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I see lazy plot devices as anything that is too coincidental. Person One just so happened to be in the 'area' when Person Two was attacked (then they end up running into each other a bunch of times afterwards--really?). Those nicks-of-time rescues. Some random thing distracting a villain right before they are victorious and giving the hero enough time to gain the upper hand.

I'd also like to think happenstance/luck/fortune has a place in sustaining tension, such as bad weather preventing the villain from reaching the heroes or certain people's paths so happening to cross at the right time.

How do you draw the line between a plot device that is too contrived and a plot device that propels the story forward without breaking the suspension of disbelief?

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Fearless: Let me know if I've missed the gist of your question. I've edited it down - I think it could be a good question. I know there's a thread talking about suspension of disbelief (writers.stackexchange.com/questions/2730/…) but I feel this is more specific to determining how to determine if a plot device is overly contrived. Feel free to close if I'm wrong. –  Lexi Jun 22 '12 at 4:45
    
@Lexi: yeah, that's just about right. And a lot more concise, thanks for the edit. –  FearlessWriter Jun 22 '12 at 5:41
    
From here: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating. –  Neil Fein Jun 25 '12 at 6:48

4 Answers 4

up vote 14 down vote accepted

We have to distinguish two different layers of coincidences:

  1. Coincidence in the beginning of the story vs. coincidence at the end of the story (Deus ex machina problem)
  2. Conflict decreasing coincidence vs. conflict increasing coincidence

The reader forgives (and sometimes want) coincidences that happen at the beginning of the story and conflict increasing coincidences.

If the fortune helps the protagonist or is used at the middle or end to get further in the story, then it is perceived as cheating.

So the car accident between protagonist and antagonist at the beginning is ok. If they meet again when applying for the same job, the setting is already introduced ("Oh, that guy!").

The cavalry at the end rescuing the protagonist, because he is inapt doing it himself is a no-no. ("Why have I read all these pages if he can't rescue himself? What a loser!")

If the protagonist has a street fight against the evil doers and he is running out of ammo, then that's increasing the conflict. If he runs out of ammo in front of a gun shop, it is decreasing the conflict (i.e. unfair help for the protagonist). If the gun shop is locked it is increasing again (reader will like it again).

So coincidences at the beginning of the story and coincidences which are punishing the protagonist (increasing conflict) are good/acceptable, helping coincidences and stuff that happens later out of nowhere to keep the story running are no-gos.

Caveat: None of the above is true if you write a parody.

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I love this. The distinction between tension-increasing and tension-decreasing coincidences is crucial, and provides a really excellent tool for understanding the way that readers perceive your writing. –  JSBձոգչ Jun 22 '12 at 15:24

If I think a new event or occurrence might be too unbelievable, I might have my protagonist express and work through the same doubts. Instead of skimming over the incredible coincidence, I would emphasize the luck involved. As long as they are used sparingly, having a perfect plot twist is believable because sometimes life actually happens like that.

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I would advise strongly against this in most cases. Fiction is different from real life; if the protagonist wins through by sheer luck, that's a disappointing deus ex machina. What you can do is allow "lucky" or "implausible" coincidences that don't have immediate bearing on the plot, but go on to affect it later - a character struggling for money probably shouldn't win the lottery; a guy trying to woo a girl maybe can. Coincidences shouldn't "fix" the plot - the reader knows who's really in charge. –  Standback Jul 3 '12 at 4:17

If you feel like your plot elements show too much of the author's deus ex machina, then go back and figure out a way to make them more organic.

Sometimes this may mean backing up several scenes, or possibly halfway back into the book, to put your pieces in motion. If Sherlock needs to run into Molly late at night at the morgue, you have to establish early on in the storyline that Molly keeps long hours and has no life so it's not unusual for her to be at the morgue at 2am, on Christmas Eve, etc. This is less contrived than "Molly happened to forget her purse at the morgue and went back to get it because she needed her phone and just happened to run into Sherlock."

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A sorrowful -1: Question as-written asks how to diagnose an overly-contrived coincidence, not how to solve it once you've found it. –  Standback Jun 22 '12 at 10:31
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@Standback: I respectfully disagree. The post already stated what criteria are necessary to declare a plot twist "contrived." The question can be asked either after the story is written (diagnosing) or before (which way to go so that the end result is not caused by coincidence). Schroedingers Cat and I are addressing the "before" situation. What's confusing you is that "How do I draw the line" is a bit vague. –  Lauren Ipsum Jun 22 '12 at 11:47
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I also disagree ( see my comment under my post ). The story of "how z got to place y with the right tools" often has to be written backwards. –  Schroedingers Cat Jun 22 '12 at 11:50

I think the solution is to ask - and answer - "why"? Why did this person happen to be in the right place? How did they obtain that information that led them right to the villain? Has there been a rainstorm brewing for a few days - is it even the season for storms ( in the UK, the answer here is always yes ).

Events should never be random. However they can be the result of good fortune, as a pay back to hard work. The reason these particular people have become involved is also important - why was it Fred, not Joe who received the phone call? What marks them out as the appropriate person?

My short story linked in my profile tries to address this, as my only example. But the point is that I had to ask these questions, and the answers were sometimes a challenge. I had to make sure that the reader could get these answers, and know why a certain person was involved in something, why things happened in their favour.

Looking at why people make decisions they do - what drives them to one side rather than another - is fascinating, IMO.

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I think that you, like Lauren, are explaining how to solve the problem - not how to find it. And I'm not sure how your short story provides an example without more detail - I believe that you grappled with the issue, but where in the story should I expect to be able to find that grappling, and what/how do I learn from it? –  Standback Jun 22 '12 at 10:33
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NO - this is how I identify whether events are random, or whether I can and have - for the reader - traced the causes through. My question is, at the point of this event, does the reader know why they have got there? If not, it is a co-incidence. I need to make sure that over the story as a whole, the co-incidence is explained. –  Schroedingers Cat Jun 22 '12 at 11:46

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