Whether you plot your stories out in detail, or prefer to let the story unfold as you write, it’s a good idea to leave room for serendipity to play a part.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines serendipity as “making happy or unexpected discoveries by accident.”
These happy, unexpected discoveries are the ideas or story twists coming seemingly from nowhere – the dog you didn’t know your character owned; the plot twist you didn’t see coming; in short, anything you didn’t know was going to be in your story until it popped up.
I’ve been making these discoveries for years and know enough now to let them come. Even if I don’t know why a character acquires a dog, I leave it in. As Kate Grenville says, “It can all be fixed tomorrow.”
If you don’t find a use for that dog, it can disappear as quickly as it showed up. Just don’t be too hasty. I’ve had pets, sisters, plot developments of all kinds arrive, apparently from nowhere, but really from something my subconscious has been mulling over. I leave the reference in until I find, perhaps many chapters later, that it’s exactly what the story needs.
The dog may rescue hero or heroine, or alert them to some bad thing about to happen. The surprise sibling may be a character’s saving grace, downfall, keeper of vital family information…unknown to me until they’re needed.
In my Beacons sci-fi series , I wrote two novellas linking the three books of the series together. The first novella, Beacon Starfound, concerned a character called Guy, the genetic twin of Adam, one of my alien beacons. When I conceived Guy I had no idea of his role. Gradually he became more mysterious and interesting, until by book three, Beacon Homeworld, he proved essential to resolving many story threads.
Having Guy develop as he did was pure serendipity. Or was he?
I think these “happy and unexpected discoveries” are far less accidental than they seem. When a story stalls and I can’t get past the block, it’s almost always because I’ve taken a wrong turn. Once I would have been tearing my hair out. These days I let my subconscious figure things out.
If I try to force the story to go my way, the result invariably lacks a spark. So I wait. Frustrated, anxious, but telling myself I’ve been in this place before and always found my way out.
If I don’t have time to wait, I fall back on my trusty “twenty options” process from The Art of Romance Writing. I’ve blogged about this here and at workshops because it’s such a reliable tool. It’s best done with pen and paper. You can on screen but paper feels more freeing, somehow. Up to you.
Down the left hand side of the paper write the numbers one to twenty, leaving a line of space between each number. Then you pose the story problem to yourself – for example, why does the heroine go to meet the bad guy without seeming too stupid to live.
Then without stopping, you write twenty ways you could solve this problem. For example, he could be the identical twin of someone the heroine trusts. He could blackmail her in some way, holding her dog hostage, perhaps. Or he could fake a message to her from the hero.
Keep going until you’ve listed at least twenty options. I’ve listed over a hundred in some cases. There’s no right or wrong number but twenty seems to stretch you a little while getting past the obvious answers. Generally the first ones you think of are those everybody comes up with. Around the middle you get a little silly, the hostage dog being an example. Force yourself to keep going until you’ve listed at least twenty, or however many more suits you.
When you’re done, read over the list. Is there a germ of something workable in one idea? Could some be combined? If your list gives you nothing useful leave it for a while and try again next day. Persistence pays with this one.
In my current manuscript, serendipity has already struck. My hero owns a valley I plan to use in several books. As I was writing, the hero’s brother-in-law mentioned some additional land for sale adjoining the valley. Hero can’t afford the land because…reasons. BIL suggested a partnership. So far I don’t know why this extra land exists but I’ll go along until my brain works it out and lets me know.
The only thing I know for sure is that the land will have a purpose in relation to the story. In writing, that’s how serendipity works.
Have you ever had a random element jump into a story, only to prove essential later? Share your thoughts in the comments below. The blog is moderated to avoid spam but your post appears right away if you click on “sign me up” at right. I don’t share your details with anyone.
Happy writing and may serendipity bless you work,
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