Convenience, and when to believe it

At my waitressing day job, the complimentary cheese biscuits are baked on-site in small batches. So that they’re always fresh, you see. Small batch preparation means that we run out sometimes and need to wait for the next batch.

The other day at work, I saw a new batch of biscuits in the holding oven and I got to work bringing them to the tables on the waiting list. As I approached Table 16 with a bread basket in hand, a waitress coworker was already standing there, explaining why to the customers why they didn’t have their starchy goodness yet.
“So it’ll just be a few more minutes,” she was saying, “and we’ll bring you some–”
That was when she noticed me standing beside her, wearing a big, chipper smile. “I hear someone asked for buns?”
The customers laughed. And my coworker told them, with utter seriousness, “This is Heidi. She’s magic.”

Convenient coincidences happen all the time in our daily lives. Perfect timing can happen without anyone planning it out, and we sometimes manage to say witty things right off the cuff. The weird part is that we take this as normal in real life, but we often question it in fiction. How many times have you watched a hero character on TV faced with a bomb that’s going to explode in ten seconds, and he guesses which wire to cut and randomly, miraculously chooses the right one? And you probably rolled your eyes and thought, well, that was convenient, am I right?

But why? The reason we like fiction is because it has appropriate timing. Our human brains are always trying to string random events together into narratives or morals; the fact that fiction is full of well-ordered meaning is what makes it satisfying. So why is it sometimes disappointing when the fates work in the hero’s unlikely favour, at the exactly perfect moment?

Because it’s artificial, that’s why. If all of the convenient events work in the hero’s favour, well, s/he’s either the luckiest person alive or the favoured plaything of an author. Stories aren’t nearly as much fun when they’re obvious machinations. Too much convenience makes us remember that we’re reading a constructed work of ficton. This is especially true in fantasy settings where magic, destiny and ancient prophecies can happen whenever the author wants them to. (Related: my post about how the word “magic” can make it hard to take a world seriously.)

But coincidences can be negative, too. I could have walked up to Table 16 with biscuits, arriving while the customers were complaining that every waitress in the building seemed to be butting into their dinner experience. That would also be a believable bit of randomness that happens in our daily lives. A story’s negative coincidences can seem contrived, but we’re more likely to accept bad luck because it complicates the story instead of providing easy outs. The hero crashes through a window to rescue the victim, swinging in just as the villain is shooting at the victim, and the hero swings into the path of the bullet and takes it in the knee? That unlucky coincidence adds difficulty to the existing scenario. As opposed to the hero landing on the villain and conveniently knocking them unconscious, which could easily seem like a stupid way to wrap up the story.

I often find myself weighing the effect of coincidence in my stories of Aligare. Because the society is very cooperative, there’s a real risk of it seeming too easy for help to arrive at the right time. Early plot outlines of Remedy had Tijo the highly skilled mage arriving to help the plague-wracked village of Fenwater. He’d be showing up just as the plague victims were reaching the critical stage of illness, swooping in at the perfect time to cure everyone — literally swooping, because he’s a korvi with wings. Mmm, no, I thought. That scenario is too obvious. So I cut Tijo’s hamstrings with a more mundane coincidence — gosh, look at that, his feathers happen to be moulting right now and he can’t fly anywhere. Someone else will have to go help Fenwater village — someone less ideal for the role. Less convenient.

The reason we love perfect timing in real life is because it’s spontaneous. Simply a gift we’re given for no reason. It balances out the instances of terrible timing that we don’t want to happen. And because there’s no good reason for either type of timing (other than blind luck), we’re free to interpret any meaning we want. Or just see the as the simple randomness that it is. Fiction doesn’t have that luxury — but if a writer works hard, their story might just seem like real life.


One Comment on “Convenience, and when to believe it”

  1. […] fictional people, anyway. But fiction carries a burden of meaning. Stories are supposed to have patterns and significance. If a character in a novel snaps at her undeserving waitress/assistant/servant, it’s far more […]


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