Keeping it Real

By Joe Moore

Before we begin, a bit of self promotion. For one day only, Saturday, August 24, Amazon is dropping the price of two of my thrillers (co-written with Lynn Sholes): THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY and THE PHOENIX APOSTLES. TGC is an international bestseller, and both are previous #1 Amazon bestsellers. Download each for only $1.99. Don’t miss reading the first installment of the 4-book Cotten Stone saga (TGC) or how far one man will go to live forever (TPA). Enjoy!

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Today is my lucky day. It started right after I poured my first cup of coffee and launched my e-mail. I couldn’t believe my eyes when the first message popped up. It was from an exiled Nigerian king who escaped his country excitewith a fortune in the bank but no way to get to it. Somehow he had found me and asked that I help him get his family’s money; and amount he estimated to be over fifty million dollars. For my assistance, he was willing to give me twenty percent of the funds: a cool ten million.

As you can imagine, I was speechless. But then things got even better. My second e-mail was from none other than the Official International Lottery (you’ve heard of it, right?). Believe it or not, my personal e-mail had been randomly chosen from among all the e-mail addresses in the world as the sole winner: a lump sum of $500k. Considering that there are hundreds of e-mail addresses out there, perhaps thousands, I felt like the luckiest guy on my block. I was whooping and hollering when my wife walked in and asked what all the excitement was about. I told her that minus some small administrative fees I needed to wire transfer to His Majesty and the lottery guys, we were rich beyond our wildest dreams.

Now I know what you’re thinking: Joe, you’re one lucky guy. You might also be thinking that all this good fortune is hard to believe. After all, winning the International Lottery is one thing, but on the same day getting this incredible opportunity to help the Nigerian king is, well, an amazing coincidence. I bet there are even a couple of you that flat-out don’t believe it could happen. You think it’s just too much of a coincidence.

If this were a novel, chances are the reader would be kicked right out of the story. That’s because coincidence, if used improperly or overused, can be considered nothing more than a cheap trick. Using it can lower the writer’s credibility and believability. And if it comes as a blatant trick to solve an unsolvable problem, it could cause the reader to close the book and move on.

Coincidence is defined as something that happens by chance, was never intended to take place, and is usually considered an accident. Improper use often occurs when a writer paints himself into a corner and there’s no way out except to turn to an unbelievable event or the introduction of a new element “out of the blue”.

Don’t get me wrong, coincidence is a legitimate writing technique if it’s properly setup and foreshadowed. The key is to make it realistic. Example: on a given day, running into someone you know at JFK is not realistic. Considering an international airport like JFK has multiple terminals, dozens of airlines, and hundreds of thousands of passengers passing through it daily. How often have you run into someone you know at a big airport like JFK? Not too often, I’ll bet. If it doesn’t happen to you, why should it happen to a character in your story? It’s not realistic.

But let’s say two people are in the same industry. Each year they attend an industry tradeshow. They always stay at the same hotel. You’ve established this somewhere previously in the story. What are the chances of them running into each other in the hotel bar? Pretty good. That’s a realistic coincidence. You’ve already foreshadowed enough information to the reader that when it happens, the reaction is Aha, not No Way.

The secret to using coincidence is to narrow down the chances of it not happening beforehand so that when the event takes place, you don’t make the reader roll her eyes.

A nasty form of coincidence is what’s called deus ex machine, Latin for god in the machine: a seemingly inextricable problem is suddenly and abruptly solved with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new character, ability or object. Your character suddenly has the ability to fly a jumbo jet without any prior flying experience, or a new character appears just in time to perform a life-saving rescue, someone that up until this point was never mentioned in the story. Don’t go there. It will make your writing weak and lacking in integrity. And it could cost you readers.

So how do you avoid coincidence and deus ex machine? Plan ahead. Take time to foreshadow so your reader doesn’t get blindsided. Map out the story in advance, drop hints, and keep things realistic. And as a last resort, if you must use coincidence, take the time to go back and insert the foreshadowing and hints. Doing so will make you look clever in the eyes of the reader. Lastly, placing your character into hot water by coincidence is forgivable. Getting her out is not.

BTW, one more thing about my fabulous luck with the Nigerian king and the International lottery: according to stats, U.S. citizens lose more than $550 million a year as a result of Internet fraud. I sure hope His Majesty isn’t trying to put one over on me.

