Category Archives: Writing

Nobody’s Perfect

We all want to be liked. Yet we all have flaws. The best we can hope for, perhaps, is that our strengths outweigh our weaknesses.

If you think about it, our notion of character flaws and positive attributes depends on the context and on the person who is making the judgement. Quiet humility, for example, may be considered a positive attribute by many, but in the context of a sales department, it might be considered a drawback.

To you, a man may seem to be full of himself, but in the eyes of someone else who is full of him or herself, he is simply self confident and this is a good thing.

These considerations make it all the more challenging to create believable fictional characters. It’s a tricky balancing act. I’ve been known to put away a novel, albeit very well written, because I’ve not found a single character that I like. On the other hand, if characters have no flaws at all, they seem flat. Two-dimensional.

11532830.jpgThis line of thinking came to me while reading Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, because virtually every major character (if they weren’t a villain) was flawed yet likeable. David himself, hopelessly naive, quick to trust, and quick to fall in love. Arguably much too quick to fall in love, and him not understanding his wife as well as those around him who’d spent far less time with her. Sometimes we want to slap him for being an idiot, yet we also cheer for him as he becomes a mature, successful adult.

Dora Spenlow, a lovely butterfly of a woman, dainty and airy, exceedingly pretty, but truly a child in a woman’s body. Yet, she understood this about herself, and this helps endear her to us.

Mr. Micawber… well, really, the list of flaws is too long. Bombastic, long-winded in the extreme, self-destructive, to name a few. And yet, every time I read this book I nearly cheer out loud when he steps onto the stage because he truly has a good heart. He loves his family, is a loyal friend to David, and in the end sacrifices his good fortunes to bring down Uriah Heep.

Betsy Trotwood, eccentric in the extreme, having walked out of her sister-in-law’s life because of her temerity in giving birth to a boy rather than a girl. She also has an aversion to donkeys. And yet, she gives shelter to Mr. Dick and gives David the first loving home he has known.

Clara Copperfield, David’s mother, too much aware of her good looks, too inexperienced in the world, too ready to give herself to a flattering suitor. But she loves David dearly and he retains happy memories of her all his life.

Interestingly, Dickens’ villains had few or no redeeming features, and so were by definition two-dimensional. And yet in the context of his stories they work brilliantly. Dickens’ villains were like the black-hatted, black cloaked, mustache twirling villains of the silent movies that everyone loved to boo as they tied the damsel to the railway tracks. Of all of his memorable villains, Uriah Heep is perhaps the best known, with his fawning manner, fake humility, cold clammy hands, writhing posture, and his propensity for delving into and exploiting the vulnerabilities of those around him.

As many great characters as Dickens gave us, he had one blind spot: his heroines. They were as pure as snow, as soft as the morning dew on the roses, as good as, well, nobody really. Nobody is as good and without flaw as a Dickens heroine. Much as I love Dickens overall, his heroines were his kryptonite. In this book, that would be Agnes Wickfield. She’s just so… good. So understanding. So calm. So patient. Such a loving daughter. Such a loyal friend to David. And I could go on but you get the idea.

Out of all these considerations I can draw few hard and fast lessons, except to provide your main characters with flaws, especially flaws that move the plot forward and ratchet up the conflicts to be resolved. Sounds easy. And it sounds like something that those of us who are aspiring writers will need to practice before getting it right, or at least, getting it better.

After all, nobody’s perfect.

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Writing Miss Fisher

This is one post where I’m not going to pretend to have the answers. Not that I would pretend. Not usually. Rather, I’m going to be asking a lot of questions.

Let’s start with this one: Do you watch Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries? It’s a remarkable show set in Melbourne, Australia in the roaring ’20’s.

miss-fisher-s-murder-mysteriesPhryne Fisher is something of an oddity in her 1920’s setting, being a beautiful, wealthy, independent woman who’s intelligent and driven. Not to mention fearless. Fisher is not one to hide behind the coattails of a man, as she’s rather adept at hand-to-hand combat and carries a pistol in her handbag. She is, in addition, forthright and flirtatious, and enjoys brief flings with attractive, muscular men.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Miss Fisher is the actor who plays the titular character. Essie Davis conveys volumes with her posture, gait, eyes, voice, and phrasing.

And now comes the big question: How would you capture that in writing? Is it even possible to capture in writing some of what is conveyed in moments in visual media, or must we simply concede that visual and written media are different, each with their own strengths and weaknesses?

