Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Chance Can Always Make Things Worse, But Never Better

Boiled down to the finest possible description, a novel is nothing more than a series of actions characters take, which we follow. In this way, a book is really just watching cause and effect play out. However, like a set of dominoes that have been laid out in an intricate pattern, these simple physics can be breathtaking when we see the sheer scale it's operating on.

Whoa! I did not see that coming.
Some actions and reactions in books are much more complicated than dominoes, of course, and there are always going to be elements that are outside of the protagonist's knowledge or scope. For instance, Indiana Jones didn't know Elsa was a Nazi in The Last Crusade, so when she was held at gunpoint he thought she was really in danger.

That element was planned as part of the story, and it was always going to come up. However, there are some incidents in a plot that act as pure chance. In Star Wars Han and Chewie run down the wrong corridor, and find themselves in the barracks instead of locating an escape hatch. Our protagonist in Drag Me To Hell doesn't check the envelope she picked up after it got jumbled with a bunch of other junk, and thus tries to break a curse with a coin instead of with the actual item she needed. The protagonists in The Strangers just happened to be home on the night a roving gang of psychopaths were looking for a home to invade. And so on, and so forth.

Big or small, these things all happened due to random chance, and they all put the protagonists in more danger than they were already in. That's just dandy! If you try to do it the other way around, though, then you run into problems.

Good Luck, Deus Ex Machina, and Cheapening Stakes

When bad luck makes things worse for our protagonist (the car won't start, their phone rings while the killer is looking for them, etc.), that raises the stakes and increases the tension. However, if random chance can make problems go away, or it eases the protagonist's path to victory, then that becomes a serious problem.

Well we weren't going to promote you, but since Larry randomly moved to Singapore, the job's yours.
The issue you run the risk of hitting is the much-maligned Deus Ex Machina. If you're not a fan of ancient Greek theater, it was when the gods would come down from Olympus, wave their hands, and fix the situation that had developed. Translating roughly to, "Machine of the Gods," or, "The Gods in the Machine," this trope refers to any seemingly random bit of chance getting a character out of an otherwise impossible situation. As TV Tropes puts it, they fall off a cliff, and a flying robot catches them. Or they get shot, and an innocent bystander with no experience miraculously gets the bullet out and stitches them closed.

To steal a phrase from Emma Coates, "Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating." Why is that? Well, in short, it has to do with the threat we've been presented with, how truthful the stakes are, and a reasonable expectation of danger.

Think of your traditional James Bond death trap scene. The hero is strapped into a machine that's going to kill him very shortly if he doesn't do something to get out of it. And how is that scene played out, nine times out of ten? With Bond doing something to enact his escape. Maybe he manages to strain, and with a colossal effort he gets a hand free, and picks the lock just before the buzzsaw hits him. Maybe he manages to pull one of Q's gadgets out of his breast pocket with his teeth, aiming the laser and disabling the device. Maybe he just punches the shark, swims down to the grate, and escapes before the great white can eat him.

Now ask yourself how you'd feel if James was saved not by his own efforts, skills, or decisive action, but because of random happenstance. What if a cup of coffee fell on the control panel, shorting out the mechanism because a nameless tech bumped his latte? Or a squirrel bit through a cable, and tripped a breaker? Chances are you'd feel cheated. Because rather than having to do something, or overcome some obstacle, the threat was just hand-waved away by an outside force, allowing our protagonist to continue on his merry way. That can make it feel like the threat was never really valid in the first place, since our hero had to do nothing to circumvent or overcome it, which meant it may as well have never been there at all.

Make Your Characters Sweat For It

If you put obstacles in your character's way, people want to see them knock it down. So give the people what they want, and make your characters sweat to earn their goals. The struggle validates the threat, and it provides the appropriate catharsis for the audience as they watch the character's actions.

Having chance remove the obstacle, though, pretty much just creates literary blue balls; all the build-up and none of the release, if you will.

And nobody wants to pay you money for that kind of treatment.
So, because you declare your story done, go back and ask where fortune might have been a little too generous to your protagonists. Because if you take Lady Luck out of the equation, you'll likely have a much more satisfying tale to tell.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

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1 comment:

  1. Unless you are writing for Longshot, in which case abnormally lucky happenstances are the character’s doing and should be used frequently, until a critical juncture is reached and he faces an opponent whose skill is so great it can’t be overcome by a stroke of luck.