But, I hear you say, what with the writer needing unintended consequences at all. Why not have it all running on rails, happening as planned?

And why not have it obvious from the first?

I’m sure there are books so telegraphed ahead that yes, you knew the white middle aged conservative heterosexual businessman was the villain and how and what he’d done before you’d finished page one. The trouble is that is as both boring as plain stale white bread every single day… and implausible. It sets off our BS meters because, even if you believe those are the sum of all villains, nothing works like it is supposed to. Not ever. We all know that, at a visceral level, even without logic. Besides… it is always what goes wrong – and how the hero/villain copes with it, that makes a story. It’s one of the problems with the paint-by-numbers hierarchy of tick-box stereotypes common in modern PC dictated writing. You know, before you get three lines in what the intended consequences of actions of each character type are. Disbelief is not suspended for an awful lot of readers.

The unintended consequence of this short-term, too-close-to-the-picture course – which must have seemed logical, and maybe even well-meant, to those orchestrating it… is pretty obvious in hindsight. Loss of sales, preaching only to the converted, and a loss of traditionally published authors who don’t fulfil the stereotype. And, predictably, in hindsight, the success of authors who broke the mold, and the bitter and vicious reactions of those who followed the recipe to the letter…

Of course, the advantage over real life is that an author has, is that what to the characters he is writing about is an unintended consequence – to the character, is quite plausibly the intended outcome for the writer. We can see the bigger picture… and we can deceive the reader into travelling in the head-space of the character, who doesn’t see it… and then it happens, and it all makes perfect sense. In hindsight. A perfect thing, hindsight.

Do it well, and you’ll have people love your books. Use coincidence and chance and they won’t. They won’t even know why. Look at books you have loved and hated (particularly in murder mystery field) and suddenly this will make sense – you will be seeing the author’s bigger picture, and how they led you to bind so closely to the characters that you didn’t see it.

Maybe we should walk backwards into the future?


  1. Just watched the latest James Bond here in Japan (yes I know it was released earlier elsewhere) and it seems to be that it is an object lesson in stupid coincidences (as indeed was the previous one come to think of it).

    Since James Bond is all about explosions and dramatic chases and pretty girls the fact that the plot was driven by stupid behavior and ridiculous coincidences doesn’t really matter – for this movie. But in part that’s because the Bond universe has the depth of background and characters etc. to paper over the worst bits.

    Of course if Bond continues to have coincidence driven plots even it will end up driving away its fan base despite the past loyalty

      1. James Bond is the decoy. The bad guys keep an eye on him and the real spies slip in unnoticed. [Evil Grin]

  2. Fortunately, you don’t need to suffer coincidences, if you haven’t published the draft yet: you can go back earlier, and layer in foreshadowing to make the “coincidence” merely the unintended (or intended) consequence.

    We know Chekov’s law: “If there is a gun on the mantle in the first act, it must go off by the third act.”
    I like Brandon Sanderson’s Corollary: “If you have a gun go off in the third act, you should probably go back and put in on the mantle in the first act.”

    Real life, being lived linearly at one second per second, allows no such liberties. (Although sometimes the miracles that occur make me wonder if G-d is outside time, and layers in suggestions as needed to ensure outcomes despite free will. Then my head starts to hurt.)

    1. Real life, being lived linearly at one second per second, allows no such liberties. (Although sometimes the miracles that occur make me wonder if G-d is outside time, and layers in suggestions as needed to ensure outcomes despite free will. Then my head starts to hurt.)

      Time is part of His creation. For Him everything happens at once. If I could get my head around what that really means I should probably understand the freewill/predestination conundrum. As it is, it just makes my head hurt.

  3. “you knew the white middle aged conservative heterosexual businessman was the villain”

    And of course, the moment the villain isn’t this, you’re “racist”. See how the Left freaks out over movies like Lone Survivor and American Sniper for having Islamic fundamentalist villains, despite the fact both movies are grounded in fact.

  4. Coincidences should be put as early into the story as possible. Most coincidences can be handled as the inciting incident. (L.M. Montgomery once handled one by putting it into the title, “Materialization of Duncan McTavish.”)

  5. “I’m sure there are books so telegraphed ahead that yes, you knew the white middle aged conservative heterosexual businessman was the villain and how and what he’d done before you’d finished page one.”

    There are books that don’t?

      1. Okay, I wasn’t (though I should have been) expecting that one! Lol. True enough, though. You do write them! 😀

  6. I can forgive one off-the-wall coincidence at the beginning of a book, if the story is really, really good.

    It was only on re-reading Vernor Vinge’s Fire on the Deep that I realized it was kind of odd that the human’s ship crash landed exactly where it did, to get involved in the entanglements of the primitive alien factions. but the story swept me along so that I hardly noticed.

    Fantasy has an easier time. Why did Bilbo of all people find the Ring in the dark? He was just meant to.

    1. Tolkien had Gandalf imply that it was planned (but not by himself). It fits into the Christian world-view that God intended Bilbo to find the One Ring.

      1. Ilúvatar to be precise. Unless our present was Middle Earth’s future – which could be canonical considering some portions of The Lord of the Ring and CS Lewis’ mention of Numenor in That Hideous Strength. Either way, it made the happenstance probable and gave some mythic resonance to things like Bilbo finding the Ring and the prophetic dream-messages that sent Boromir to the Council of Elrond.