Of course, the logical thing to do would be to read one or more of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher books to see how she did it. Succumbing to the inevitable, I downloaded an e-version of Cocaine Blues to my tablet. Say what you will about e-books, when it comes to instant gratification, you can’t beat them.

At any rate, Greenwood makes no mention of what Fisher does with her eyes. Nor voice. Nor posture. Her personality is well captured in other ways, though. In one notable scene, a constable expresses to Chief Inspector Jack Robinson that they could arrest Fisher and take her down to the station. Wearing only a lounging robe, Fisher steps out of the robe and, completely naked, tells the inspector that if she is to be taken to the station, it will be like this. Classic.

But suppose you wish to capture the  subtleties of Davis’ performance in writing? Consider the scene in the pilot episode where Fisher first meets Inspector Jack Robinson. The scene takes place in a bathroom where a man was found dead. A chalk outline is all that remains of the victim. Fisher has wheedled her way past Constable Hugh Collins to have a look for herself. A knock on the bathroom door shortly after, and Fisher admits Collins and his superior, Inspector Jack Robinson.

After surveying the scene quickly, Fisher summarized her findings. “Given the lack of blood stains, I assume it wasn’t a violent death, unless it was strangulation. But the fetal position of the victim outline, although not terribly well executed, indicates a degree of pain rather than the flailing limbs one might associate with a struggle. Then of course there’s the fact that death occurred after breakfast according to Mrs. Andrews which suggests something ingested. All wild surmise of course.”

“Of course,” Robinson said. “Now…”

Miss Fisher interrupted. “Do you have a card? In case I need to call the police? Because I’m a woman alone, newly arrived in a dangerous town.”

Handing her his card, Inspector Robinson said, “I plan to make this town less dangerous, Miss Fisher.”

“Good,” said Miss Fisher. “I do like a man with a plan, Detective Inspector Jack Robinson.”

This is what the characters said, but by itself, this doesn’t at all reflect what actually passes between the characters. Let’s add some annotations.

After surveying the scene quickly, Fisher summarized her findings. “Given the lack of blood stains, I assume it wasn’t a violent death, unless it was strangulation. But the fetal position of the victim outline, although not terribly well executed, indicates a degree of pain rather than the flailing limbs one might associate with a struggle. Then of course there’s the fact that death occurred after breakfast according to Mrs. Andrews which suggests something ingested. [Robinson and Collins share a glance. Robinson nods his head slightly, tacitly conceding that Fisher has a good point.] All wild surmise of course.”

“Of course,” Robinson said. “Now…”

Up until now, Fisher has been lecturing on her findings with the tone of an expert speaking to her pupils. Then, in the blink of an eye, she completely changes gears.

Miss Fisher interrupted. “Do you have a card? In case I need to call the police? Because [Fisher pauses, adjusts her hair, then purrs the rest of the sentence, large, liquid eyes wide, making eye contact with Robinson.] I’m a woman alone, newly arrived in a dangerous town.”

Handing her his card, Inspector Robinson said, “I plan to make this town less dangerous, Miss Fisher.”

“Good,” said Miss Fisher. “I do like a man with a plan, [Fisher glances at card.] Detective Inspector Jack Robinson.” [Fisher eyes Robinson up and down, smiles, then saunters out of the room, hips swaying slightly. Robinson and Collins follow her with their eyes, then Robinson takes a breath and surveys the crime scene with fresh eyes.]

Well, that captures the feel of the scene a bit better, but you can’t leave it like that. Since most of the unspoken communication comes from Fisher, perhaps it would would be best to describe the scene from Inspector Robinson’s point of view.

After surveying the scene quickly, Fisher summarized her findings. “Given the lack of blood stains, I assume it wasn’t a violent death, unless it was strangulation. But the fetal position of the victim outline, although not terribly well executed, indicates a degree of pain rather than the flailing limbs one might associate with a struggle.”

Robinson kept his face even. He’d learned that it was best to let witnesses and suspects talk when they were inclined to talk, and to pay close attention. There was always time for questions and clarifications after they’d said their piece. Still, this woman was something different. Clearly intelligent and surprisingly, perhaps refreshingly, direct. He found that he was becoming genuinely interested in what she had to say. With some bemusement, he realized that she had taken on the tone and body language of an instructor lecturing to her student.

Continuing, Fisher said, “Then of course there’s the fact that death occurred after breakfast according to Mrs. Andrews which suggests something ingested.”

Robinson glanced at Collins, who’d been taking notes. As their eyes met, Robinson found himself nodding slightly to Collins; they had both come to the same realization, that Fisher was making some valid points

“All wild surmise of course,” Fisher concluded.

