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Some stories feature random events that bring about drastic change either to the characters or to the setting.

A lottery draw, some gotcha that grants a special skill.

Most of the times I find one of these in a story, they seem fake. Instead of feeling random, it feels tailored for the story: The random ability was just right to solve problem X, etc.

I am not talking about stories where the outcome of the event is the driving force of the plot as in a story about a lottery winner's life after they won the prize.

How can I weave a random event into the story and make the reader feel like it was really random, instead of just some convenient manipulation for the sake of plot?


RNJesus (or RNGod) are terms coined from the computation acronym RNG (Random Number Generator) is when randomness feels fake and convenient. More on that: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/RNGesus

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    obligatory xkcd.com/221 – Andrey Aug 3 '18 at 21:45
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    I'd suggest that deus ex machina would be better in your title, even though it's positive and RN God / RN Gesus is negative, since many more people already know what it is. It's probably also a good idea to add a note (as per your comment) briefly explaining what RN Gesus is, including the link to TV Tropes if you want to waste many hours of people's time! – CJ Dennis Aug 4 '18 at 0:29
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    obligatory dilbert.com/strip/2001-10-25 – NieDzejkob Aug 4 '18 at 10:46
  • @CJDennis deus ex machina is usually for unsolvable problems being solved with some mcguffin. I am talking about random events that are not necessarily linked to unsolvable problems. Just that the outcome of hte random event sometimes feel faked. – Mindwin Aug 4 '18 at 13:09
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    @Mindwin Yes, you are correct but not many people will understand the title which is currently a bit click-baity. I still recommend finding a plain language way of saying "RN Gesus' will" in the title. Maybe as simple as "contrived". – CJ Dennis Aug 4 '18 at 13:59
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The simple answer: Coincidences in fiction feel like cheats when they solve problems for the character. But they feel like real life when they make things harder. If someone just happens to find a winning lottery ticket and it makes her life perfect, that feels like a cheat. But if that same lottery ticket ruins her life, that's a good story. It goes back to the educational value of fiction. We can't learn anything (much) from a story about receiving unexpected, unearned solutions to problems (unless that itself is a problem in disguise). But learning to deal with unexpected, unearned problems is a crucial life skill.

There's an important caveat to this, however. An unexplained coincidence that makes things harder for the character can still register as fake, if it's too obviously solving a problem for the writer. For instance, suppose the villain just happens to always stumble across the hero, no matter how well he's hidden. That's just in there to make things easier on the writer, so it's a cheat (even though it makes things harder for the character).

This advice is adapted, in large part from "Sanderson's First Law" (on the plausible use of magic in fantasy stories). Although his advice is specific to the fantasy context, I've found it a useful lens for viewing any kind of plot device that might strain credibility. As a corollary, I've found in my own writing that when a character welcomes any particular unexpected event or occurrence, it is both less believable and less compelling than when he or she resists it, or is initially distressed by it.

  • Oh it expanded greatly from when I first saw your answer!!! (it was a great one-liner, but the Stack likes verbosity). – Mindwin Aug 3 '18 at 15:33
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    I assume by "ruins her life," you mean something along the lines of, "adds an enormous number of problems to her life that she must overcome." Because even if those problems are eventually resolved, the challenge they pose to the protagonist can still make for a good story. Also, I think you meant "character" where you said "reader" in the bold sentence in the second paragraph. – jpmc26 Aug 3 '18 at 19:56
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    I have read many stories where characters’ bad luck felt like the author “cheating” (to keep the story going, to escalate things from an already-escalated state, whatever). I really don’t think things are this simple. – KRyan Aug 3 '18 at 20:50
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What Chris said, but with the concomitant point that solutions must be merited. They don't have to be probable. Little in most stories is truly probable. Stories basically run on coincidences. Their logic is moral.
Misfortune is often merited by a moral flaw, but is can also exist to create some moral dilemma. Good fortune, on the other hand, must always be metited by moral action. If the lion refuses to eat Androcles, it must be because Androcles took a thorn out from its paw earlier.

(There is also a role for apparent good fortune, which need not be merited if it leads to a new moral dilemma.)

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There's a saying about writing fiction: You have a harder job than God.

Because while coincidences and chance play a massive role in real life, in fiction, things generally need... a reason to happen. Things need to follow, things need to be foreshadowed.

Even if the incident that kicks off the plot is usually down to chance, at the very least you need to foreshadow or demonstrate that this is an in-universe possibility.

If not, then Chris has the right idea. Do not make the primary conflict of the story be resolved by the chance event, but complicated/caused by it. A good story needs to be resolved by the active agent in the story, not by blind luck.

