Monday, January 18, 2010

Serendipity is the Enemy!

As a mystery and crime writer I like to believe in cause and effect. Beyond the poetry of the prose, there lay the nuts and bolts of story construction. My characters have to figure things out, so I have a series of objects placed in front of them and the correct construction of the right clues will show a solution. It is like being a puzzle-maker, but I use things beside jigsaws and lumber.

I recently hit a wall in a certain plot and had a character just stumble across a thread that would lead to a momentum- changing clue. To me it feels like a cheat. That moment of serendipity stands out like a sore thumb. It's the bathroom with the bad drain in the brand new house. With luck, I will be the only one to notice. Rather than going back and fiddling with it endlessly, I'm working on the next thing. But it is rather irritating to have a coincidence propel a detective story.

Clockwork folk, how often does this kind of thing happen to you?

(Yes, when it gets cold enough, I dress like a manga character.)


  1. You know, it's funny that you mention it, because just the other day I was thinking about the average Chandler novel: the main character drinks and cracks wise in his office as the plot points and clues come to him, walking in the door and conveniently delivering information. Every time he gets hit on the head, he wakes up and get a clue. Every time he drinks and passes out, it's so that a new clue can walk in the door.

    And we love those books.

    I think one coincidence, one leap of faith, or one really big hunch that pays off is no sin at all. I've read enough true crime to know that it's fairly common when it comes to cracking big unsolved murders.

  2. Let's put you (meaning Bill or even you, gentle reader) on the virtual psychiatrist's couch. Why does serendipity bother you so?

    Do you think that serendipity reduces some positive quality of your character such as cleverness?

    Are you trying to create a world in which chance/providence is of diminished importance? And if so, why?

    Do you worry that serendipity robs the reader of the ability to solve the the whodunnit before the character can?

    Do you think that serendity causes your character to be a passive observer who's just waiting for things to happen? If so, I'd like to hear your thoughts on Bill Willingham's Indiana Jones observations.

  3. Further couch questions:

    Is this a control issue? Does it bother you that the reader might stray from the "correct construction of the right clues" and find some other way to put the puzzle together (either in the shape you expected or in some other shape unexpected shape)?

    Is this about the bad guys getting their comeuppance? Does it bother you that the bad guys were caught because of luck? Would you be happier if they were caught because of some personal shortcoming?

  4. Mark, I agree with you on Chandler. If Marlowe was in the modern procedural world that dominates the television, he would be the most hated man in that world. While the CSI geeks are collecting pollen, Marlowe is out power- drinking with strippers. Marlowe's super-detective-power was clue-generation.

    J.R. I have heard Willingham's Indiana Jones speech more than a few times now since it was just a few mental notes on the back of a card. In fact, I have given that speech with an attribution to the original line of thought and speaker. He is right about Raiders. Finn is right about Marlowe. But the fun of those projects is in the style in which the story unfolds.

    I prefer to believe in the former in a discussion of free will vs. destiny or free will vs. fate. Luck is a big part of life. I just wrote thirty pages of script for a pitch for a TV series and do I believe in luck, you bet. For me to get that brass ring or that big paycheck, I have to beat out a few hundred (or thousand) other submissions.

    But happenstance is often a shortcut in writing. And it often cheats the reader. It was a hoary cliché for Charlie Chan or some other detective to pull a clue out of their ass in the last chapter. I don't really care about a comeuppance for the bad guys. While it is satisfying, it is also a cliché by now and not a requirement of mine. Most modern bad guys do not really think of themselves as such and would not likely recognize a comeuppance as such.

    What I like about some of the better mysteries is the chance to match wits with the writer and call the twist in the story or identify the murderer before the fictional hero. Beyond guessing the identity of the murderer, mysteries provide opportunities to guess the key bit of evidence or spot the turning points before they happen. Foyle's War also provided the chance to guess the identity of the corpse.

    It is hard for me to turn that compulsion of mine off. So the best thing for me to get when watching a mystery or reading a detective story is a nice surprise.

  5. Having chance play a pivotal role in the plot is almost always a mistake because it's *less interesting*. In the boxing match of Antagonist in the red shorts, Protagonist in blue, it's not much of a sporting event if the Antagonist slips on his way back to the corner and cracks his skull on the stool.

    It may be funnier to have the Protag win that way, or it may illustrate some theme about the absurdity of the universe. But if you're not using chance to make some point like that, then randomness is a poor substitute for dramatic conflict.

    I do think chance should play a role in the small. Nothing should go exactly according to plan, for either protagonist or antagonist. And coincidence can also be the trigger for the start of the story -- Protag meets a serial killer by chance on the train, say. But even then, it's usually more interesting to discover that what seemed like a chance meeting wasn't -- the serial killer was stalking the protag all along.