On Contrivances, Coincidences, and Randomness

Some people feel that coincidences and random events are evidence are weak writing. Perhaps the author knows no other way to resolve plot lines. Perhaps overly-contrived or overly-convenient plot turns or resolutions are cheap or lazy. Or perhaps coincidences and randomness are also reflective of life.

For example: last week, I started working at a new job… except that during that week, I also caught a cold, scraped my car against a truck while changing lanes, then started my period within a span of two days!!!!! (Sorry guys) Talk about a wonderful series of events – and so coincidental too! You know… that so many awful things would happen to me right in a row.

One time, in ninth grade, I heard my cellphone ring tone in my head and that reminded me that I didn’t turn my phone on silent. So I set it to vibrate. And immediately after that, basically as soon as I put it in my pocket, I got a random call from someone who dialed a wrong number, but my teacher never noticed the buzzing. This was also, by the way, the class that was taught by a super-strict former nun who would not have hesitated to take my phone and make me an example.

Further example of coincidences? Okay, middle school… I liked my childhood friend Edward. My girl friend liked Scott, whom I sat next to in every single class. Like EVERY class throughout ALL of middle school. The summer into eighth, I went to Space Camp with a group of classmates and the only person in my sub-group that I knew was Scott. The guy was around me ALL the time. UNTIL I started liking him. And then we went to high school and he had literally the opposite schedule as me.

What I’m saying is, sometimes I feel like I’m on some really advanced version of the Sims and there’s someone manipulating my life events into extremely contrived circumstances.

See what I mean? So is it so strange that in Oliver Twist, some random orphan is adopted by a rich family, only to find out he’s a nephew to that family and thus an heir? Or that Bilbo just happens to find this all-powerful ring, it happens to get passed on to Frodo, who happens to be appointed ring-bearer, and then it gets thrown into Mount Doom thereby saving all of Middle Earth?

Maybe that’s what a great story is: unlikely (and some likely) events aligning themselves just enough to form a cohesive narrative that makes for an engaging read (or watch. Or play through. Or whatever).

In our story, Ren happens to be THE guy. Though he’s young and perhaps relatively inexperienced, he’s selected for an important mission. It is during this mission that he just happens to meet the first elf he’s ever known to speak Human Common (or whatever we decide to name their language). With the language gap closed, their conversation and the trust of someone important to him prove enough to break through potential prejudice and motivate the party to more deeply explore the circumstances surrounding the titular war.

Because without those coincidences, what would this be? It would be some guy, accomplishing what he planned to accomplish, while doing what he was supposed to do. And life often proves to be more interesting than that.

(Although, perhaps critics are talking about events that are not built or led-up to? They want some fore-shadowing? Signs of planning? But sorry, that’s not always so conveniently present in real life either.)

Anyways, what do you think? Do coincidences and random lucky events make a story seem lazy or contrived to you?


2 thoughts on “On Contrivances, Coincidences, and Randomness

  1. I wholeheartedly agree that coincidences happen in real life, and that there’s nothing wrong with them happening in videogames or shows. That being said, some of the most memorable moments I’ve experienced in games have been the times when I find out something new that changes everything. The glory of a new discovery like that is that it not only changes what happens afterwards in the game, it also has the power to change the player’s perception and awareness of what happened BEFORE he/she knew about it. For instance, a character who’s town and parents were destroyed in a fire when he was young (cliche, I know) would be expected to react in some way towards seeing a town burning. HOW he reacts would be up to the writer… there are tons of ways people defend themselves against emotionally stressful events. The point is that the player/viewer should be able to notice that something’s different about his reaction because even though the player doesn’t yet know his history, he does.

    I guess what I’m saying is that whatever unlikely coincidences happen in the external world, it can still seem realistic if the characters act according to their character. That, and fore-shadowing can be amazing if done well. Is it necessary? Of course not… but it CAN give an already game-changing moment that extra wow factor. Plus it gives a bit of replay value and a chance to notice things that weren’t caught the first time.

    • Yes, definitely. I don’t really understand the criticisms behind “that’s coincidental” in a story… If you think about it, all lives are really just a big series of coincidences.

      But anyways, I do agree about random events that suddenly illuminate a character. I think your example is spot on.

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