Robinson wasn’t about to concede that an amateur, and a woman at that, had made some astute observations. “Of course,” Robinson said. “Now…”

Miss Fisher interrupted. “Do you have a card? In case I need to call the police?”

At this, Robinson noted, Fisher’s voice and posture changed completely. Moving closer and adjusting her hair, she proceeded to purr her words, her eyes large and liquid, keeping full eye contact with Robinson. It was with some effort that he kept his face impassive.

“Because,” Fisher continued, “I’m a woman alone, newly arrived in a dangerous town.”

Handing her his card, Inspector Robinson said, “I plan to make this town less dangerous, Miss Fisher.”

“Good. I do like a man with a plan,” said Fisher, pausing to read the card, “Detective Inspector Jack Robinson.”

Surprised by her boldness, Robinson noted how Fisher eyed him up and down, smiled alluringly, then sauntered out of the room, her hips swaying slightly. Without realizing it, Robinson followed her with his eyes, as did Collins. When she was gone, he once again surveyed the crime scene, this time from a fresh perspective.

I could live with that as a decent stab at capturing the scene, but still, you have to be careful how much time you spend on things like eye contact and introspection, for you run the risk of boring your readers. In TV and movies, a glance or a change in expression can occur in a second and it can speak volumes. To express the same thing in writing may take, well, volumes. You need to balance pacing and characterization, and this is where beta-readers can help.

In a similar vein, consider Phryne Fisher’s wardrobe. Fisher sports an amazingly diverse wardrobe and somehow looks good in anything. Her wardrobe nearly becomes another character in the show. But here we come to the same question as before: how do you translate this to the written word? How much space in a short story or even a novel could one sensibly allocate to describing a character’s clothing, and the impact it has on those around her? What vocabulary would you even use? Personally, I’d be at a bit of a loss having to describe in detail 1920’s era women’s fashion.

Questions, questions. But this makes for an interesting thought exercise, and hopefully gives us pause to consider adding some more subtleties to the way in which our characters interact.

Good Writing

A few weeks ago, while returning a book to the library, I happened upon a display that included Joanna Trollope’s re-write of Sense & Sensibility. I’d heard about this. It was part of a project wherein each of Jane Austen’s books was to be brought into the modern age. Curious, I opened the cover and read this:

sense

It was a remarkable view of Sussex parkland, designed and largely planted two hundred years before to give the fortunate occupants of Norland Park the very best of what nature could offer when tamed by the civilising hand of man. There were gently undulating sweeps of green; there were romantic but manageable stretches of water; there were magnificent stands of ancient trees under which sheep and deer decoratively grazed. Add to all that the occasional architectural punctuation of graceful lengths of park railing and the prospect was, to the Dashwood family, gathered sombrely in their kitchen, gazing out, perfection.

I was hooked. No sooner had I read that paragraph then I checked out the book and proceeded to devour it. What was it that hooked me? The writing. I thought it was beautiful.

Which led me to wonder, what makes good writing good? By good writing, I don’t mean the plot, though having one helps, or the characters, though a book without at least one sympathetic, fleshed out character doesn’t hold my interest for long. What I mean by good writing is the ability to form a sequence of words that is pleasing to the reader.

Not having any formal training in writing, I’m afraid that I’m of the school that I simply know what I like. Expressing why I like it is challenging.

Consider J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, which grew thicker and thicker as the series progressed. People thought she was crazy, that kids would never read books that length. Well, they were wrong, weren’t they? In the later books, I found that essentially nothing happened for 100 pages or so, but I couldn’t stop turning the page.

Why was that? For one thing, there was a clarity to Rowling’s writing. The words practically read themselves.

Clarity is something I highly value in writing. To me, it is the ability to deliver knowledge to the reader in a succinct, unambiguous manner, whether the writing is descriptive, as in excerpt above, or a fragment of dialog. Even if you’re reading to yourself and not out loud, your internal tongue doesn’t trip anywhere. The meaning the author wishes to convey flows effortless from word to word.

Here’s another example of great writing from a book I loved, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane:

ocean

The old house, the one I had lived in for seven years, from when I was five until I was twelve, that house had been knocked down and was lost for good. The new house, the one my parents had built at the bottom of the garden, between the azalea bushes and the green circle in the grass we called the fairy ring, that had been sold thirty years ago.

