When reading submissions and unpublished manuscripts, I often note issues with convenience or coincidence. By “convenience,” I mean instances where things happen too easily or conveniently for the characters; things just fall into place, or solutions just present themselves, or a necessary ability/object appears right when a character needs it most. By “coincidence,” I mean plot elements that “just so happen” to occur in a way that’s convenient for the story.
Convenience and coincidence often make a plot feel contrived or inauthentic. Readers can tell that things are happening because they need to happen for the story to work, rather than as authentic results of the characters’ actions or decisions. In other words, it makes the story feel forced. So, how can you recognize and avoid these issues in your manuscript? Here are my tips:
- Give characters challenges
A lot of convenient developments or coincidences suggest that the characters aren’t being challenged enough. If things happen too easily for your characters, readers will lose interest; they’ll already know that the characters will succeed in the end. By making things more challenging, you create suspense and also make the eventual victory feel more earned (or the eventual failure more tragic). If you seem to have a lot of convenient or coincidental moments in your story, it could be that the characters need to be challenged more.
- Think about cause and effect
Understanding cause and effect is hugely important when thinking about plot. Events should come about as a direct result of previous events, actions, and decisions. Characters’ actions should have consequences. If you aren’t sure whether a plot point is too convenient, think about where it fits in the larger chain of your story. Is it the direct result of something that happened earlier? If not, how can it be made to result from previous actions? Should it be replaced with a different plot point that is a more direct consequence? How can you increase the consequences from previous actions?
- List your scenes
One of the most useful writing tips I ever learned is to list each scene of your story in terms of how it relates to previous scenes. This can take the form of bullet points, a synopsis, whatever form is most convenient for you; but the key is to look at what connects these scenes and how you transition between them. Does your summary look like “A happens, and then B happens, and then C happens”? If so, your events likely aren’t well-connected. Things are happening, but they aren’t affecting each other. Ideally, your story should look more like this: “A happens, which causes B to happen, but that results in C, therefore D and E happen, but that causes F…” Think of your story not just as a series of events, but as a chain reaction.
- Plant seeds early
Having plot events or elements come out of nowhere can often feel overly convenient. For example, a character who discovers a hidden power at the exact moment they need it to save themselves, or a character who figures out the key to a riddle in the last possible second despite having possessed the clues the whole time. What can help here is to plant the necessary seeds of these elements much earlier in the story, so that they don’t seem to come out of nowhere. Hint at things before they’re revealed, or have them be discovered gradually instead of all at once at a crucial moment.
- When in doubt, make it harder
If you’re not sure if a plot point is overly convenient, odds are it probably is. When in doubt, try to find ways to make things harder and less convenient for your characters. Look for important, relevant ways to challenge them, and incorporate those challenges. Don’t make things easy for your characters.
What do you think? How do you avoid convenience and coincidence in your writing? Let me know in the comments!
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