    2. Bilbo and the ring are something besides coincidence. Coincidence is going to a restaurant nearly halfway around the world and meeting someone from your home town (which happened to my father-in-law). Bilbo ends up with the ring because he meets Gollum deep within a mountain. Now if it had turned out that they had went to school together in the Shire, that would have been a coincidence.

      That said, I’m trying to wrap my head around the coincidence thing. A character winds up an an inn run by a man who knew her father. Except neither knows it until much later, and their common link doesn’t affect the plot (though his experience does). That they meet at all isn’t unusual in that it was already established the area was settled by veterans of a particular military company. Or at least I think it’s not. Coincidence?

      The same yarn had refuges headed for a city, and there a character discovers some they know from the same town. Coincidence?

      In a sequel, some expatriates have fallen in with raiders, who sought them because they knew the country where they were headed. One is from the first novel and discovers one of his enemies share the same love interest. This smells like coincidence to me. Does the circumstances make it less than one?

      1. Unless meeting that person – at that particular time – is plot-critical, I don’t think this is the sort of coincidence we’re talking about. Bumping into someone and using them as an info-dump excuse (“so, what have you been up to?” or having a beer and filling in backstory “remember that battle on Cerberus IV?”) seems a workable device to me. (Please push back if you disagree.)

        This is more, “Oh, look! The magic sword I need to kill the dragon is just laying on the path to its lair.” The “how convenient” sort of thing. Infinite ammo seems to be closely related.

        BTW: Wouldn’t a magic pike – or trebuchet – be a better choice? You would have to get awfully close to a dragon to use a sword, magic or otherwise.

        1. If Bilbo doesn’t find the ring, there’s no story. Which is why we don’t hear about all the other people who went down in the tunnel and whom Gollum ate. (Which is such a small number he negatively affected the cave fish population, but hey, a Gollum’s gotta eat.)

      2. “…One is from the first novel and discovers one of his enemies share the same love interest. …”

        Coincidence or not, I hate that kind of plot device. I can get past it if it’s not over emphasized, and/or it’s a really awesome book, but few things (aside from bullpucky SJW message insertion) can turn me off of a book faster than a “love triangle” or similar contrivance. No thanks. Sorry, just felt like sharing, heh… 🙂 *sheepish look*

        1. Actually, that’s good feed-back. Since in novel one the love interest sent the guy packing by applying a quarter staff to the rump, there’s not much of a triangle.

      1. True, the One Ring wanted to leave Gollum and to its Master which is why It had slipped out of Gollum’s control.

        However, the fact that Bilbo found it not somebody else was out of the One Ring’s control.

        An Orc would have been a better choice from the One Ring’s Point of View. [Smile]

        1. Good point! The ring may have wanted to be found, but Bilbo certainly wouldn’t have been its first choice.

  7. In my series about gods coming back, I have a Hindu god as the bad guy. Now, he’s sympathetic and the hero of his own story kind of way, but he’s Hindu. I told my brother that the bad guy was Indian and he said, “isn’t that kind of racist?” How? And also Greeks used to be considered minorities in this country so having them be the main good guys (well, some of them 🙂 could be considered to cancel out the bad guy cuz he’s brown. 🙂 when I pushed back against his statement, he was like ok, but the fact that it was a knee jerk reaction to say making a bad guy brown is racist is very telling about our culture.

    1. I’ve been kinda waiting for that with the Colplatschki books, notably _Blackbird_. But 1) not enough people have read it yet for the “oh my gaawwd/gaawdess! She’s insulting [religions] and [ethnicity]!!!!” crowd to find it and 2) the folks who figure out who Selkow is probably know enough to nod and go “Yup. Perfectly plausible development.”

    2. There was a ‘we’re still racist’ article in one of today’s papers here in Oz. They had two blindfold guys (one black one white) in a shopping mall, with signs saying they were blind. The white guy got a handshake and a few hugs, from white passers-by, the black guy didn’t. The black guy didn’t cop any abuse… but the white guy did (for being in the way). This is interpreted as ‘racist’. ;-/ Is it?

      1. I see treating people differently based on color/race as racist, even if you’re treating a minority better because they are a minority. So in my mind, *not* casting someone as the bad guy merely because he is brown is racist.

        I’d need more information to tell if the situation in the mall showed actual racism. For instance, they said the white guy got some good and bad feedback from whites, where the black guy was left alone by them. How did black people act towards both of them? Also, there could be other factors the people running the experiment overlooked. It’s very difficult to control for all variables except for the one in social experimentation.

        1. “I see treating people differently based on color/race as racist, even if you’re treating a minority better because they are a minority. “

          This being what Dr. King was telling us when content of character, not color of skin was the topic, as I understand it. To treat a man as a thing is inhuman. I believe that behavior is at the root of why the new racists, those folk who’re projecting their prejudice on all around them, are so very wrong. You can’t create virtue while you’re busy denying such basic truths.

  8. “…loss of traditionally published authors who don’t fulfil the stereotype.” — Sounds like a business opportunity to me. I.e., I expect there are well-meaning agents out there who will have to change careers as the Big 6 drop, one by one, to the Small 2 (or whatever) – smart ones might say “I wonder whatever happened to X – he wrote a several really promising books for BigPub Y, then we never heard from him again. Wonder if he’d be interested in the new indy market, if someone encouraged him, & provided some services to get started…”

    (I’m assuming some agents are behaving as badly as the stories indicate mostly because they’ve been caught up in what the publishers & their peers expect, and could re-invent themselves.)

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