The Wonderkid Chet)
When I was young I loved reading the Hardy Boys mystery stories. This famous series began in 1927, first conceived of by Edward Stratemeyer but written by many ghostwriters over the years. The novels all involve the eponymous brothers, Joe and Frank Hardy, who are sons of a detective and anxious to lend their sleuthing skills to any difficult and dangerous case.
The two brothers also have a friend, Chet Morton, who is enthusiastic and jolly, but also chubby and foolish. He’s a silly companion, yet also surprisingly useful. Because without fail, Chet is always learning some new hobby in the Hardy Boys’ stories, and it always just so happens that that hobby is exactly what the boys need to get out of a bind later on.
Which is, of course, coincidental to the point of being ridiculous. Actually, it comes up so often that it becomes a sort of running gag. Thus when you read Case #45: The Mystery of the Spiral Bridge, and Chet starts talking about his new shot-put fascination, you’re already in on the joke, trying to guess in what way it will come into play. You’re sure that somehow the bad guys are going to set things up so that the only way forward requires hurling a heavy ball a very great distance…and that is exactly what happens!
What’s This, Q?)
Another example of eye-rolling good fortune comes through James Bond’s quartermaster Q. In every Bond film Q has invented some new and fantastic contraption which, while clever, does not appear to have any immediate value. At least it doesn’t until the villain catches Bond in a trap which just so happens to be broken by that very same gadget! Take, for example, the famous laser wristwatch that Bond receives in GoldenEye, and which proves to be the perfect thing for Bond to cut his way through the metal floor of a train that is rigged with explosives.
As with The Hardy Boys, every time a new gadget is introduced we aren’t surprised when it happens to be useful, we are surprised that the writers were able to come up with a way for it to be so!
There is a time and a place for inside gaffs like these, but as a general rule, unless you’re using the coincidence as a way to wink at the audience, you probably don’t want to write any Chet Morton’s or Q’s into your story. Audiences will quickly lose patience with a tale where the protagonists “just so happen” to have exactly the thing they need to get out of a bind. It smacks of lazy writing, as it takes very little skill to write your hero into an exciting predicament, but a great deal more skill to get them honestly out of it.
Unraveling the Knot)
When a hero gets out of a problem by coincidence then they never really overcame the obstacle and they didn’t earn their success. And that is always a dissatisfying resolution for your readers. As a writer, if you took the time to tie an intricate and massive knot, then you ought to come up with a more clever way for your hero to dismantle it than to just hack through it with a sword. Which, come to think of it, that’s exactly what Alexander the Great did!
The legend is that Gordius, father of King Midas, once tied a knot so elaborate that no man was able to undo it for hundreds of years. Further adding to the knot’s fame was an ancient oracle’s prophecy that the man who could tease apart its secrets would conquer all of Asia.
Well, many years later, when Alexander the Great heard about this famous knot he came to solve its puzzle and claim the associated reward. He stared into its intricacies for a time, but then proclaimed that it didn’t matter how the thing was undone and cleaved right through it with his sword! Then, true to the Oracle’s prophecy, Alexander extended his empire throughout all of Asia minor.
So, did Alexander cheat the solution and get away with it? Well, at first it might seem so, but one ought to consider the rest of his story before making their final judgment. For just as Alexander brute-forced his way through the Gordian Knot, so to he captured his swaths of land only by the power of his sword. And in his haste to acquire, he never learned the secret of the far more difficult task: how to keep. He didn’t puzzle out the intricacies of how to lead a massive nation or win the hearts of its people.
Thus, no sooner did Alexander die than the entire nation broke apart, his brother and child were murdered, and the rule of Asia slipped from his household forever. Alexander may have appeared clever and powerful in the moment, but he hadn’t really solved the mystery of the knot, or the mystery of how to rule. Whether in legend or literature, a cheap solution is always fleeting.
Yes, it takes more effort to come up with a clever way for your protagonist to earn their way out of a tight spot. Truly ingenious plotting requires a truly ingenious mind…or at least a mind that’s patient enough to wait for the right solution.
In my story I recently had a character sneak up on my sleeping protagonist with his gun drawn and at-the-ready. The would-be assassin came within a few yards of the main character, aimed his weapon, and fired at the protagonist’s head! Now obviously I didn’t want to kill off my main character, so I needed a way for that bullet to miss. But I didn’t want to rely on some lazy convenience, such as the assassin tripping on a rock or the hero just happening to turn over at the right time.
For a while I couldn’t think of a way for my unconscious hero to get out of the bind that didn’t feel contrived, but at last an idea did occur to me. What if he was in the habit of protecting himself from just such an attack by always sleeping with his head behind a rock? What if he had learned to do that from previous night-encounters. Then my would-be assassin’s bullet could bounce harmlessly off of the stone, and it wouldn’t feel like my main character cheated. He has earned the triumph by his wit, not by dumb luck.
And I’m going to hold true to this standard as I continue to write my main character into and out of more dangerous situations. No coincidental hobbies, fantastic gadgets, or cheap shortcuts will pave the way for him, his only success will be what he has earned.
Good stuff, Abe! I particularly liked the line, “In his haste to acquire he never learned the secrets of the far more difficult task: to keep.”
Thank you for the kind words!