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Background

I recently noticed in my latest masterpiece novel there is quite a lot of things happening by chance. For example:

The main character just happens to pass by an old, frail warrior who can direct him to where he needs to go to advance the plot. He meets this warrior while being unable to sleep and wanting to go and do something, get some exercise and air to help sleep.

To be honest, I can totally identify with my main character. If you need to go to bed and you won't sleep, the best way to get yourself to sleep is to tire yourself so much you can't do anything but sleep. In a huge amount of my works there is a common theme of my characters being unable to sleep, going out for a stroll and discovering something jolly spiffing!

Two assassins sent out to become Kingkillers just happen to pass by a very important plot item in the middle of the road. Wow, a chart of everyone who has ever sinned! It's totally normal to just find that lying around, totally not unusual.

Well actually with that one the reasons the Chart of Sinners is there is actually very extensive. It's got a reason for how it's just lying on the pavement (not a stupid backstory, it's a disaster that actually happens within the book) but I was wondering if it was bad storytelling to just have them come across it, just like that.

Question

I'm aiming not to limit this question to just my story, so here we go:

Is it bad storytelling to have something notable to the plot happen by complete chance?

Should everything have a really good reason for being that way? Should nothing happen by chance?

Just to add to my examples. That Chart of Sinners could have appeared at any location in the entire world. The place it was located was 100% random for a very good, plot centric reason.I still see that as chance though. It was total chance that the assassins would have come across it.

To add a little note about my thing where the guy just happens to come across a character important to the development of the plot show up at completely a random time:

Is it bad to have something that opens a massive plot point gateway happen totally by chance? For example, my guy discovering a frail warrior who knows how to get somewhere which will advance the plot (though the frail warrior kills himself a few minutes after meeting him due to grief).

  • 1
    You may want to read Being There by Jerzy Kosiński (or see the wonderful movie based on it). Even the main character's name is "Chance"! The whole thing is a series of chance events with people assigning meaning to them which propels the story forward. It's quite something to be able to pull things off on a level like this, but it's proof that it can be done. – Joe Feb 1 '17 at 5:55
  • Of course, these "chance" events had to be precisely crafted by the author. From that perspective, they are anything but chance. – Joe Feb 1 '17 at 6:03

14 Answers 14

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Most of the time, it's important that the outcome — good or bad — follow from the main character's actions. If the outcome is determined by chance or randomness or coincidence, it's less likely to feel satisfying.

On the other hand, a certain amount of coincidence is fine if it complicates the main character's problems. But even there, an abundance of chance can make the story feel arbitrary. (Sometimes you can make arbitrariness work, if the character's response to the arbitrariness illustrates something coherent about the character.)

My general rule of thumb: Coincidence can make things worse for the main character, but never better.

  • A great rule. What do you think the case would be if the thing that was caused by coincidence happened to be neither good nor bad? @DaleHartleyEmery – Daniel Cann Jan 30 '17 at 15:12
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    I would either leave it out (because if it doesn't affect any character for good or ill, it doesn't affect the story), or find or create a character for whom it is good, bad, or some combination. – Dale Hartley Emery Jan 30 '17 at 19:41
  • I would not, myself, be quite so specific. A better formulation might be: coincidences can work to create plot complexities, just not to solve them. It need not be limited to only matters directly impacting upon the hero. It could relate to any plot complexity. – Ed999 Jun 3 '18 at 5:41
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Complete chance? Yes. That's a form of deus ex machina, where something outside the hero/ine's actions swoops in at the end to save the day. If something arbitrary outside the plot advances it without the hero's actions, that's poor storytelling.

So how do you fix that? You already did:

Well actually with that one the reasons the Chart of Sinners is there is actually very extensive. It's got a reason for how it's just lying on the pavement (not a stupid backstory, it's a disaster that actually happens within the book)

Then make sure that the reader learns those reasons. My instinct would be to say "do it by the midpoint of the book," unless there's a plot-related reason why you need to wait until near the end to reveal it.

For "just happens to encounter Old Wise Dude," and similar Oh Gosh Coincidences, do the same thing: create a reason or backstory. The Old Wise Dude was told a prophecy in his youth that he needed to be in that spot on that day. The MacGuffin is sent to the hero by someone whom the hero doesn't encounter until the one-third point. The heroine's parents have been in touch with the headmistress of the mage school since she was born, and the headmistress has just been waiting for her Nth birthday to send an acceptance letter. And so on.

