No book is perfect. And most readers have their own specific triggers of problems that really get under their skin. For some, it’s the odd typo or two. Others can’t stand an artificial happy ending. For me, it’s coincidence. It brings out my inner Saturday Night Live Church Lady. I sneer, “Isn’t that convenient,” while doing my superiority dance. (Apologies to those too young to know the Church Lady.)
How do you know when an event is a coincidence? If you can say “just so happens” as you describe the plot point, that’s a good sign it’s contrived. Examples? “Cady starts her new job, where it just so happens her new boss is her old high school rival.” “Marcia goes to Paris, where it just so happens her Eiffel Tour guide is her long-lost sister, Jan.” “Karen accidentally kills her husband, and it just so happens her arresting officer was an abused wife, too.”
The general rule is you can have one coincidence per book, and the inciting incident (the thing that happens that kicks off the whole story) is a good place to put this coincidence. If Cady starts her job right around page 20 or so, and discovers her new boss is Regina George about five pages later, that’s your story, and there’s nothing wrong with that one. But when you get further along, that’s when you get the eye rolls and “isn’t that convenients.”
Coincidence not only comes across as contrived, it keeps your heroine from being as pro-active as she possibly can. Obviously, you want the most active heroine possible. If you have coincidences in your book, look for ways that your heroine could have set up the situation that way. If she just happens to run into her love interest at the bank, maybe she’s been following him on Facebook and rushes over there when he checks in. Or maybe not, because that makes her appear like a stalker and “stalker” generally doesn’t appear in the list of admirable qualities for your protagonist.
Sometimes this might require changing the order of plot points in your story. In a manuscript I recently read, a police detective investigating the murder of a teacher discovers about halfway through that her estranged daughter was in the man’s class. That coincidence was way too much for me, and I suggested rewriting the beginning so that the detective discovers her daughter is in the class very early on, and then commandeers the investigation so she can protect the girl if she has to.
“Just happens” is the enemy of proactive storytelling. But sometimes writers can’t think of any other way for two people to meet, for the secret to come out, for everyone on the Orient Express to want to kill the victim (OK, that one pretty much worked out well.) Is there a coincidental plot point you’re grappling with? Describe it in the comments and I’ll see if I can help.