In the search for story or plot ideas, oftentimes novice novelists will come across an interesting, fascinating, quirky incident that they are absolutely sure will make a great novel. Perhaps it was a newspaper article, or an anecdote told by a friend.
The reason the idea is so compelling is because it involves a fascinating twist of fate. Coincidence, if you will. And here lies a snare – a trap that beginning fiction writers often fall prey to.
Only a Small Seed
First of all, keep in mind that when you grab at an idea to use as the basis for your plot, that idea should be only a small seed. This is your starting point. This little spark is the only thing about the plot that should come from outside the writer. Everything else about the story will be filtered through and formed by your own unique imagination and frame of reference.
In the years when I was teaching for a writer correspondence school (over 9 years, to be exact) I could spot when one of my students had created a plot from an actual happenstance. First of all, the plot was weak – pitifully weak. When I brought up the issue, the answer was invariably: “But that’s how it really happened.”
Fine, well, and good! Sorry to disappoint you, but your telling something exactly as it happens is not a plot!
Plot Evolves from Deep Emotion
True, genuine plots evolve from the deep emotions of the writer. That seldom happens when a story is built from an external source. It become flat and uneventful – and seldom grips the reader.
And that brings me to the point of the problem of using coincidence to get your character to a certain point in the story. Again, it’s often the quirky, coincidental aspect of an incident that grabs our attention and arouses our curiosity. While these types of things are fun and captivating in real life, in fiction it will always look like author manipulation.
Because a plot that relies on fate is a thin plot. It’s the “easy way out.” It’s the cavalry coming over the hill at the very moment the battle is almost lost. Okay, right, sure. Your reader is rolling her eyes. She may continue reading, but trust and respect for the author has been lost – or at least diminished somewhat.
The best way to forfeit the interest of most readers is to ask them to believe something that is not really believable. And that’s the point about a quirky, wild, off-the-wall coincidence or strange happenstance. In real life, its main appeal is that something unbelievable actually happened. This is not what your reader is looking for.
Any incident that has an “operatic” quality, or is coming from way out in left field, will most certainly come off as melodrama. Not the mark of a skilled novelist.
To rely on coincidence is the lazy way of writing. It’s a short cut that means less hard work of actual plotting – weaving the story to make it work. Or put another way, to make the story stand on its own. When it does, it is believable. The reader is ready to “suspend disbelief” and step into your world and accept your story. And in the process, accept you (the author) as well.
And that, my struggling novelist, is what we are all striving for in this strange business!