Who’s in charge of your character’s life? It might not be who you think.
This week’s shredding is from a first draft. The author was having trouble making the opening work and wanted a second look. Her initial feedback had been the standard, but vague enough to be meaningless: get to the action sooner.
That wasn’t the problem. The inciting incident (finding a magic wand) was only a few pages into the book. She had started in the right place, took a few pages to establish normal, develop the character, all while showing the sequence of events that lead up to the inciting incident. The stakes needed raising and there was too much telling, but it was a draft, and these were easy fixes.
Then it hit me.
The MC happened to be closing the store alone for the first time, which happened to be same night as the dance she really wanted to go to, which distracted her enough to drop something on the floor, which necessitated her going into the closet for the broom, which happened to be overly stuffed, which forced her to…which caused… In other words, the MC found the magic wand through a literary Rube Goldberg.
Well, that’s convenient.
There are plenty of examples of small, seemingly insignificant events have changed history, but lining up a chain of coincidences to get your plot moving is a recipe for disaster. You story will feel contrived. As a result of this one flaw, I started questioning everything else that happened in the MS. Like, why would anyone leave such a powerful artifact in a shoebox? How could this possibly be the first time the MS had ever needed to sweep the floor in a store that she’s been working in for months? Suddenly everything felt false.
Are your characters making things happen or are they victims of circumstance?
Unless the theme of your MS is the random chaos of the universe and how it has the power to change history, you are much better off putting your characters in charge of their own fates. There are plenty of examples that effectively use coincidence as a launching point for a story. Jim Butcher uses this theme to begin his Furies of Calderon series. He succeeds for three reasons. First, he draws attention to it through a mini-preface at the beginning of the prologue. Second, he shows Tavi actively making the seemingly insignificant choice, and finally, everything that happens after results from deliberate choice.
Are solutions magically appearing when your characters need them?
Coincidence can also destroy your plot if it provides solutions. The TV show Sleepy Hollow is notorious for this. No matter what the problem is, Crane just happens to have fought one during the revolution, or knows exactly which the book to consult in the massive occult library that no one else in the town seems to know about. Never mind that this library was inexplicably assembled in plain sight in a Puritan region during time where having such things could get a person executed for witchcraft. Oh, and it somehow survived down to the present day completely intact.
What to do instead:
When you map out your plot:
- Your character’s choices must be the driving force behind the story.
The MS would have felt more authentic if the MC had decided to work the odd shift because she needed an excuse not to go to the dance. Maybe the guy she liked never asked her, and closing the creep-tastic shop alone on a Friday night was much better than watching MR. Love Interest dance with other girls.
- Use circumstances, or coincidences to complicate their situation, (NEVER as a solution)
Later the MC rushes off to save her BFF with her new magic wand, oh and it’s the worst snowstorm of the year, and she’s never driven in snow.
- If your MC really is a hapless boob who gets blindsided by the plot, make it clear in your prose that this is deliberate choice.
And then write a how-to because making a victim MC sympathetic, rather than pathetic, is a master-level skill.
Characters need to be in charge of their own fates. Their circumstances and the story that unfolds around them need to be a direct result of their choices. Make sure your characters are driving the plot and not simply reacting to whatever the world is doing to them. Give them a goal and have them take steps to achieve that goal, rather than have them stumble into the plot blindly. This will make you story more authentic, and your characters more interesting.