Outside forces can act to present the hero with the opportunity to kick off the plot, and make it look like chance, but the reader has to learn later that it was in fact engineered.

  • The old wise dude forewarns the main character with a bit of his own backstory, attempting to foreshadow their own fate before they traipse on past the place where he is. Would that be sufficient? @LaurenIpsum – Daniel Cann Jan 30 '17 at 6:10
  • @DanielCann could be; I'd have to read it to be certain. But that's the general idea. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Jan 30 '17 at 10:40
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Life is full of chance occurrences. In many ways, though, our appetite for story is based on our appetite for a more logical, predictable world than we actually live in. We want stories to have the logic that the real world does not.

But chance can be made logical simply by foreshadowing. If a picnic is going to be ruined by rain at a critical moment, the reader does not feel cheated by this chance occurrence if earlier a character observed clouds on the horizon or heard a weather forecast predicting a chance of rain. A gun that jams at the critical juncture does not make the reader feel cheated if previously characters have discussed how this gun jams sometimes or a character is scolded for not cleaning their gun properly.

I once saw Bernard Cornwell speaking at the Historical Novel Society Conference and he talked about going back and putting doors in wall. If we was going to have Sharpe run down an alley and escape the French through the back door of a tavern, he had to go back and have him walk through that door a few chapter's earlier. Without the foreshadowing, it is dumb luck. With the foreshadowing, it is part of the world and therefore legitimate when it comes in handy for escape.

It is obviously possible to take this too far, or to use it too often. And it is obviously unsatisfactory if luck, no matter how foreshadowed, gets the protagonist out of having to face their moment of moral crisis. They have to face it, for that it the heart of the story arc.

But on the other hand, in order to force the protagonist towards that moment, it is often necessary to herd them into a box canyon through a series of accidents, because in real life they would naturally find ways to avoid the climactic moment. Chance, then, is how you bring your protagonist, kicking and screaming, to their moment of truth. And as long as the chance (good or bad) that brings them there is appropriately foreshadowed, the reader will not feel you have cheated.

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I agree with @S.Mitchell about chance being a major part of authorship in writing. It's good things can happen by chance. If it didn't happen at all, then what kind of writing would that be?

To make it more believable, you need to cleverly introduce the plot point. You state the "Chart of Sinners" is found in the middle of the road. Sure, this could happen ... but what are the chances this chart would remain in the middle of the road for any length of time without someone else noticing it? Or maybe being in the middle of the road it would get trampled and destroyed before it is noticed by the two assassins. If you plan your "chance" things better, it doesn't look as though it was done by chance, but more by design.

When you introduce the plot point, do it by subtlety. If you are subtle in how you introduce it, the reader may understand it will be important later on in the writing, but you won't be giving anything away. Then when you get to the point where the point is made, the reader has the "ah-ha" moment where they realize it, which makes the story that much richer and draws them in further. There is a fine line, however, between making it too subtle and stuffing it down the reader's throat. If you make it too subtle, the reader won't pick up on it, so the chance for the "ah-ha" moment is lost.

The major point here is if you plan the "chance happening" it won't bother the reader so much when they are reading it. You can get away with it far more readily and the reader will enjoy it all the more.

  • I shouldn't have written 'the middle of the road'. It's a bit far away from the rode, actually. More in the middle of a forest, off the beaten path. @Pᴀᴜʟsᴛᴇʀ2 – Daniel Cann Jan 30 '17 at 6:08
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    No, you got it exactly wrong. As Dale wrote, only bad things may happen by chance, good things must always be achieved. Otherwise the outcome will feel unsatisfying. – user5645 Jan 30 '17 at 7:45
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    What if the thing is neither good nor bad? @what – Daniel Cann Jan 30 '17 at 15:10
  • @DanielCann Great thought. As I see it, if what happens to the character is neither good nor bad, then you are no longer writing genre fiction and can be as realistic as you want. Real life is random, and if you write literary fiction then having characters tossed and buffeted by randomness could be a sign of quality in the sense that you have left binary thinking behind and observe reality as it really is. – In my opinion, genre fiction has rules and conventions and it makes sense to ask about them here. In literary fiction, anything goes, and asking what one "should" do makes no sense. – user5645 Jan 30 '17 at 20:08
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At extremes: yes, relying on "chance" as a plot device can be very unsatisfying.

