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Publetariat Dispatch: “Coincidentally” Is Never Good Enough

Publetariat: For People Who Publish!In today’s Publetariat Dispatch, author, Publetariat founder and Editor in Chief April L. Hamilton shares some advice on avoiding a bad case of the “coincidentallys” in your fiction.

Think about the plot of your most recent novel, or work in progress. If  you had to summarize the plot, at any point in your recap, would you  find yourself saying the word, “coincidentally”? Or the phrase, “it just  so happens that…” ? If so, there’s something wrong with your plot,  your characters, or both.

I was recently with a young friend who  was watching the movie, Zookeeper. In the beginning of the movie, the  somewhat shlubby but kind and sincere protagonist asks his super hot,  super shallow girlfriend to marry him, in a carefully orchestrated,  horseback-riding-on-a-beach at sunset scenario. She not only turns him  down, but tells him she’d actually been intending to break up with him  because he’s just a zookeeper and she can’t accept it. Apparently she  wants a more worldly and wealthy guy. At this point, I tuned out for a  while to focus on something else.

My other task done, I came  back to the movie, where a wedding reception was in progress. Shlubby  guy was there with his smart, gorgeous co-worker. Hey,  do you suppose he’ll end up realizing she’s a better match for him than  the super hot, super shallow girl at some point before the end? I could  write a whole different post on predictable retreads of tired rom-com  cliches, but that’s not the topic for today.

I asked who  was getting married, and my young friend explained it was the shlubby  guy’s brother. Suddenly, the super hot, super-shallow girlfriend was  doing an elaborate dance with some other guy at the reception. I asked  what she was doing at the shlubby guy’s brother’s wedding. My young  friend explained that the super hot girlfriend was one of the bride’s  closest friends, so she was invited to the wedding and came with her new  fiancee.

“So,” I asked, “it just so happens that the super hot  girl who dumped this guy in the first scene was one of his brother’s  fiancee’s best friends? Isn’t that kind of a HUGE coincidence?” She  replied, “Yeah, you just have to go with it.”

Actually, you  don’t. And neither do your readers. It was obvious not only to me, but  to an 11 year old girl, that the only reason the super hot girlfriend  was a friend of the bride was so that she’d be in the wedding reception  scene, making shlubby guy jealous and prompting him to his next  ill-advised round of hijinks intended to win her back.

It’s  possible that I missed a flashback in which it was shown how the  brothers began dating these besties, but even if there was, it would be  very tacked-on and serve only as an excuse to get the super hot ex to  the wedding—where of course, there were lots of wacky, slapstick  physical comedy set pieces.

Wouldn’t it have made much more sense  to have shlubby guy run into the ex and her new man somewhere in  public, or at a gathering in the home of a mutual friend? After all, if  they met at some point in the past they should run in similar circles,  or still have one or two friends in common. Of course, this wouldn’t  have allowed for the presence of the giant ice sculpture and aerialist  equipment that played crucial roles in the shlubby guy’s public  humiliation, but those also had “coincidentally” written all over them.  Seriously, who hires a Cirque du Soleil -type aerialist to perform at a  wedding reception?!

If the only reason a character DOES  something, or IS something, is to set up a later scene, the writer is  sacrificing plot and character integrity for the sake of his own  convenience, and straining the reader’s credulity.

Some might say  that Zookeeper also features talking animals, and therefore it’s asking  too much of the writers to expect much in the way of plot or character  integrity. But look at the movies The Golden Compass, Stuart Little,  Ratatouille, Cars and Finding Nemo. Talking animals, cars and fish  DIDN’T strain credulity in the least in these films, and it’s  specifically because the writers paid very close attention to plot and  character integrity. It’s possible to be fantastical and comic, and even  a little slapstick, without resorting to the “coincidentallys”.  If  anything, the harder it is for your characters to get where they need to  be, the richer your plot (and characters) will be by the end of the  tale.


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