Carlos Ruiz Zafon gave us the lovely The Shadow of the Wind. Note how much the following paragraph conveys about the father and child, and how effortless it is to read:

shadow
As a child I learned to fall asleep talking to my mother in the darkness of my bedroom, telling her about the day’s events, my adventures at school, and the things I had been taught. I couldn’t hear her voice or feel her touch, but her radiance and her warmth haunted every corner of our home, and I believed, with the innocence of those who can still count their age on their ten fingers, that if I closed my eyes and spoke to her, she would be able to hear me wherever she was. Sometimes my father would listen to me from the dining room, crying in silence.

A favourite author since my teen years has been H. P. Lovecraft, who has the uncanny ability to consistently make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. My favourite work of his is the mesmerizing The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath:

kadathThree times Randolph Carter dreamed of the marvelous city, and three times was he snatched away while still he paused on on the high terrace above it. All golden and lovely it blazed in the sunset, with walls, temples, colonnades and arched bridges of veined marble, silver-basined fountains of prismatic spray in broad squares and perfumed gardens, and wide streets marching between delicate trees and blossom-laden urns and ivory statues in gleaming rows; while on steep northward slopes climbed tiers of red roofs and old peaked gables harboring little lanes of grassy cobbles.

If you want an example of great writing, pick up any book by Charles Dickens and flip to any random page. You won’t be disappointed. Here’s something from Great Expectations:

greatOurs was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.

As a writer, you improve your craft in a couple of ways: By reading and by writing. No surprise there. Whenever I write, I look at examples of writing that I love, such as those above, and try, not to emulate them, but to write in my own voice with comparable clarity and effect. Do I succeed? Here’s an excerpt from my short story, “The Right Time”:

Although a fast walker, Michael slowed his pace as he entered the Arboretum proper. It was beautiful. The path meandered past deep green grass and all manner of trees, each labelled with its common and Latin names. Wooden bridges took him across streams, and further along he came to large ponds with greenish water dotted with toadstools and bordered by tall grasses.

Oops. I shouldn’t have included the “It was beautiful” sentence. I should have let the description convey that for me. And mention of the “deep grass” and “tall grasses” are too close together. I should have eliminated one.

Here’s an excerpt from a fanfic of mine called “Walk the Plank”:

The two boys, propped up on elbows, lay sprawled in the pasture of tall, red grass at the foot of Mount Perdition. Just beyond the pasture stood a dwelling, not large by Gallifreyan standards, but quite comfortable, with a garden, hedges, and flowering trees. Well beyond the dwelling, in the distance, was the Citadel, its dome catching the rays of the setting sun. It was warm, the heat baking their faces and arms, and it was one of their rare days off from lessons at the Academy.

Any better? I think so. At any rate, one keeps trying to improve. Any and all feedback, as long as it’s the respectful kind, is welcome.

Don’t Be That Guy

As has been noted elsewhere, there’s something about the Internet and its inherent anonymity that brings out abusive behaviour in too many people.

Treat others as you would like to be treated isn’t a particularly profound principle. You can derive it very simply if you accept that a world in which you are treated well is better than one in which you are not. Let’s leave that derivation as an exercise for the reader, shall we?

Sadly, there are so many examples of abusive behaviour online that one can only highlight a few. Relentless bullying of teens, to the point of driving the victim to suicide, is all too well known. Twitter personalities such as John Scalzi and Wil Wheaton are frequent targets. Writer Mary Robinette Kowal was famously the subject of abuse from a fellow writer not long ago. And of course, there’s the recent GamerGate debacle which targeted women in the gaming community with vociferous, hateful abuse.

Oddly enough, writers of fanfiction are also subject to their share of abuse. This is particularly puzzling. After all, people write fanfiction because (a) they love the subject matter, and (b) they love to write. They (we) certainly don’t do it for the money. And for this they receive abuse? Really?

It seems that when you put yourself and your work out there, some of the more misguided amongst us take it as an invitation to hurl abuse. Why is that? Are they trying to make up for their own inadequacies? Does it make them feel good about themselves? Odd if it does, because words frequently associated with these individuals include “troll” and “coward”. Not qualities one would normally aspire to, or so you’d think.

It’s entirely possible to disagree with someone in a respectful way. It’s quite alright to provide a writer with negative feedback if it’s done in a constructive way. (“It might improve the story if you deleted scenes C and E.”) But abuse? There’s no place for it at all, under any circumstances, for any reason.

Do you really want to be that guy?

He’s Dead, Jim

The thing that most shocks people out of their skulls when they read George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is the abandon with which he kills off major characters. Characters so major that you’ve assumed all along that the series is about them.

