Coincidence and the Writer

In real life, coincidence comes in lots of packages.

Maybe you’ve met someone only to discover a mysterious kinship. Or a piece of news comes to you in some unexpected fashion. Or an object turns up that presents an odd connection. I’ve even read of someone who bought a house for no better reason than it felt right, only to later discover deep parallels with the previous owners.

Up pops a coincidence, and now you see everything a little bit differently. It shake ups and can even redefine your world.

But what happens if you try to use coincidence—this Get Out of Jail Free card—in your writing?

Push your reader too far in what you’re asking him to believe, and you break the spell of your creation. Your reader now sees the man behind the curtain, sees the artifice for what it is—illusion, make believe, pure hooey—and he no longer trusts you.

Funny, in real life we tally it up. We share stories of coincidence with our friends and marvel at the implications. Why, for example, have I heard from not one but two women these past weeks, both living in South America of all places, and neither of whom have communicated with me in forty-two years?   

It’s a fact, but in a piece of writing, it would feel strained. A reader isn’t interested in if it’s real or not. What he wants is believable.

So, how to use coincidence well?

Provide an explanation for it, something to help your reader along in his suspension of disbelief, like a character with psychic abilities, or a wise old elder, or a street-smart, savvy one known for his hunches.

Or maybe your character has a job that puts him or her at the nexus of things, like a newspaper editor, or the town librarian, or the waitress at the most popular café.

Or maybe there’s a natural disaster, or conference, or train station that might throw strangers together in coincidental ways.

Give your reader some reason to ignore the implausible, the convenient, the highly coincidental—and he will. This is not because he’s being terribly understanding of the challenges you face in plotting your stories but for the sake of preserving his own entertainment.

What he seeks is to have the dream of your narrative sustained, so give him reason to believe.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: bunny and cat stockphoto.com/automatika; wee westie and president by Randy Robertson

Do We Write for Love?

The aerobics room pulses to a beat of four.

I want your love; I don’t wanna be your friend. I want your love! I don’t wanna be your friend!

Muscles stinging, eager to put my attention someplace else, I consider what a writer might think of this refrain. Do we want love from our writing? Is that why you, or I, or the next guy sits down to work?

The short answer is yes, of course, we want love. We hope our readers like us very much.

But for some of us, anyway, that isn’t why we take our seat and crank it out. The prime motive is elsewhere, not in adulation, but more in the arena, say, of seeking to capture something or clarify what had been murky. Or perhaps the desire is more to inspire, or educate, explain, advocate, sell, or persuade . . . And in this, we seek to be as clear and engaging as possible.

How to achieve this?
Be kind.
Be optimistic.
Tell the truth.
Start with your lowest expectations.
And build up from there.

If we do these things, day after day, we will produce decent work. If we are also loved for what we produce, that would be very nice, very nice, indeed, but this is not the meal. It’s the extra, like the fortune cookie that comes with the check.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credit: Rick Harris

Plenty of Words in the Pantry?

Once, on an outing with my mother, I consulted a psychic in Toronto, who left his mark with me.

What do I remember? Not much beyond his canny accuracy on the only three things he told me. In fact, I did very shortly have some teeth issues. And yes, I did favor flashy boyfriends. And finally yes, though I had never quite put my finger on it before, I simply did not know enough words.

The first two observations proved to have no lasting ill effects. But that third point turned out to be the killer.

I began reading the dictionary and started what would become a lifetime habit of jotting down words that are new to me or for which my understanding is not entirely crisp.

I learned garrulous that way, for example, and gallimaufry, and gamp. The first means excessively chatty, and is useful. The second—defined as a medley or confused jumble—opened up a friendship with an editor when a much younger me tried to pass it off as regular speech. And the third is a large, baggy umbrella named for a Dickens’ character. The utility of this last is unclear.  

Every writer needs a fresh supply of words. Words wear out. You can beat one to death. You can get into terrible ruts. You can misuse and misconstrue,and otherwise turn a perfectly good steak into hamburger.

Here’s a new one I just learned: ambassadress, defined as either a female ambassador or the wife of an ambassador. A friend of mine, posted in Zimbabwe, or Zim, as she put it, taught me this one.

Will I ever use it? It’s too wonderful to resist. You know my friend from the gym, I might preface a story, the ambassadress living in Zim? You can’t make this stuff up. You have to know the words.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: pantry – meganpru; zimbabwe – rudivs

How to Break a Scandal

Everyone knows this moment.  Something dishy, something trashy, some god fallen, principles tested, and the street full of speculation.

If you, the writer, find yourself involved in this kind of story, something messy and dangerous, awkward and sad, how will you handle it?

Ask yourself:

Do you need to tell this story? Are you sure? Is there something worth knowing here? Who will benefit?

How much collateral damage are you looking at? Who is hurt? What kind of hurt? Is that fair? How much territory is likely to fall under your mushroom cloud? Can you limit civilian casualties?

Who is ruined? How big is big, this story of yours? And must it be that big?

Recognizing that you possess in this moment the preponderance of power, how will you break the story? What’s your timing? Is a warning appropriate?

As we learned from the IMF scandal, they don’t use “a perp walk” in France—that is, the accused, ushered by his lawyer through a flank of reporters, head bent, just make for the car, his instruction. How loud will you be? Is your publisher, for example, stocking three times the usual volume around town?   Will you tweet without end?

Words are both powerful and limited. As if a club in the fist of a giant, we know the power of them very well, but have you factored in the constraints? Have you considered how—try as you might, good as you are—everything you write is different than you had in mind, a bit adulterated, a bit off? Still want to swing that club?

What is this story to you, anyway?

And if the shoe were on the other foot, would you say the writer did right?

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: shame, female – Royal Constantine; shame, male – Bruckerrlb