The reader knows that "chance" isn't really a matter of luck; instead, it's the author manipulating events.

The reader also knows they need to suspend disbelief -- so some level of luck and happenstance and implausibility is to be expected. But too much of it, or having chance play too central a role, and the story can feel arbitrary, forced, and unsatisfying.

Chance as premise is fine; chance as plot development is trickier.

Generally speaking, chance as part of the story premise is not a major issue. A chance occurrence as an inciting event is fine -- a lot of stories get their start when chance events shake up "what was supposed to happen."

Consider, for example, A Wizard Of Oz. Dorothy and her house just happen to be swept up in a hurricane and dropped on the Wicked Witch of the East. That's the event that gets the whole story going. But imagine what a dull story it would be if she got all the way up to the Wicked Witch of the West, and right when she got there, a hurricane just happened to drop a house on that witch as well.

It's precisely the same coincidence. Same event. Same level of plausibility. But as a premise, it works just fine; while as a development mid-story, it just stops the story's momentum and feels arbitrary.

When something looks implausible, but is justified, acknowledge its implausibility.

Sometimes you have some information management to do -- something seems like an unlikely coincidence, but actually it's got a perfectly reasonable justification. The problem is, from the POV of the character the coincidence is happening to, they don't know that there's a good reason. That makes it hard to win reader trust -- even if it's just "Trust me, there's a good explanation for this, which you'll discover later on."

One thing that can help is to acknowledge the implausibility as a conundrum to be solved. Sometimes it's important to signal to the reader "Yes, this is weird, it is implausible. Don't worry; it'll make sense later. I'm not just careless or messing with you."

Turn the implausibility (which the reader might be annoyed at) into a mystery (which the reader is looking forward to seeing solved), and you'll have an easier time with this category of "coincidences."

Chance is better for complications than it is for solutions.

In general, it's easier to accept coincidences that make things harder and more complicated, than coincidences that make things easier and more straightforward.

Maybe it's because we feel the author is making life easy on themselves, sparing themselves from tighter plotting. Maybe it's because we believe in Murphy's Law, whereas miraculous boons and solutions rarely fall into our laps. But it's a helpful tool. It might technically be a coincidence, but if you can make it feel like a moment of "I KNEW something was going to go wrong," or "Uh oh, that's going to MESS THINGS UP," you can often ride that feeling of "narrative correctness" and the implausibility will be excused.

The flip side of this is, avoid letting solutions occur by happenstance. The dramatic arc before a solution is one of tension -- "how are they going to get off this; how are they gonna pull this one off?" Coincidence is an extremely unsatisfying resolution to that tension; avoid it.

Chance can be made less implausible by groundwork and foreshadowing.

While the "easy" answer to a criticism of implausible coincidence is "Don't do it," very often this is solvable. If you can shore up your coincidence and make it feel less coincidental, more a natural consequence of preceding events, the problem often goes away.

You do groundwork by setting things in motion before the coincidence happens. You set down a trail of dominoes leading to your coincidence, and knock the first one over early in the story; now it's part of the premise and the coincidence feels minor and unremarkable. But then you have another consequence follow, and another -- these feel perfectly plausible, not coincidental at all -- until finally you arrive at the coincidence you really wanted, and it flows flawlessly from what you've already set up.

Foreshadowing is very similar, but it's more in hints and narrative conventions than in concrete facts. Start making the reader suspect that something is going to be complicated, or that a miraculous solution is close at hand, if only they knew what it is. Hint that someone may do something rash, or have unexpected resources, or be doomed to a tragic death. Whatever it is that you foreshadow, it makes the coincidence feel like something that was a long time coming.


Hope this helps. All the best!

