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Avoid the Snare of Coincidence in Your Novel

problemQuirky Incidents

In the search for story or plot ideas, oftentimes novice novelists will come across an interesting, fascinating, quirky incident that they are absolutely sure will make a great novel. Perhaps it was a news article, or an anecdote told by a friend.

The reason the idea is so compelling is because it involves a fascinating twist of fate. Coincidence, if you will. And herein lies the snare–the trap that beginning fiction writers often fall prey to.

Only a Small SeedBe A Novelist

First of all, keep in mind that when you grab at an idea to use as the basis for your plot, that idea should be only a small seed. This is your starting point. This little spark is the only thing about the plot that should come from outside the writer. Everything else about the story will be filtered through and formed by your own unique imagination and frame of reference.

In the years when I was teaching for a writer correspondence school (over 9 years, to be exact) I could spot when one of my students had created a plot from an actual happenstance. First of all, the plot was weak–pitifully weak. When I brought up the issue with that particular student, the answer was invariably: “But that’s how it really happened.”

Sorry to disappoint you, but your telling something exactly as it happens is not a plot!

Plot Evolves from Deep Emotion

Genuine plots evolve from the deep emotions of the writer. That seldom happens when a story is built from an external source. It become flat and uneventful and seldom grips the reader.

And that brings me to the point of the problem of using coincidence to get your character to a certain point in the story. Again, it’s often the quirky, coincidental aspect of an incident that grabs our attention and arouses our curiosity. While these types of things are fun and captivating in real life, in fiction it will always look like author manipulation.

Why?

Because a plot that relies on fate is a thin plot. It’s the “easy way out.” It’s the cavalry coming over the hill at the very moment the battle is almost lost. Okay, right, sure. Your reader is rolling her eyes. She may continue reading, but trust and respect for the author has been lost–or at the very least diminished somewhat.

Be A NovelistAvoiding Melodrama

The best way to forfeit the interest of most readers is to ask them to believe something that is not really believable. And that’s the point about a quirky, wild, off-the-wall coincidence or strange happenstance. In real life, its main appeal is that something unbelievable actually happened. This is not what your reader is looking for.

Any incident that has an “operatic” quality, or is coming from way out in left field, will most certainly come off as melodrama. Not the mark of a skilled novelist.

Stand on Its Own 

To rely on coincidence is the lazy way of writing. It’s a short cut that means less hard work of actual plotting; less weaving of the story to make it work. Or put another way, to make the story stand on its own.

When your story does stand on its own, it is believable. The reader is ready to “suspend disbelief” and step into your world and accept your story. And in the process, accept you (the author) as well.

And that, my fellow struggling novelist, is what we are all striving for in this strange business!

Clean Teen Reads

I’ve launched a YouTube video series that I call (for obvious reasons!) The Writing Life These episodes reveal the ins and outs, and the ups and downs of a published author.

Be sure to subscribe so you won’t miss a single episode.

Clean Teen ReadsBe A Novelist

Tired of the struggle writing your book? Need a helping hand? Norma Jean’s Coaching Services may be the answer you’re looking for. Fill out the questionnaire on the page and let’s see if we’re a right fit. A FREE consultation gets the ball rolling. (Or the pen writing!) Click HERE!

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Be A Novelist

Depth of Setting In Your Novel

Weak Settings

When I was an instructor for an international correspondence writing school several years ago, I carried a full load of students and hence read tons of manuscripts. I stayed with that position for over nine years. Frequently, I came upon memorable characters in some of the lesson submissions, and sometime I even came upon an engaging plot. But many of the plots were sorely lacking in the third member of that basic trio: setting.

A simple definition of setting is “a backdrop against which your characters perform.” A sense of place is essential to a novel. The successful novelist calls into play every aspect of environment. A lack of visual scene will leave your characters and their actions and interactions, suspended in an empty kind of limbo.

Not a Decoration

When talking about setting, I am not referring to paragraphs of flat descriptions. I’m stagetalking about a backdrop that must be more than impressions painted on scenery panels like a stage play. The setting or background must be interwoven with your characters and what they are doing at any given time.

If you have previously viewed setting as merely a “decoration” for your story, I am challenging you to think again. I challenge you to think of the story setting as you would a character. This will require that you plumb the depths of the place.

Evoke Reader’s Senses

As you plumb the depths, create ways in which to evoke all the reader’s senses in the descriptions. What sounds and smells are prevalent? What are the prevalent weather patterns? How do the people talk? What foods do they love? If your novel is set in a rather stringent setting, you can move about by using flashbacks to another place and time.

Let this background come to life through your characters’ thoughts, dialogue, and actions. No matter how beautifully you describe a room, a season, a day or whatever, your reader is apt to skip over it in order to pick up the thread of the narrative. Let the reader live the setting through that character’s experiences and reactions.

Consider Your Own Roots

Think about how your own roots (where you grew up) colored and affected who you are. Now apply that to your characters. How does the setting affect that character and shape and mold his or her personality? Personally, I know very little about mountains, or the seashore. (sigh) I have lived most of my life in the landlocked, flat Midwest. That is who I am.

In my novel, Brought To You By The Color Drab, main character, Race, lives in a Cincinnati Be A Novelistghetto. Here’s a vivid paragraph that pulls the reader into the setting:

It was after two by the time Race let himself into the decrepit building where he and his mother lived on the third floor. The inner hallway reeked with the aromas of cheap cooking and soiled diapers, held thick and heavy by the dampness of the night. Vince used to say each floor told you what people had had for dinner that night. But at two in the morning, the smells were mingled and dulled into nothing specific, just generally disgusting.

Setting As Character

My point here is that the setting is intrinsically interwoven into the characters. Nothing is painted on. Or added in for a dab of color. It establishes the story and carries it. The setting is as real as the characters.

Do you have to know your setting firsthand in order to write about it? The answer is no, you do not. Of course, the more research you can do the better equipped you will be to write about it. Visit if possible. Stay a while if possible. Read as much as you can to give you a clear background. Talk to people who live there. Better yet, talk to people who have lived there for a long time.

Sprinkle; Don’t Shovel

Be A NovelistWhile you can never have too much factual information stored in your subconscious about your setting, you can indeed put too much into your story at a time. Carefully avoid dumping a shovelful of information just to impress the reader. Believe me, it will be skipped over. (Or the book will be cast aside never to be picked up again.)

Am I saying there will never be a paragraph that simply paints a picture or sets the stage? No, not at all. Just make sure that that is the exception and not the rule throughout the novel. The key is to steadily stir in the information, here a little, there a little.

Show, Don’t Tell

Pull your reader right into the scene by allowing that reader to “experience” the place rather than your constantly telling about it.

Take your favorite novel, written by your favorite author, and notate where the setting has been interwoven by dialogue, or the character’s inner thoughts, or directly through the character’s actions and interactions. You will learn much from such exercises.

Now go back over your own unfinished novel and if this is an area that needs work!

Clean Teen Reads

I’ve launched a YouTube video series that I call (for obvious reasons!) The Writing Life These episodes reveal the ins and outs, and the ups and downs of a published author.

Be sure to subscribe so you won’t miss a single episode.

Clean Teen ReadsBe A Novelist

Tired of the struggle writing your book? Need a helping hand? Norma Jean’s Coaching Services may be the answer you’re looking for. Fill out the questionnaire on the page and let’s see if we’re a right fit. A FREE consultation gets the ball rolling. (Or the pen writing!) Click HERE!

Clean Teen Reads

Be A Novelist

Clean Teen Reads