Ask any writer, and I think they’ll tell you that their characters become a kind of family. After all, you come to know them so well that you hear their voices in your head. So killing them is not something done lightly. The question is, why kill off major characters at all?

One reason might be to reflect the times in which the characters live. If you read Charles Dickens, you’ll find it entirely possible in some books to lose count of the number of deaths. But consider: in the 1800’s, one in five children were dead by age five, and those who survived childhood could expect to be dead by forty. Death in those times was very much a part of life.

serenityAnother reason is what I call the Joss Whedon effect. Fans of the TV series Firefly were, to put it mildly, shocked that two major characters were killed in the follow-up movie, Serenity. The reason for this, as Joss Whedon explained in the movie commentary, was to place some doubt in the minds of the audience as to whether or not the remaining characters would survive. After all, in most stories, no matter how harrowing the action, the major characters generally pull through. The only real question is, how will they pull through? By killing two characters, Whedon shook us out of our complacency and really made us wonder not just how, but if our beloved characters would survive.

This line of thinking was prompted by a comment I received regarding one of my fanfic stories. “Western Castle” is an alternate universe version of Castle set in the wild west. In that story, I killed off one of the major characters. Why? Partly to achieve the Joss Whedon effect, so that the reader would wonder who would survive, and partly to resolve a minor plotting problem that would arise later on if the character didn’t die. The comment I received was to the effect that killing that character was painful to that reader. For a writer, that’s a nice compliment, tempered by the fact that I didn’t create the character in the first place, but still.

Regarding the death of major characters, the worst thing you can do is what is so commonly done in comic books: bringing supposedly dead characters back to life. This, of course, completely obliterates any drama around death. Rather, the reader will likely yawn and ask herself how long this time before the character comes back.

In The Avengers, Joss Whedon did it again, killing off a major character to better motivate the remaining heroes to come together. Painful, but forgivable. Less forgivable was bringing that character back to life in the TV series, Agents of Shield. From now on, any death in any Marvel Universe movie will be greeted by yawns, not tears.

If you use death, make it matter. Use the death to achieve a plot goal or to shake up readers’ expectations. And keep your characters dead once they’re dead. After all, you can only toy with your readers so long before they decide they don’t want to play any more.

Confessions of a Serial Writer

While writing the latest installment of my serialized FanFiction novelette, a crossover of Firefly and Castle, it seemed a good time to ruminate on serial writing in general.

By all accounts, it was Charles Dickens who popularized the notion of serial writing. His first novel, The Pickwick Papers, was published in monthly installments from April 1936 to November 1937. Installments of most of his other novels were also published monthly; some were published weekly.

At the time, it was advantageous to publish serially for economic reasons. Books were expensive; by breaking a novel into installments, readers could effectively amortize the cost over time. Dicken’s experiment was a success as Pickwick proved wildly popular, and numerous other Victorian authors followed suit.

Times change, and although paperbacks seem expensive these days, they provide good value; at roughly the same price as a movie ticket, they provide many more hours of entertainment.

So, if pickwickmoney is no longer a factor (and there are readily accessible public libraries if it is), are there other reasons to serialize a story? Here’s one: to get early feedback from readers before the entire story is cast in concrete. Suppose, for example, a given supporting character excites a lot of comments. You might be inclined to expand that character’s role in later installments. In the case of Pickwick, Dickens did just that after the introduction of Sam Weller. In the case of non-commercial fiction, you can simply abandon the project if it appears to be a dud. Life is too short, and there are too many stories to be told.

We are already used to many forms of serial media. Television shows may have season-long (or longer) story arcs. It may take two, three, or more movies (pick your franchise) to tell a complete story. Then consider the numerous online comic strips with long story arcs. For example, followers of the Writing Excuses podcast will be familiar with Schlock Mercenary. With all that in mind, a serialized novel doesn’t seem like much of a stretch. And after all, people are busy; a serialized novel can seem more palatable in that it provides smaller chunks that are easier to digest.

Serialized commercial novels are relatively rare these days, but they’re not dead. The latest novel in John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War universe, The Human Division, was published in weekly installments in ebook form. The complete novel was later published in book form along with original material that was not previously published. Naturally, Scalzi’s ebook readers weren’t pleased that the novel contained new material. Would they have to pay all over again for the book? It turns out not. The two “new” chapters were made available online. In fact, one of them had been available online for some time.