  • Yeah the reason I've been increasing my amounts of chance lately is because I felt it was obvious where the plot was going. I just wanted to ruin everything that was going right and get the book more exciting. @Standback – Daniel Cann Feb 1 '17 at 6:03
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    @Daniel Cann If the plot is too obvious, there are far better solutions than having events occur at random without adequate reason. If the author isn't capable of curing that mistake by devising a less simplistic plot, he won't improve his novel by abandoning rational story development for blind chance. If things begin happening for no good reason, that will make the book less understandable, not more exciting. Try reading some of the novels of Dan Brown, for a better understanding of how to inject excitement without abandoning logical plot development. – Ed999 Jun 3 '18 at 5:32
  • @Standback If the house falls on Dorothy part-way through The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that is not plot development. That is plot resolution, because Dorothy is the heroine. Once she is dead the story is over. So your example doesn't work. You could have the Wicked Witch drop a house on the Scarecrow, or even on the Wizard; but in that case you have logic, and motivation, not blind chance; and because Dorothy survives, you still get the next 16 novels. – Ed999 Jun 3 '18 at 5:54
  • @Ed999 In "a hurricane just happened to drop a house on her as well", the "her" was referring to the Wicked Witch of the West, not to Dorothy. :) Thanks for pointing that out; I'll edit to clarify. – Standback Jun 3 '18 at 6:02
  • @Standback :) Sorry, perhaps I just misunderstood. I suppose the house would fall on the Witch of the West only at the end (else the resolution still comes too early), which would require a second tornado. It would definitely be bad storytelling if the heroine doesn't kill the villain in their final confrontation; but in Oz wouldn't it also leave open the possibility that it was the Wizard, or Ozma, or Glinda who summoned the extra tornado? So dropping a house on the Witch may not amount to a chance resolution, because in Oz that perhaps wouldn't look like blind chance. :) Sorry! – Ed999 Jun 3 '18 at 6:35
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Chance is important and storytellers rely on it. However, too much chance and the audience just doesn't believe it. If it seems too coincidental, it probably is. As a reader I must believe that something is possible or even probable. Otherwise, there is a suspension of disbelief.

Sometimes the idea of fate is used to mitigate straight chance -- you are the seventh son of a seventh son and therefore you are heir to the amulet.

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    More to the point: If too many things just happen, then readers won't be able to identify with the characters/story and you'll lose them. If the character didn't do anything to deserve "this", why should I care when s/he gets it (good or bad)? People generally don't identify with or like randomness. Part of why they go for fiction is to escape to places where things make sense and work out. – Joe Feb 1 '17 at 5:33
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Are you kidding me? Things are never just happening by chance. Not in the real world. What we commonly refer to as coincidence, is a result of a sequence of events of which we are either not aware, or too lazy to think hard enough to figure out.

As the owner of your world, you have the luxury of knowing everything you wish to know, simply because you invented it. Whether to simply show what led to something happening, present that chain of events as a dramatic revelation, or let the reader figure it out by themselves is up to you, but as the author, you must know the logic behind the events in your story, otherwise (as it was stated many times on this page) the readers will eventually start questioning the quality of the fabric of your story.

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    +1 You just saved me from writing an answer. ;) . Two additions: 1) "Truth is stranger than fiction because fiction has to make sense. " - Mark Twain 2) Although I don't personally believe in chance/randomness, things often happen in the real world such that people have no idea why they happened. It can be a major theme for characters to be able to stand up to this and go forward without just succumbing to victim mentality. It's why not all existentialists commit suicide. ;) – Joe Feb 1 '17 at 5:21
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To have everything happen by compete luck or chance would be a bit off putting for the skeptical. Instead of assassins happen to randomly find the list, maybe they were tailing the list while it was in transit and due to the said accident, happened to be laying in the road.

Things need to happen for a reason. Everything has a reason behind it, even if it isn't known at the time. Something causes something to be in that place at that moment. One of my favorite quotes "Fortune favors the prepared mind." - Dr. Louis Pasteur. This is very profound because to many people, those who have good luck seem to just have everything handed to them by luck or chance. In reality, this person spent many hours preparing and placing themselves in the right moment at the right time that would ultimately maximize their chances of something desired to happen. So good fortune, in turn, follows those who are prepared for it to happen.

Another way to look at it would be dating. If a guy or girl for that matter, put themselves in a place where every weekend they are constantly meeting singles, they will eventually find someone to go out with. As an outsider, you may have never seen this guy before and wonder how people can just go out and get a date like it is so easy. In actuality, this guy or girl has been going to various events every weekend for a year learning how to properly interact so that when the right chance came, he/she was able to take it. Though it looked like random chance to you, they put in a lot of work for that moment to happen.

Maybe the meeting of the frail warrior was a bit of chance. However, if this character happens to always go for a nightly stroll to help him sleep at the same time, then one night notices this warrior sitting by a tree, it would no longer be skeptical as this walk wasn't by chance but rather out of habit. He was prepared for this moment because it was a walk he did nightly that maximized his chances of meeting people whom he would have never met had he never gone on this nightly walk.

