How Convenient! - Contrived Coincidences

A while back I talked about the TSTL character in a Lifetime movie I was watching.  Well, unfortunately (or fortunately--considering it provided fodder for two blog posts), the crappy plot devices did not end there.  The You've-Got-To-Be-Freaking-Kidding-Me moments continued.  But this time in the form of contrived coincidences.

Contrived Coincidence describes a highly improbable occurrence in a story which is required by the plot, but which has absolutely no outward justification

When we left our heroine in the previous post, she was under suspicion for murder.  So, she had decided the best course of action was to break in and search the crime scene (leaving DNA-laden hair and fingerprints in her wake no doubt).  Well, she doesn't find much over there (although the killer does stop in the house briefly--at the exact time she's there--she hides under the bed, seeing only his feet).  But, that my friends, is not even the silliest coincidence.

Our heroine goes on and continues her search for evidence in different places, but doesn't turn up much.  However, she strikes up a friendship with the local coffee barista who tells her how every townie takes his or her coffee.  Well, fast forward, and Ms. Brilliant is being followed all around town by a mysterious black mustang (the car, not the horse, although that would have been better).  Because that's what killers do, they show you their car and follow you in broad daylight.  But anyhoo, a few days later her own car is vandalized and she needs to go buy another vehicle.

Well, lo and behold, as she's searching the used car lot, she happens upon what?  You got it.  The black mustang that's been following her.  Oh, and what's that you say Mr. Salesman?  The car was just dropped off yesterday and IT HASN'T BEEN CLEANED YET!  Well, hot damn!

So she buys the car and what is laying neatly in the floorboard of the car?  A receipt for coffee with the very order of one of the people the barista told her about.  Killer identified!

Seriously.  I'm. Not. Kidding.  That's how they wrapped this thing up.

Okay, so this is an extreme example of Contrived Coincidence, but this can show up more subtly in your writing.  Sure, coincidences happen in real life--that's why we say life is stranger than fiction.  But just because something could possibly happen if all the stars aligned, it doesn't mean your reader is going to buy it.

Some things to watch out for...

  • Someone overhearing information or seeing something at the exact right moment 
--If your MC has tapped the phones and has been listening and finally comes across evidence, that's one thing.  But if they just happen to stumble upon the scene and just happen to hear the precise info they need, well then no.
  • Two characters you need to get together run into each other at the perfect moment
--Make sure your characters have a reason to be in the same place at the same time.  Motivate it.
  • You can't find your way out of a scene, so you have a figurative bomb go off somewhere else to drag your character to a new location. (Sara totally caught me doing this one in my latest WIP, lol.)
  • A character bursting in at the very perfect second to save the day or stop something from happening 
--Ex.) the heroine is about to be killed but the hero shows up and shoots the villian just in time--not because anyone called him or notified him that she was there, no he's acting on a hunch or just happens by.   
--Ex.) Edward calls Bella at the precise moment she's about to kiss Jacob in New Moon--oh, and even though they are at Bella's house, Jake answers the phone and tells Edward information that inadvertently sets off the Romeo and Juliet tragedy reenactment.
  • Without trying, your MC stumbles upon a key piece of evidence or a weapon just when she needs it or some outside force fixes a previously unfixable problem (this is also referred to as deus ex machina).  Oh, there's a handy wooden stake, how'd that get here? 
--Set these things up, foreshadow, make sure we know why and how that key thing showed up when it did

Reviewing all these for this post kind of makes me laugh.  I have many of these in my now buried first novel.  Live and learn, right?

So, with both the TSTL characters and the contrived coincidence, there is a recurring them.  If you motivate something correctly and set things up for your reader, then they'll go there with you.  If you don't, they'll throw their hands up and not believe you or your story.

So what movie/tv show/book has made you say "Oh, well isn't that convenient"?  Will you stop reading or watching if the coincidences are too unbelievable?  Have any of these things shown up in your writing?

*This is a repost from Feb. 2010*