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Monday, 21 June 2010

Fancy Seeing You Here...

Now here’s a tricky one to get right – the coincidence of chance encounters.

A few weeks ago I blogged about the kindness of strangers and how implausible that can appear in novels, short stories, screenplays or whatever. Over the last week I managed to bump into one individual and one small group of people who reminded me that chance encounters are another one of those sticky fiction problems. Too contrived and your audience will immediately lose faith in your story, but it’s also true they can be interesting plot thrusters.

I’ve heard of people going on holiday to Spain and bumping into the neighbour who lives down the road back In Huddersfield. It does happen in real life but if that scenario was to occur in fiction wouldn’t you get a few raised eyebrows? My two chance encounters this week at least had a fair amount of logic to them.

The first one was a friend from school. We both live in the same town we grew up in but we actually met in the canteen at my new temporary job that I started a month ago. Out of all the places we could’ve ended up working we’re both in the same prefab box just off the M1 motorway? That’s a pretty big coincidence, particularly because neither of us had any plans to work in the sector we’re in. But it has some logic to it: we’re both still living near the prefab box, administration is a fairly common field and our employer is one of the biggest in the area. What actually surprises me about this situation is that I’d been working here a month before I bumped into her.

As for the three distant relatives… well, this one feels a little more dubious as far as believability goes because it necessitates a change in habits for both parties.

I went into town on a Sunday morning, for starters. Sunday morning as a concept is alien to me – my aim in life is to be semi-alert in time for Elaine Paige at 1pm – so for me to be up and around required somebody else asking me to meet them. Already a stretch. Then there was the fact that my relatives were in Costa Coffee, a little different from the places they used to frequent, though it’s a regular haunt of mine. At this point, I’m ashamed to say, I pretended I hadn’t seen them. In my defence, they did the same! However, as I was walking through the nearby shopping centre half an hour later I met them coming out of New Look and couldn’t exactly carry on walking. Now, I don’t know what they were doing in the shop but as they informed me that another distant relative of mine had just died I think it’s a logical presumption to suggest it had something to do with the funeral.

So… I was out at a time I shouldn’t have been, they were in an unexpected place, and their visit possibly revolved around the death of a family member. That has to be the kind of coincidence a reader would scoff at, surely? Personally, I’d find it a bit contrived.

What we have to bear in mind is that any ‘chance’ encounters must have some basis in truth. For example, if your characters bump into each other in a specific shop in Dubai there had better be a very good reason for it. Coincidence can often be used as a tool to impart some information that needs to be learned for the plot to progress. Don’t succumb to it. Rather than lose your reader find another way to inform the reader. If the information is as vital to the plot as you think it is there must be a way for it to fit in elsewhere.

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