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?