Old reference from the Incredible Hulk comics. Paraphrased, but very relevant. Points if you know who said it.
So, a few weeks back I talked about suspension of disbelief
. It’s how we guide our readers through the parts of our stories that, well, don’t hold up to rigorous examination. They’re inherently wrong, illogical, or maybe just very out of character for that person on the page–or maybe for anyone. This sort of thing breaks the flow of my story. If I break the flow often enough, my reader’s just going to put the book down and move onto something more entertaining like the latest episode of Galavant
. Or laundry.
Now, that being said, sometimes I just need a coincidence or an irrational act. It’s the curse of being a writer. Every now and then someone needs some amazing good luck or really horrible bad luck. They find the key. They forget the password. They manage to make the nigh-impossible shot on their first try. Their cell phone battery dies.
Here’s a quick tip that can help make that moment work.
There’s a device I’ve mentioned before called “hanging a lantern on it.” It’s when I take that odd coincidence and—rather than try to hide it or brush it aside—I draw attention to it. I put a spotlight on it. Not as the writer, mind you, but within the story itself. When I hang a lantern on something, an odd or unlikey event happens and my characters address the oddness or unlikelihood of it
In my Ex-Heroes series, for example, the subject of origins comes up in the second book, Ex-Patriots
. One of the characters, Cesar Mendoza, has the ability to possess machinery, and explains that he got the power when he was younger. According to him, he was struck by lightning while working on a car’s alternator.
Thing is, St. George immediately
points out how ridiculous this is. He even gives examples and explains just how impossible it is for a lightning strike to give someone superpowers
. Cesar’s response is just to shrug and point out “Yeah, but it did.” And then he asks how St. George got his powers, and our hero awkwardly admits he got his powers by getting caught in an explosion when a radioactive meteor hit a chemical storeroom at the lab where he was cleaning up.
So, why does this little trick work?
Well, y’see, Timmy, when my reader sees something ridiculous happen in the story and my characters acknowledge that thing is ridiculous, it makes them more believable and relatable
. It’s just the way we’re wired as people. We can’t forgive a million-to-one coincidence that everyone takes in stride, but we kind of buy it if everbody comments on the odds we just beat. When the reader and the character have the same reaction, it pulls the reader in a little bit rather than pushing them away.
Now, does hanging a lantern make a story’s lucky coincidence totally acceptable? Well, not always. But it’ll push back the suspension of disbelief a few notches. So if I’m asking the audience to accept something small-to-midsize (that five people on a subway car all have the same birthday), and I make a point of commenting on the oddness of it, the readers will probably accept it without too much trouble. If it’s a huge coincidence that really strains belief (“None
of the codebreakers thought to see if the password was his birthday?!?”)… well, there’s only so much any plot device can do.
Also, keep in mind I can’t include dozens of belief-straining elements and hang a lantern on each one. In fiction, just like in real life, people start to get weirded out by too many coincidences. When it happens once it’s good (or bad) luck. Twice is just crazy. Three times… okay, now I’m looking around. Four times and someone’s interfering with my life, somehow.
Looking at it from the authorial side of it, it’s something you can only do once or thrice before people start to catch on to what you’re really doing. A good magician rarely repeats a trick, because once the audience sees what you’re doing, the trick’s ruined.
And now I can never use it again.
So if my readers are going to think
something is a bit unlikely… maybe my characters should, too.
Next time, I’d like to talk about photobombers.
Until then, go write.