How do you avoid "convenient" or "coincidental" plotting?

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How do you avoid "convenient" or "coincidental" plotting?

#1 Post by Yunou » Thu Feb 16, 2017 12:58 am

For instance, when you need to get from point A to point B but you feel like point B is too... unbelievably convenient.

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Example:

Jane disappeared seven years ago leaving behind her younger sister, Mary. Unbeknownst to Mary, Jane had been involved with a major crime ring prior to her disappearance. Now grown up, Mary's best friend has gotten deeply involved in this same crime ring and Mary is considering getting involved with it, too.

Only she finds a letter from Jane written seven years ago addressed to her . "Don't do what I did--these people, this organization, it will only destroy you," it reads.

Instead of heeding her sister's advice, Mary is now provoked to get even deeper into the organization in order to find out what happened to her sister seven years ago.

--

The above has nothing to do with what I am working on now, but it's a pretty good example of what I'm talking about.

Mary just "happening" upon this letter seems unbelievable in this situation. Why hadn't she found this letter previously? If Jane had sent a "time-machine" type email dated around this time, her receiving it at the exact time she's getting involved with this organization is super coincidental.

What would be a good way to make this more believable?

Thanks for any input.

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Re: How do you avoid "convenient" or "coincidental" plotting

#2 Post by Sonomi » Thu Feb 16, 2017 1:20 am

The way I've seen other writers do this, they would make the letter appear in a seemingly unimportant scene, completely out of context (and before it's of any relevance to the story). Similar to how a movie scene will zoom in, or repeatedly get a certain person in the shot to let us know that this stranger is important--we don't know why just yet--but we should keep an eye out just in case, for future reference.

Edit for clarity: I think this method would seem less like a coincidence and more like foreshadowing that the audience happened to miss.
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Re: How do you avoid "convenient" or "coincidental" plotting

#3 Post by Imperf3kt » Thu Feb 16, 2017 1:39 am

That is how I do it - introduce the character to the thing in question, long before it seems important.

How well you pull it off, depends on your writing skill.
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Re: How do you avoid "convenient" or "coincidental" plotting

#4 Post by Kuiper » Thu Feb 16, 2017 2:28 am

Usually, things in a story that feel arbitrary and implausible can be fixed with proper foreshadowing, though this mostly applies to things that happen mid-story that make a reader go, "Huh?" So it applies less to your example:
Yunou wrote:Jane disappeared seven years ago leaving behind her younger sister, Mary. Unbeknownst to Mary, Jane had been involved with a major crime ring prior to her disappearance. Now grown up, Mary's best friend has gotten deeply involved in this same crime ring and Mary is considering getting involved with it, too.

Only she finds a letter from Jane written seven years ago addressed to her . "Don't do what I did--these people, this organization, it will only destroy you," it reads.

Mary just "happening" upon this letter seems unbelievable in this situation. Why hadn't she found this letter previously? If Jane had sent a "time-machine" type email dated around this time, her receiving it at the exact time she's getting involved with this organization is super coincidental.
Here's an idea off the top of my head to make this more plausible.

Give the gang a specific made-up name, like "Patheon." Seven years ago, Mary received an email from her friend warning her about "Patheon," but at the time, Mary wasn't familiar with the organization, so she ignored the email and forgot about it. Or maybe the email was so dramatic that she thought it was a joke--"These people will destroy you" seems a bit over the top. Or perhaps she never saw the email in the first place; she certainly wouldn't be the first person to let an email sit in her inbox unread. (Quite plausible, considering that most people receive hundreds or thousands of emails each year, and seven years is a long time to remember a specific email like that.) Then, more recently, Mary begins following Patheon in the news, and sets up a news alert site to send her an email any time "Patheon" is mentioned in a headline. She gets 1-2 emails per month as the gang's activity continues to escalate. At some point, Mary wants to find a Patheon-related story that was emailed to her several weeks ago, so does a search of her inbox to find all emails mentioning "Patheon," and the email from 7 years ago comes up alongside all of the more recent results.

