Chance, Luck, & The Deus ex Machina in Fiction Writing

Use chance and luck to explore subtle nuances of a character’s choices and fufill their destiny.

Fiction writers: It’s easy to be lazy. When you’ve gotten your characters into a difficult situation, you might think you can quickly move them to another location or give them what they need by including “as luck would have it” or “by chance,” and that explains how your characters saved themselves. 

Don’t be lazy. Move the plot with character motivations, and use chance and luck in realistic ways, to make the story more engaging and believable for the reader. 

What is the difference between ‘chance’ and ‘luck’

Chance is when your characters are in the right place, at the right time. Luck is how the ‘magic’ of their world affects them when they’re in the right time, at right place.

Let’s dig a bit deeper: Many people believe there are forces that pull on people’s lives. Untraceable energies, but persistent, energies like tides that move a person through their destiny.

Many other people believe that there is a force inside a person that attracts or repels other forces, making each person a more active participant in their own destiny.

Many people believe in a combination of both.

Forgive my oversimplifications and bear with me. My point is:

If you, as a fiction writer, understand how the elements of chance and luck work in life, you’ll understand how to use them to move your story’s plot.

Your Characters, the Deux & Destiny

In a narrative, consider the distinction between chance and luck. Consider whether your characters take chances or make luck for themselves.

Your characters will need to be moved from one place to another. It may be convenient for you, as the writer, to have coincidences occur – chance meetings, moments where “as luck would have it” – the character is in the right place at the right time. Or has the right weapon. Or snatches up the dropped item in the nick of time.

None of these are chance or luck. They are you putting a God in the machine to ‘magic’ away a problem.

Tone back the chance and luck. Save it for the best moments. Don’t make things easy on your characters. People who luck their way out of everything don’t grow, and frankly, are boring.

Fiction Writing Analysis & Example: Sean of the Dead

Remember in Sean of the Dead when Sean and his group are heading to the pub, and they run into Sean’s ex and her group of friends? That was a chance meeting. Logically, smart people familiar with the area would use the same unpopular escape routes and happen to meet up with each other along the way.

No information that saved the day was exchanged. No sacred items were passed or last messages left or dramatic rendezvous planned. It just so happened, two people who knew each other — but didn’t influence each others’ stories much — ran into each other. A chance meeting.

On the other hand, luck is when something that Sean and his friends needed happened to be in the right place at the right time, right when they needed it. While there are several moments throughout the film that could qualify, one obvious moment is the working gun at the Winchester saloon. After some dialogue earlier in the film about the rifle, as luck would have it, it was a ready-to-use weapon, with ammunition within reach.

Here, that lucky advantage is offset by a series of hilarious circumstances that oppose the characters and prevent them from taking advantage of the luck. None of the characters are willing or able to shoot the rifle. And once they figure out a method, a bumble with the ammunition quickly renders useless the most valuable, luckiest weapon they’ve come across.

This film is an example of good fiction writing keeping chance and luck believable, even in the most extreme of zombi-pocalypse circumstances. The plot moved forward through luck, then the luck was undermined; luck didn’t come through to save the day either. Although the writers had a chance to give the characters an advantage, they didn’t. They balanced good luck with bad, which kept the tension high in every scene.

The God Who Distributes Luck When It’s Not Needed

Fiction writers have the ability to distribute luck and chance on their characters at will, and often, many default to a position where they throw a lucky bone at a character in a moment of need. It’s trite — when will the character’s luck run out? The reader may begin to expect that nothing will happen to the character, which means nothing will happen in the plot. An overly lucky, unbelievable moment can throw a reader into a shrug and frustrated grunt, as they close the book or turn off their e-reader. 

Instead, be a different kind of fiction writer. Be the god who distributes luck when it’s not needed. Not in a malicious way, but when the character thinks they’ve found a solution, the lucky alternative presents itself. Or when your character is not looking for the chance encounter, it passes them by, but the reader sees it and understands what has just happened. 

Creating this kind of surprise interaction keeps the plot moving in fresh ways, and challenges the reader to guess what’s going to happen next, to keep up with the fun ride you’re taking them on. 

Keep your characters always needing something, and every lucky chance that presents itself getting them closer but not quite there, and you’ll keep your readers longing for more of the story of their eventual success. 

Need a creative fiction editor who can help you keep the plot moving or close up plot holes? 

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