3

My characters often have unusual traits or skills, and my solution to this dilemma is two-fold: First, they are born with their skill, along with some deficits. I never grant a skill without a penalty to go with it; in personality, thinking, etc. I also shy away from "best in the world" skills, I may make my character a naturally skilled pilot, but not magically good, and I am careful to have them admire the skills of other pilots they think may beat them.

Often their deficit is just being a non-genius and facing an opponent that is a a much sharper thinker and strategist. The best fighter in the world can be tricked and misled into a trap without ever getting to strike at their enemy.

Second, I give them a problem that they can solve with their skill, but they aren't so sure they can. In fact my main characters often knowingly choose what they consider an enormous risk to achieve their goals, driven by love of those they are choosing to protect. I don't want my readers believing they have a lock on it. So if the MC is a skilled soldier, they face odds they find overwhelming and frightening, and go to war believing they will die in the effort, and of course I give them much to lose by doing so.

As for events occurring in the story, a similar strategy applies: Sure, you were wandering through the woods and found a dead magician, picked up his wand from his dead hand and it frikkin' works for you. And yes, this is going to solve the MC's problem. But it comes with negatives (just like the born skill comes with born deficits). And it isn't all-powerful, you can't just wave the wand and big problems disappear. Or you truly don't know how to use it, so you are incompetent. But readers can accept that the MC they have been following, opening on the MC's normal world, is the chosen one; and finding this wand is what makes them the chosen one. Reader's can accept the MC is the chosen one and whatever "random" incident happened to them is the reason why. We are quickly introduced to Frodo, to Luke Skywalker, to Harry Potter, and just that fact makes them special and it isn't surprising to us they are born special or lucky.

At the beginning of stories, the author has enormous license to introduce magic, telepathy and mental powers, teleportation, consummate abilities, FTL travel, other sentient animals, aliens or machines, and on and on. Just look at X-Men!

The reader is open to anything in the first pages. So introduce your random event very early, in the first 10% of the story, and it can be accepted without a blink. Then the only reason your story will fail is, not because of that, but because things were too easy for the MC after that, there wasn't enough conflict, there wasn't enough wondering how things would turn out, and the story fell into "wish fulfillment" without any significant struggle for the MC.

  • Frodo wasn't born special ... – Rand al'Thor Aug 5 '18 at 17:37
  • @Randal'Thor I disagree. Frodo gets the ring from Bilbo, and proves he is quite resistant to the temptations of it. That is a born trait, and a special trait, and justifies Frodo being the Ring Bearer and the hero of this story. The fact that he isn't a great strategist or makes mistakes doesn't make him less special. Of course that is just my opinion and you are entitled to your own opinion, so let's leave it at that. This is not a forum for debate. – Amadeus Aug 5 '18 at 19:59
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I like to use the solution of Louis McMaster Bujold when I have been faced with that problem.

She said, and I paraphrase, "...I try to think of what would be the worst possible thing that could happen to the character at that point in the story, and then I write that. I may not even know the solution at that point...."

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Random events are okay in fiction if they have random effects

That is, they must not help the protagonist achieve his goals.

If something happens that is unrelated to what the protagonist wants or makes achieving his goals more difficult, that is fine. For example, if your protagonist finally finds the courage to tell the girl that he loves her, but then she gets run over by a car and dies before he can open this mouth, that's okay. That's drastic, but that's life.

Random events that solve a problem of the protagonist must not happen

Of course happy coincidences happen in real life, but in fiction, a solution must always be earned, or your readers will feel cheated.

2

One way to make a random event seem more natural is to utilize that event multiple times in your story to lock it into a theme of randomness. In other words, write similar events and demonstrate a range of random outcomes.

If an alien shows up 'randomly' in the desert to give your character water, that alien becomes an ex machina.

However, if that same alien shows up a few times in you story and gives people random items, which could help or hurt them (bars or soap, tigers, etc.) the alien gains a stronger identity as a random force.

2

In general, the further you advance in your plot, the less random events you should have.

There is nothing wrong with starting your story with an extremely unlikely chain of events. Do you want to write a story about the everyman who wins the lottery and uses the money to fly into space where he gets hit by a radioactive asteroid and develops superpowers, but as he returns to Earth, Denmark invades the United States with mutated supersoldiers? Sure, go ahead. The premise might be extremely unlikely. But the audience understands that when this unlikely combination of event would not have happened, there would be no reason to tell your story. The interesting part of fiction is to explore the consequences of made up scenarios.

However, the further you advance in your story, the more will such unlikely events feel contrieved. The audience is invested in your premise, and wants to know its logical conclusion. If you then come up with other unlikely events to resolve it, also known as a Deus Ex Machina (if good for the protagonist) or Diablo Ex Machina (if bad for the protagonist), the audience feels as if you've stolen the resolution form them.

tl;dr:

  • go crazy in the first act
  • be realistic in the second act
  • be strictly deterministic in the third act

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