Is this plausible? Well, I'll use myself as an example. I've used the same Gmail account for over 10 years, which has all of my emails from forever archived, and there are times at which I have accidentally stumbled upon emails from close to a decade ago when I did a search of my inbox for a name that happened to also be the name of an old classmate. This can happen easily when doing a search of my inbox for any uncommon word, especially proper nouns. Someone accidentally stumbling upon an email from 7 years ago in this fashion seems reasonable to me.
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Re: How do you avoid "convenient" or "coincidental" plotting

#5 Post by Vegeluxia » Thu Feb 16, 2017 2:31 am

Foreshadowing for sure, but coincidence isn't always a bad thing---or at least if you only make it seem a coincidence. Maybe, in the case of the letter being delivered a specific day, there's a reason for that. Maybe it's all part of something more elaborate than a simple disappearance? You don't always need to explain away something at the moment it happens.

If not, though, you could always just apply something else that makes the coincidence slightly more believable. Hide the letter in a locked drawer, where maybe the key was found hidden much earlier, but you realize it goes to the drawer later on. That really swings goes back to the foreshadowing though, but something like a key is easier to miss/ignore for seven years than a letter.

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Re: How do you avoid "convenient" or "coincidental" plotting

#6 Post by Imperf3kt » Thu Feb 16, 2017 2:58 am

Vegeluxia wrote:Foreshadowing for sure, but coincidence isn't always a bad thing---or at least if you only make it seem a coincidence. Maybe, in the case of the letter being delivered a specific day, there's a reason for that. Maybe it's all part of something more elaborate than a simple disappearance? You don't always need to explain away something at the moment it happens.

If not, though, you could always just apply something else that makes the coincidence slightly more believable. Hide the letter in a locked drawer, where maybe the key was found hidden much earlier, but you realize it goes to the drawer later on. That really swings goes back to the foreshadowing though, but something like a key is easier to miss/ignore for seven years than a letter.
That opens it's own can of worms where now you are patching stuff, with what you are patching.

In a locked drawer. Fine, so she finally managed to unlock it and stumbled across the letter. Why? It was locked for years and she didn't care, now suddenly she finds a key and says "Hey, I'mma open this here drawer with this key that I coincidentally happened to find lying around in another locked draw."
Because it didn't take her seven years to find that key sitting on her kitchen bench.

But now that she has found the key stashed away, where did she find the other key to unlock the drawer where this key was hidden? Best explain that away with a conveniently dying grandmother or something who conveniently left the key in her will and the protagonist conveniently knew exactly what it unlocked.

And into a vicious circle, you enter.
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Re: How do you avoid "convenient" or "coincidental" plotting

#7 Post by Vegeluxia » Thu Feb 16, 2017 3:52 am

Imperf3kt wrote:
Vegeluxia wrote:Foreshadowing for sure, but coincidence isn't always a bad thing---or at least if you only make it seem a coincidence. Maybe, in the case of the letter being delivered a specific day, there's a reason for that. Maybe it's all part of something more elaborate than a simple disappearance? You don't always need to explain away something at the moment it happens.

If not, though, you could always just apply something else that makes the coincidence slightly more believable. Hide the letter in a locked drawer, where maybe the key was found hidden much earlier, but you realize it goes to the drawer later on. That really swings goes back to the foreshadowing though, but something like a key is easier to miss/ignore for seven years than a letter.
That opens it's own can of worms where now you are patching stuff, with what you are patching.

In a locked drawer. Fine, so she finally managed to unlock it and stumbled across the letter. Why? It was locked for years and she didn't care, now suddenly she finds a key and says "Hey, I'mma open this here drawer with this key that I coincidentally happened to find lying around in another locked draw."
Because it didn't take her seven years to find that key sitting on her kitchen bench.

But now that she has found the key stashed away, where did she find the other key to unlock the drawer where this key was hidden? Best explain that away with a conveniently dying grandmother or something who conveniently left the key in her will and the protagonist conveniently knew exactly what it unlocked.

And into a vicious circle, you enter.
I was more referring back to the "show the thing earlier in time" part. I think it would be easier to explain why she hadn't opened a drawer for that long rather than a letter---working under the premise the letter is out in the open...which would odd. I see what you mean though. She'd still need a reason to get into the drawer anyway.