Point being, there is the ability to add random chance, but it would be calculated random chance in that, the meetings were random but out of preparation for the random meeting/event to happen. If you are trying to please the skeptics, there needs to be a reasoning and not just fairy tale hand waving coincidence.

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There's nothing inherently wrong with chance occurrences, in my opinion. Coincidences happen frequently in real life, after all.

Regardless, what happens by chance shouldn't necessarily be dictated by chance. I believe it's the individual writer's obligation to decide how to deal with this. Some important plot elements, for example, might follow from a chain of logical consequences. This won't be some dictated by chance, but guided by a series of deductions based on prior events. As one commenter said, there should be a degree of subtlety here. But, some events might naturally be attributed to chance. Somebody might be "the chosen one" simply because this person was in the right place at the right time. There might be a reason for this - you might decide that there's no special reason for the protagonist to fulfill the obligation set forth upon him other than his presence in a specific location.

If you think about plot events in this way, I believe you'll find a balance between coincidence and consequence. If you find too many things occurring by chance, it might be time to think about your story progression and analyze the story's chain of events.

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Things happen by chance all the time in the real world. It is perfectly acceptable to make even a key plot element be due to chance.

That being said, your world should not be totally driven by chance occurrences. At some point, such a world fails to validate the choices of the protagonist. The reader may start to wonder why the protagonist would deliberately attempt any undertaking when the results clearly don't come from planning and forethought but from chance alone.

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Yes. Actions in a novel are always the result of a character's choice and a manifestation of his will. Also, his actions should be "necessary" and compelled, i.e. he should not have other options. The fact that he accidentally meets a frail warrior is not bad per se, but it's extremely weak: why would he pay attention to him in the first place?

External causes too are the result of external forces. The ultimate force may be Destiny, or Fate, or God, but there should always be a chain of consequences in place. Even if your story is about randomness and casual events, that should be clearly stated as a main legit force acting in your world.

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It depends on the circumstance. It can work, for instance, if it is used to highlight the capricious nature of the universe - but only if this is a theme of your story to start with. It could also work if also work to hang a lampshade on protagonists who aren't what we expect. For example, I always liked in the Green Lantern comics that Kyle Raynar was just some random everyday guy who just happened upon a power ring (though this was later ret-conned). You mentioned assassins, so this could be used to throw your MacGuffin into the path of unexpected characters.

I think you only need to worry about Deus Ex Machina if the chance (or the gods) are actually solving your character's problem instead of their decisions. Like I assume something called "The Chart of Sinners" is going to come with some major consequences down the road. How the assassins stumbled upon it isn't as big as what they do with it.

Of course, there's always the age-old question about what is chance . . . and what is fate.

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To me, the question is "How much chance can we have in a book without losing a sense of reality?" (And yes, even a most imaginative fantasy book can be perceived as totally realistic).

You can leave very much to a chance if your book is humorous or surreal, but for a realistic plot development, there are certain limits. In a "serious" fantasy, every chance encounter should have some kind of serious explanation. On the other hand, in a fairy tale it's perfectly normal for a protagonist to meet people, magical creatures and find artifacts that will turn out to be instrumental in his/her quest.

So, I would say, you should either cut down (or explain) some chance encounters, or make it clear to the reader from the very beginning of your book that anything may (and will) happen.

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Yes, it's bad.

Deus ex machina means "god from the machine" which to my knowledge historically comes from ancient plays where the conflict was resolved by the lowering of a deity from an apparatus to save the day.

Audiences hated it then, they still hate it now.

Here are a few pointers:

  • good things can't just happen by chance
  • if a good thing happens by chance... (if it's too good to be true...)
  • bad things can happen by chance, additional conflict against the MC elevates the story (to an extent)
  • characters can "award" themselves a good thing to happen to them by prior work to achieve it, at least that way we're like "well his work earlier paid off..."
  • small positive things can happen by chance, your characters can make that small thing roll until it becomes a big positive thing.
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    Good things certainly can and do happen by chance - at least from the perspective of the person they happen to. People win lotteries. What can't happen by chance is how people respond to whatever happens to them. If the person is so careless that they lose the winning ticket, that's personality/circumstance. If they give the whole thing to a "good" charity, that's character. – Joe Feb 1 '17 at 6:09

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