In the non-commercial world of FanFiction, I would guess that most stories are published in installments of a few hundred words or more. FanFic authors have day jobs. Or day classes, depending. Still, writing FanFiction in installments has its pluses and minuses. Among the pluses, as discussed earlier, is the possibility of early feedback. If you lack confidence in your writing, early, positive reviews can be very encouraging. You also get a sense of accomplishment as you see the posted chapters pile up. At fanfiction.net, you can receive an email each time a new chapter is posted, making it easy for readers to follow the story.

Another plus, this one specific to fanfiction.net, is that every time you add a new chapter, your story bubbles up to the top of the list. So really, it is a very effective way to attract new readers that may not have noticed an earlier chapter.

On the down side, serialized stories may be less effective if you’re a slow writer. That’s me. When I’m writing a story in installments, I’ve aimed for roughly a chapter a week in the past. This time around, it seems to be taking a couple of weeks. Hopefully my readers won’t forget what’s come before. In Peter Ackroyd’s mammoth biography of Charles Dickens, he recounts a scene in which Dickens, while in a bookshop, hears someone enquire of the shopkeeper whether the next installment of Dicken’s novel is available yet. Dickens gulped. He hadn’t started writing it. So, while your story is in progress, you do feel some pressure to release your installments on schedule.

Another danger of serial writing is the potential need to summon Captain Jack Harkness to retcon your readers if you discover a hole that can only be filled by adding or changing material in an earlier chapter. This hasn’t happened to me, at least not yet. You can reduce this risk by outlining before you start, but you can’t eliminate it.

As with many other things, serial writing is a tool. You can either experiment with it, or keep it safely tucked away just in case. I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to forever neglect the shiny tools in my toolbox.

Coincidence? I think not!

When I was a kid, it was a real treat to go to Coles in Yorkdale Shopping Centre in Toronto and scour the shelves for Edgar Rice Burroughs. I devoured his books. The Barsoom series, the Venus series, Tarzan, of course, and all those thin, miscellaneous adventures stories. Back in those days, books didn’t tend to be as thick as they are today, and you could find books that were on the order of 120 pages. I prefer smaller books, stories distilled to their essence.

F-234Much has been written about Edgar Rice Burroughs. Most acknowledge his gift for creating characters and situations that appealed to the inner Indiana Jones in every boy. One thing he’s criticized for, though, is his over-reliance on coincidence as a plot device. Fair enough. There’s a reason stories of that ilk from Borrough’s era are referred to as ‘pulps’.

Imagine my surprise, then, on re-reading Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, to discover that coincidence is used as a major plot device. A MAJOR plot device. As I read the book, I attempted to keep track of the number of significant coincidences. I lost count.

Let’s just step back for a moment. Dickens is considered in some circles to be the finest writer of English language novels. He’s certainly my favourite. Not only did he create classic characters, he was a champion for social justice. For example, his portrayal of the abusive Yorkshire schoolmaster, Wackford Squeers, was sufficiently spot-on that multiple lawsuits ensued from schoolmasters claiming they were the inspiration for the character. Odd, when you think about it, that people would actually step forward and claim that they were the basis for one of the most despised characters in fiction. At any rate, by coincidence or not, that breed of abusive boarding school soon began to disappear.

In other books, Dickens weaves a huge web of plot and character and theme that somehow all come together into a unified whole. I suppose plot wasn’t something he had a knack for in his first handful of books. Here is Nicholas Nickleby, our favourite protagonist, wandering aimlessly about London, only to walk into the very coffee room in the very hotel where his nemesis is speaking of Nicholas’ sister in an untoward manner. Here is poor Smike, the ill begotten friend of Nicholas, walking home, when who should see him on a street corner but Wackford Squeers. Smike is taken. Nicholas rings Squeers on his mobile and says, “I will track you down. And I will kill you.” Wait, sorry, I’m getting my stories mixed up. But you get the idea.

Does it make it better to admit your use of coincidence with a wink?

‘That Mr Frank and Mr Nickleby should have met last night,’ said Tim Linkinwater, getting slowly off his stool, and looking around the counting-house with his back planted against the desk, as was his custom when he had anything very particular to say: ‘that those two young men should have met last night in that manner is, I say, a coincidence, a remarkable coincidence. Why, I don’t believe now,’ added Tim, taking off his spectacles and smiling as with gentle pride, ‘that there’s such a place in all the world for coincidences as London is!’

I don’t think so.

All of this isn’t to say that coincidence has no place in plotting. One of my favourite movies uses a big, whopping coincidence to set up the key conflict, and it works beautifully:

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”

How you use coincidence to advance your plot is ultimately a matter of taste and style. My suggestion is that coincidence is a spice best used sparingly.