Coincidences, Vacuums, and MacGuffins


Sue Grafton once said, “Coincidence can get you into a plot, but it can’t get you out.” I’m going to paraphrase her by adding, “And you can even have coincidence, but you can’t have a vacuum.”

Let me explain. A good thriller writer I enjoy is known for his action scenes, humor, and the complete implausibility of most of his novels’ key premises. His ability to push the reader forward and keep the suspense high is so masterful that most readers shrug at the no-way-in-hell inventions and proceed to the next shootout.

I’m one of those readers. I’m okay with colossal coincidences if the rest is working. What I can’t abide, however, is the middle dropping out of a story.

By that I don’t mean the literal middle of the book—the plotting, the dialogue, the consistency of voice, though all those things are important—I mean the central premise that got us going in the first place. When I get to the end, and there’s no meat, no substance, not even a coincidence, just a vacuum, then I start waving the red flag.

It’s a little tough to explain without actually revealing the plot, the title, or the author, but to summarize, the entire premise of one of his novels is built around discovering a MacGuffin* that, should it be found and exposed, will reveal horrific and damning truths about the several Very Important People connected to it. The world holds its breath as the protagonist races to find the MacGuffin and discover the secrets about the VIPs. Bad guys are mowed down by the dozen, allies are maimed, buildings explode. Finally, the villains are defeated and the MacGuffin falls into the trembling hands of our hero…

…who doesn’t have a clue what’s what it means. Nor does anyone involved, including the Very Important People who are Very High Up in the government that are mentioned in connection to the MacGuffin. And that’s it. Our hero gets tired of thinking about it and moves on. The book ends.

This is a profound disservice to the reader. It can’t have been that hard to think up some reason—any reason, even a bad reason —why dozens of minor characters were willing to sacrifice their lives over this object.

And for anyone who would defend this by saying, in effect, life is messy and sometimes things don’t make sense, let me introduce you to an aphorism that most fiction writers learn in Creative Writing 101: Truth is stranger than fiction.

This bon mot isn’t meant as a guide, it’s a warning: the essence for writers isn’t that they should look at our crazy, mixed-up world and use it as justification for their poorly plotted novels, it’s that no one cares about random events. We all know life has its oddball moments; we turn to tabloid newspapers and internet chain letters to keep us abreast of them. What we want from our fiction writers is to construct things that make sense, not for more of the same crap we see on the news and experience in our daily lives.

It’s not enough when a main premise is just a vehicle for us to experience the shooting, the chases, the love scenes. There has to be some there there. I’ll hang with you and your crazy reasons for getting me to read in the first place. But don’t leave me hanging.  As we all know, when the center doesn’t hold, things fall apart.

* A MacGuffin was Alfred Hitchcock’s phrase for the interchangeable “thing”–Maltese Falcon, diamond ring, voodoo doll, etc.–that drives the plot forward.

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Writer of crime fiction, psychological drama, and dark humor.

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