One morning not long ago, my student Wally came by the office with part of another story. Sipping my second cup of coffee, I read what he had brought to me.
"Wally", I said finally, "this story doesn't make sense. "
"What do you mean?" Wally asked.
"I mean your characters don't seem to have any background motivation for their story intentions here, they constantly seem to be running into other people and information strictly by coincidence, and they often do or say things for no apparent immediate reason"
Wally looked blank. "That's bad?"
"Wally, it makes your story totally illogical!"
"Wait a minute," Wally protested. "I don't have to be logical. I'm writing/zc/zora!"
It's a fairly common misconception, this one of Wally's. Since fiction is make-believe, says this line of reasoning, then the most important thing is to be imaginative and original -and so anyone who tries to argue for logic and credibility in a story must be trying to thwart somebody's artistic genius.
The truth, as you've probably already begun to see, is just the opposite. Because fiction is make-believe, it has to be more logical than real life if it is to be believed. In real life, things may occur for no apparent reason. But in fiction you the writer simply cannot ever afford to lose sight of logic and let things happen for no apparent reason.
To make your stories logical, and therefore believable, you work always to make sure there is always a reason for what happens.
For one thing, you always provide characters with the right background-upbringing, experience, information-to motivate them generally in the direction of the action you want to show them taking.
A character, if she is to act with seeming reason, must come from a personal background that qualifies her to accomplish your plot action. You must set things up so that her general background-family, upbringing, education, health, whatever-make it seem reasonable that she would act as you want her to act in the story.
As an extreme example here, let's say you want your character to preach a sermon some Sunday in a Southern Baptist church, citing the life of Christ as the perfect type for all to emulate. Only a slow thinker would fail to put something in the story earlier to show how the character was either brought up in a Christian home, or went through a religious conversion to Christianity. Thus the general background must be given, or else the character's actions may seem to come from no logical origin.
Following the same example a step further, remember that the general background may not be enough. Your readers will also want to know the more recent event or events that have given your character the motivation to do what she is doing right now. Thus, in the example cited, you might have the Christian woman's minister husband fall suddenly ill, which prompts her, in desperation, to fill in for him after the congregation has already assembled. Or you might set things up so the sermon is to be some kind of test set up by the church's governing board. Whatever you pick, you will pick something that will explain how and why she got up there in the pulpit now, doing what you the writer want her to do in the way you want her to do it.
(Do you want her to be nervous or calm? Sad or happy? You'll need to provide recent cause for these desired aspects of her performance, too. )
A great many stories tend to be unbelievable because the writer just shoved a character onstage to do something without thinking through how and why the character got there. You must constantly examine your story logic to make sure you have not inadvertently committed the same error.
But problems with logic in your fiction don't end with background motivation. Another kind of error that can destroy the evident logic of a story is the use of excessive luck or coincidence.
In real life, coincidence happens all the time. But in fiction - especially when the coincidence helps the character be at the right place at the right time, or overhear the crucial telephone conversation, or something similar -coincidence is deadly. Your readers will refuse to believe it. And you can't afford to let your readers stop believing.
When the long arm of coincidence helps your character along, it's just good luck. Reading about someone blundering along, getting lucky, is neither very interesting nor very inspiring. A story filled with coincidence tends to make no sense because there is no real reason why things happen- they just happen.
In real life that's good enough. In fiction it isn't.
Now you may see another reason why we advised you not to write about wimps in Chapter Eight. To get a wimp to accomplish anything, you almost have to fall back on incredible coincidence, which erodes reader belief and makes your story an accidental mess.
Your character can't sit home passively and accidentally get a telephone call from friend Max, who then volunteers a crucial clue in the murder mystery. Your character has to think things over and then decide that he will call people seeking information. After calling several other people, he comes to Max on his list. He calls Max. Max doesn't want to tell him, but you make your character persist. Finally your character convinces Max to talk, and Max gives him the next clue.
This way, instead of being fat, dumb and happy-and having a stroke of good luck for no reason-your character instead has worked for what he has gotten. And that is satisfying.
First-draft fiction tends to be full of unrealized coincidences. Your character goes to a strange town and "just happens" to meet an old friend on the street. Or she gets to buy a long-coveted new dress because she "just happens" to walk by the store on the one afternoon when it's for sale, and it "just happens" to fit her perfectly, and she "just happens" to get there five minutes before Annabelle, who also wanted the dress.
Readers may not realize why they don't believe your story when you allow this kind of sloppy plot planning to ease the way for you, but they won't like it.
After your first draft, watch with an eagle eye for coincidences, either ones you might have impatiently allowed in the first write-through just to get on with it, or (even worse) those you simply didn't recognize earlier as outlandishly lucky.
How do you fix coincidence? First, you excise it. Second, you search for a way by which your character can set out seeking the desired event, person or information. If your character wants something, and works hard to get it, it isn't coincidence anymore.
Having provided your characters with sufficient background and motivation for their actions, and then by making sure coincidence doesn't rule the day, you'll be well along on the way to better story logic. Things will happen for good reason, and your readers will love you for it.
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