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28 thoughts on “Keeping it Real

  1. I chuckled at your good fortune, Joe. I can’t believe people actually fall for those scams. I get them on the phone now, which is really annoying. Or scary, since they got my phone number somehow. Anyway, your tips are right on. I remember a suspense thriller I’d read once and it was rolling along until the final confrontation with the killer, when a storm suddenly whipped up and swept the bad guy off the wharf and into the sea. What? I’ll never forget my disappointment. As you say, it’s important to establish early in the story if a protagonist has a special skill that he’ll need at some point to get himself out of a tough spot. Plus the character should always defeat the villain on his own (albeit maybe with friends/teammates) and not rely on a weather anomaly to save the day.

    • All good additional tips, Nancy. Regarding phone numbers, I had my new land line installed and started getting spam calls the next day. And I get to pay every month for the phone company selling my new number.

  2. This is very helpful. Sometimes I struggle with coincidence in a story. Sometimes the rationale seems crystal clear to me, but a crit partner doesn’t buy it. Sometimes as I’m reviewing a draft of a manuscript, I repulse myself at the obvious misuse of coincidence.

    I’ve found the more complicated your plot, the harder you have to work to be sure not to overkill with what is perceived as coincidence.

    • You’re right about complex plotting, BK. The more complex, the more we have to plan ahead. It’s also smart of you to have a critique partner. Fresh eyes always see invisible roadblocks.

  3. Wow. What a coincidence! I’m the sole winner of the World Treasury Fund lottery. Yep. Got the WTF email yesterday. Waiting for WTF headquarters in Dum Arse, Nigeria to send me my money.

    Nice post, Joe. Good luck on the book promo.

    • Jordan, now you’ve got me worried that this Nigerian thing might be a scam. But His Majesty’s email sounds so authentic. Anyway, thanks for the best wishes.

    • Jordan,

      I have been to Dum Arse Nigeria at the invitation of the exiled Crown Prince Rolf Ferdinand von der Shineebumsnug. He took me on a tour of the palace of his cousin the Vice-Emperor Emeritus Sir Reginald “Bucky-Goodlucky” Pimpenmann. The palace was simply amazing and a true testament to the immense wealth locked up by the poor crown-prince’s political enemies such that he had to disguise his palace as a Sheraton Hotel (very convincingly done I must add) and keep his entire army and admin staff hidden in the guise of the housekeeping staff of said “Hotel”. The “Hotel” staff are doing such a spectacular job of play-acting their roles that I could not get a single one of them to slip up and confess to being anything other than a “Sheraton Hotel Employee”.

      Impressive loyalty and devotion to their beloved leader, brings a tear to my eye.

      The special United Nations Bank International Money Order Cashier’s Cheque Teller Certificate is dated to go into my account Thursday at midnight Greenwich Meantime, and while I will be ₤10,000,000 richer, the thought of reestablishing the mighty Shineebumsnug Empire and ushering in the resurgence of the Benin-Oyo-Nri empire and put in the celestial call for the almighty Mothership to take us all to the kind and benevolent seat of Nok, priest-king of the “People Who Don’t Eat Other People In The Strictest Sense Of The Phrase ‘Eat Other People’ Is Understood” or by the more common African term PWDEOPITSSOTPEOPIU.

      And as coincidence would have it I also won a large fries and a regular cheese burger in the McDonald’s Monopoly pull offs. How’s that for good fortune!

  4. Congrats, Joe. I assume you’ll share your good fortune by throwing a big conference-wide party at ThrillerFest.

    As a rule of thumb, I’d limit myself to one “story changing” coincidence per book, and said coincidence should lead to more trouble, not less.

    BTW, a “clue” that comes to the character (as opposed to his digging for it) could be considered a “coincidence.” The key there is that it should help only because the character uses his own cognitive powers to make sense of it.

  5. I was on vacation many years ago in Acapulco when I ran into this Israeli guy I’d gone to school with–walking down the street. What were the chances? A year of two later I visited Israel… and ran into that SAME guy in the lobby of the Tel-Aviv Hilton!

    But even I would never put anything that impossible to believe into one of my novels. Thanks for the morning chuckles!

    • Leslie, one alternative to all this is to use coincidence as the main them of your book. You might have a good start already. Chuckles R Us.

  6. A friend who owned a restaurant employed a waiter named Ping. One day my friend was in Chinatown and had stopped at busy intersection. To his surprise, there on the corner stood Ping. He shouted to the man. When they guy came over, he announced that he was not Ping. He was Ping’s twin brother.

    Is that a coincidence, or what?

    Then there’s the killer on the verge of shooting the MC, when he was done in by a flying dog. I’ll leave that resolution to your imagination.

  7. The old twin brother coincidence. But like I replied to Leslie, that’s just cool enough that it might work. File it away for future use, Jim.

