You won’t believe what happened next

[January 2008]Let’s talk about god for a minute.

No, wait! Come back! This has nothing to do with religion.

The god I’m talking about is the one in the machine. Deus ex machina. In early Greek drama, it wasn’t unusual for a god to step onto the stage at a critical moment and set things aright—or amok. The gods were often shown sitting on their lofty perches on Mount Olympus observing, commenting on and meddling in the lives of the human characters.

Thousands of years later, there is little room for that kind of god in fiction.

Imagine this scenario. A man, recently turned into a vampire, hunts down his first victim late one night on the back streets of Manhattan. He selects a target at random, a man who made the ill-advised decision to take a shortcut through an alley on the way to his hotel. The vampire pounces, knocking the man to the ground. As he pulls back his lips to bare his fangs, he discovers that his victim is the very same person who, decades earlier, bullied him on the playground of their Nebraska schoolyard. Sweet vengeance.

Which part of this story is harder to swallow? The fact that man has become a vampire, or that his randomly selected victim from a pool of a million possible candidates is someone he knew long ago and far away? The answer to that question demonstrates the limitations of coincidence in fiction.

On a recent episode of CSI, the team investigated two independent cases. A bull-rider was found dead in the rodeo ring, and a prostitute was the victim of a hit-and-run accident in another part of town. The investigators discover that the prostitute was last seen in the cowboy’s hotel room and the vehicle that struck her was stolen from him after he died. The cases are obviously connected. Except, in the final analysis, they aren’t. The men who killed the cowboy and stole his truck hit the prostitute by random chance. They had no idea who she was until they were arrested.

That scenario didn’t work for me at all. There are surely situations in real life where coincidences like this happen, but not only is truth stranger than fiction, fiction usually has to be far less strange than truth. Even if the CSI storyline was drawn from a real event, “that’s the way it really happened” is no explanation for the fictionalized coincidental convergence of events. Coincidence is a delicate matter to handle in fiction—too much and you strain or shatter credibility.

In another CSI episode, two women are murdered on the same night. They’re identical twins separated at birth, and neither knew of the existence of the other, though they only lived a few miles apart. Hoo-boy, that sounds like a stinker. However, as it turns out, the killer wanted something one of the women possessed. He happened upon the wrong twin and killed her, then went back to “her house” only to discover his murder victim alive and well, so he killed her too and took what he was looking for. This was a somewhat more palatable use of coincidence. The writers put the seemingly unlikely occurrence to good use and created an interesting and intriguing mystery. It’s a fine line, though.

Early novels often made use of deus ex machina. Clues or witnesses were deliberately withheld from a detective in a mystery novel until just the right moment. A spy discovers he possessed the perfect gadget to get him out of a sticky situation, though it was never mentioned before. The cavalry showed up when the situation was lost to save the day.

There’s a certain charm to these stories, but they wouldn’t fly in modern fiction. We’ve become more sophisticated, both as readers and writers, and we expect more. Things must happen for discernable reasons and lucky finds are seen as cheating the audience. Even the Greeks knew this. Aristotle, in his Poetics, argued that the resolution of a plot must arise internally, following from previous action of the play.

If you’re assembling your plot and you get to a point where you think “they’ll never believe what happens next” then perhaps you should rethink what happens next. The last thing you want is for a reader to slam down the book in disgust, thinking—I can’t believe he did that.

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