Four Fiction Felonies that Make Your Plot Unbelievable

Coincidence in FictionBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

How many times has something completely random happened to you? A death for which you can see no purpose? A problem that you couldn’t see a way out of that seemed to solve itself? In real life, things happen for no apparent reason.

In fiction, everything needs to happen for a reason. (Tweet this.)

The more trouble and danger you can put your character into, the better. But only if you can believably get him out of it by the end. When you don’t, readers are going to feel cheated, and we’re not going to buy your second book.

So to help you catch the biggest offenders that make your plot feel unbelievable (and not in a good way), here are the four biggest fiction felonies when it comes to plausibility.

Coincidence and Luck

Your character just happens to stumble upon the evidence that solves the stalled case. Money arrives from out of the blue the day before the bank plans to foreclose on your character’s house. Maybe it does sometimes happen in real life. But fiction isn’t real life, and this is one of the major differences between the two.

Rather than letting a coincidence ruin your book, lay a foundation early on for what’s going to happen. This is one thing I like about soft detective shows like Monk and The Closer. In the space of an hour, the writers for these shows manage to give Adrian and Brenda a plausible means for solving their difficult case, often through something in the secondary plotline that the writers have been developing from the start of the show. No accidents. No coincidences. No dumb luck.

Coincidence is boring. Worse, it doesn’t inspire your readers to deal with the problems in their own lives. Why should they bother if the message you’re sending them is that sheer luck will make it all work out in the end?


If you’re writing Christian fiction or fantasy, you might be thinking this point doesn’t apply to you. It does.

In your fictional world, regardless of what you believe about the real world, miracles should not take place.

A miracle by definition is something for which there is no possible natural explanation. The only way it could have happened is through supernatural intervention.

Birth isn’t a miracle. A woman’s body was designed to stretch enough to push a baby-sized object out of it. Money arriving just when you needed it isn’t a miracle (though it can be a coincidence if not handled properly). Someone might have found out about your need.

The sun stopping in the sky for hours is a miracle. Can you think of anything in the universe that could cause the earth to stop moving so that the sun stands still while life continues as normal on the surface of the planet? I once read a historical novel where the main characters suddenly became invisible as the enemy army charged at them. That’s a miracle. And it annoyed me. It was cheating.

If you’re writing fantasy, you can have exceptional, magical things happen, but you need to do so within the rules you’ve established for your world. The rules for your world should be revealed to the reader early in the book, and then you cannot violate those rules. For you, violation of the rules you’ve set for your own world (or introducing a new rule late to get you out of the hole you’ve written yourself into) is the fantasy writer’s version of a miracle. This is also cheating.

Miracles in fiction are lazy. Put the same amount of work into getting your character out of a tight spot as you did getting him in.

The Cavalry

Bringing in the cavalry to rescue your character isn’t always a bad thing. Your plot might hinge around Fred staying alive long enough for Arnold to find and rescue him. But that’s a very different story from one where Fred got into trouble and you don’t know how to get him out, so you decide to just have Arnold arrive in the nick of time. If that’s what’s happening in your story, figure out how to use the strengths you gave Fred to solve his own problem.

By now you may have figured out the common pattern: Lay the foundation for your ending in the beginning. (Tweet this.)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Characters

Anna is a devoted servant who idolizes her master and would do anything for him. You’ve established that as her personality because of some of the unsavory things you need her to do for her master. Unfortunately, for your plot to work, you also need her to willfully kill her master by the end.

If you simply have Anna do what you need her to do, you’re violating her character. You need to build in solid, believable reasons for Anna to do anything that would normally be out of character for her–from something big like killing a loved one, to something small like talking back to a superior when she’s normally polite.

Real people always have reasons (subconscious or conscious ones) for what they do. Your characters need to as well.

Have you come across any of the above fiction felonies in your reading lately? How did you get around a tight spot in your writing without resorting to one of the above?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Grammar for Fiction Writers, is now available from Amazon, Kobo, or Smashwords. (You might also be interested in checking out Mastering Showing and Telling in Your Fiction.)

Both books are available in print and ebook forms.

I’d love to have you sign up to receive my posts by email. All you need to do is enter your email address below and hit the “Follow” botton.

Enter your email address to follow this blog:

And don’t forget that you can receive a free copy of my guide Everything You Always Wanting to Know about Hiring a Freelance Editor by signing up for my newsletter. <–Click right there. You know you want to 🙂

Image Credit: Sam LeVan (Stock XChange)