  8. Wow, we must be one lucky group. Just a couple of days ago I received an e-mail from the UK Grant Lotto informing me of my glorious win of the New Zealand Grant Lotto. I’m just so happy about it, even though I’m only getting a paltry 1.97 million “pounds sterling” instead of the millions that Nigerian fellow is offering you. (BTW I think you should help him out, but only if he makes you Duke of Port Harcourt with the ability to tax all of its exports.)

  9. Ha! I remember hearing Phillip Margolin talking about his plotting once and he mentioned the “long lost uncle from Australia” ploy. This is a plot crutch wherein some character enters the story late in act 3 to end up being — ta da! — the REAL killer. I know…sounds cheesy and amateur hour. But I can’t tell you how many Aussie uncles I have seen in published fiction.

  10. This is great.

    Sometimes the coincidence is smaller, but still too handy to be real. Lately on television, we have the main character or the plucky assistant looking at the photos and notes on the “murder board” and out of the blue figuring out the one clue that solves it all. Happens on two of my favorite shows all the time: Castle and Criminal Minds. At least, on these shows it comes from characters who you expect this from, but still…

    Also, I got an email this morning that said I’d won the Galactic/Milky Way Lottery. I’m so lucky. I’m going to use the money to fund the curses for all aliments, pay off the US National debt, and retire in Poughkeepsie, New Jersey and collect lunch boxes from the 1960’s and 1970’s. I already have a Mr. Ed and Star Trek boxes.

    • Brian, once you receive your Galactic payment, I’ve got a Charlie’s Angels lunch box I’ll sell you for a measly $1 million. It’s worth a lot more, trust me. BTW, Criminal Minds is one of my favorites. You’re right, the character, Spencer Reid, has set a precedence for his ability to solve clues just as you described. I have no problem believing him. But the precedence must be established first.

  11. Be careful of the super-cheap car on craigslist being sold by a soldier who has to get rid of it because he’s being redeployed. It’s actually a pretty well thought out scam, with the car already secured by the “Army Logistics Department” (no such thing), and the price just low enough to be to-good-to-be-true. All you gotta do is wire them the money and then tell the army where to deliver your car. Heck, just to be sure you’re happy, they’ll even hold your wire transfer until you see the car. Promise!

    • Jake, should I be concerned with my deposit for John Lennon’s Rolls Royce on Craigs List for $500? Maybe this isn’t my lucky day after all.

  12. Interesting thing about ‘coincidences’ is that sometimes what some folks assume to be unrealistic coincidences are neither unrealistic nor coincidences. So here is a factual statement followed by a question for discussion:

    In the reader comments of 65 Below and Midnight Sun on Amazon some folks mention that they just couldn’t swallow the idea that my heroes would run into so many military veterans and/or active duty/reservist Marines or Special Forces in the course of the story.

    While it may be unlikely to run into a soldier around every corner in some states the fact is that in Alaska nearly half of the adult men (over 18 y.o.) in this state, and about 10% of the adult women, have served or are serving in the military. Of these there are very active National Guard Special Forces and Ranger contingents and until recently an extremely busy (and frequently combat deployed) USMC Recon unit recently reconfigured to be an anti-terrorist battalion.

    So, and here comes the question, since nearly 50% of Alaska’s male population are veterans, and half of those have served in combat therefore making the reality of meeting a combat veteran around every corner a distinct likelihood, would it be advisable to not use actual facts that locals would take for granted and instead use a different reality that readers from other states would find more believable than what they assume to be unrealistic coincidences?

    Whaddaya think?

    Does my question make sense?

    • Basil, I would recommend that you use your facts to setup the events so few if any readers doubt the coincidence when it occurs. This is exactly the point of my post–set the groundwork so when the coincidence occurs, no one doubts it is possible.

  13. Sorta kinda maybe, Basil. But we’re always playing against reader/genre expectations in our stories.

    It’s common now to see actors “running up the side of a building.” First time I saw that was a “Whoa! Hold the phone” moment. Then I find out about parkour. Who knew? Just check this out: http://www.youtube.com/user/MissoulaParkourGroup

    But, yunno, there’s always the gunshots that don’t deafen everyone in the room. Guy racks off a triple-tap in a closet and then whispers to the guy next to him. Huh? Then there’s the ME report coming back in ten or twelve seconds. I think my favorite is when the boys are going to sneak up on a house, and then right off everyone slams their car door: whump-whump-whump-whump. (But that’s TV.)Gee, think they’ll have a clue there? Me? I jump ten feet in the air when a car door slams.

    So I dunno, Basil. Whaddaya gonna do? is what I always say.

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