The first thing we learn about novel writing is that story requires conflict. That’s a great place to start! If your storytelling education stops there, though, you may have a problem. Heaping one bad thing after another upon a character does not allow her to emerge as the protagonist of her story—it turns her into a perpetual victim.
By relying too much on such happenstance in your manuscript, you’ll fail to make use of the most powerful ways in which story works.
A story is more than a string of events—it’s an ordered world where coincidence means the author has fallen down on the job. Even if you believe real life to be full of random events and chaos, the reason we love story so much is that things happen for a reason. If the reader perceives a coincidence, a second look should reveal how very cleverly you-as-author had set it all up.
In the opening of my newly published debut, The Art of Falling, dancer Penelope Sparrow wakes up in a hospital room, unable to move, after landing on a car parked fourteen stories below her penthouse. Struck by the miracle of her survival, the baker on whose car she landed, her hospital roommate, and her doctors all want to know what happened out on that balcony—but survival incites Penelope to set a different story goal.
She can’t remember what happened, and right now she doesn’t even care to face it. Her primary goal is to figure out how she can create meaning in a life that doesn’t include the movement she so loved. These two questions—what set her out on that balcony, and how she embraces this extraordinary second chance—launch the intertwined story lines that will converge at the end of the novel.
Question: What if Penelope was so distraught she never created a goal, and things just kept happening to her?
Answer: She would come across as weak, and the reader would lose sympathy for her for not fighting back.
Give your character a story goal
To be relatable, your characters must engage in goal-oriented activities. A novel should be like one big light-sword battle, where the light represents each character’s true desire. The story events happen where those beams of light intersect—where conflicting desires push against one another.
These pressures will complicate your protagonist’s goal and force her to change. Knowing what she wants will give the reader a way to assess how the story is progressing. “Yes, a victory!” or “Oh no, it’s not looking good for Penelope!”—such reactions bond the reader to the protagonist.
But let’s go back and take a look at my opening set-up. My character lands on a car parked half on the sidewalk below her balcony, in the wee hours of the morning? Yeah, right! That’s too much of a coincidence!
Except that the baker comes to the hospital and waits while Penelope is having surgery. Speaks to her when she wakes up. Brings her things. Counsels her; befriends her. Clearly, he does not think this is such an accident. And later, we find out what he’d been doing on his trip across town that resulted in him parking just so…
But you’ll have to read the book to find that out. For now, suffice to say that many events and trajectories were in play that night—a metaphoric light-sword battle was already in place—and the only thing that “happens” to Penelope is that she survives what should have been a deadly event, requiring that she chart a new course.
At only one time in your story is happenstance not only welcomed, but embraced—and that’s at your inciting incident. Make sure to carefully construct the other events in your story so that your character’s goals are what lead her to The End
Kathryn Craft is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks: The Art of Falling, and While the Leaves Stood Still (due Spring 2015). Her work as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she speaks often about writing, and blogs at the Blood-Red Pencil and Writers in the Storm. You can connect with her at her website, Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.