The drawer could just not be locked in the first place. Maybe that's the drawer where the handgun is, and Mary just never needed or wanted it until she decided to consider getting into a crime ring. That also seems like a pretty decent reason for the letter to be there too.

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Re: How do you avoid "convenient" or "coincidental" plotting

#8 Post by Mammon » Thu Feb 16, 2017 6:22 am

Usually with such 'astronomical coincidences' it's all a matter of finding a way to rationalise or explain it. You say Mary got the letter right after her boyfriend dragged her into the mess with the crime ring, that on its own is a rather obvious event for many people related to the ring. If Jane was killed long ago but left that letter for Mary, she could've left it in care of a friend with the instruction to give it to Mary if she'd ever be investigating her sister's murder/disappearance or until Mary would reach a certain age. This friend's identity wouldn't even have to be revealed, could be someone anonymous delivering the letter, but when Mary got close to the ring the friend decided to give the letter now rather than on the supposed date (f.ex. her 18th birthday, or never).

Bet there are a whole bunch of other options that could work too, probably the same goes for your real conundrum. Depending on their motivation, that antagonist of your real story could be the cause of a lot of things (if it in any way benefits his plan). It's just a matter of finding one that works in your story.
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Re: How do you avoid "convenient" or "coincidental" plotting

#9 Post by indoneko » Thu Feb 16, 2017 8:02 am

Mary just "happening" upon this letter seems unbelievable in this situation. Why hadn't she found this letter previously? If Jane had sent a "time-machine" type email dated around this time, her receiving it at the exact time she's getting involved with this organization is super coincidental.
It's possible that Jane knew that the letter wouldn't change Mary's fate unless Mary only finds the letter after she's already (or about to get) involved with the ring. So, actually Marry didn't find the letter by accident; all events leading to it were "happened" by design (which you should expose later in the story).
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Re: How do you avoid "convenient" or "coincidental" plotting

#10 Post by Jain » Thu Feb 16, 2017 8:49 am

Her sister's letter doesn't have to be an explicit "RUN FAR AWAY FROM THIS RING", and probably shouldn't be. Instead, Jane could have been doing research on the ring (and have come to some unsettling conclusions), or finds suspicious communications between Jane and members of the ring. If still living in the same place as she was with her sister before, it's not so crazy that documents such as this were found. Spring cleaning, burying old, painful memories, or preparing to move to get away from said old painful memories; all are good reasons to uncover something that's been unnoticed until now.

If Jane is still living in the same area and the ring is still active in that area, it's not so crazy that it could touch someone else in Mary's life.

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Re: How do you avoid "convenient" or "coincidental" plotting

#11 Post by RotGtIE » Thu Feb 16, 2017 10:28 am

Back up and look at the bigger picture here. The question is "why," not "how." If you're trying to introduce a plot element, make something happen in a scene, have a character do a thing, or really write any damn thing into your story, the most important question you need to answer to yourself is "why am I having the audience read this?"

In the case of this syndicate and warning letter, the matter isn't so much about the letter as it is about generating an ominous warning to your protagonist - a warning which intends to ward her off but instead only serves to draw her in. Now when I think of something like that, my mind immediately goes to The Pentagon Wars. Colonel Burton happens across the writings of Colonel/Brigadier General Smith when reviewing the case files for the development of the Bradley - writings which were never actually addressed to Burton or to anyone in particular, but which reveal the immense frustrations of a man going mad under the ridiculous stresses of the project. Smith then takes notice of Burton's activities and anonymously calls him to give him warnings, and later tips on how to proceed if he cannot be swayed. Burton's response is as you would expect of a man in his position - the warnings only spur him on as he is stubbornly resistant to anything he perceives as an intimidation attempt, his professionalism does not allow him to abandon his quality control duties, and he rightly regards the anonymous calls with a great deal of skepticism at first.

The thing is, these interactions and their outcomes are perfectly reasonable given the consistent personalities of the characters involved. The plot isn't driving Burton and Smith - their own motivations and conduct are. Burton is too honest, straight-laced, and stubborn to leave a suspicious thread alone, and Smith is too deeply concerned with his own personal livelihood to involve himself directly in course correcting the Bradley program, but his conscience leads him to at least provide anonymous assistance to Burton, who appears to be impossible to shake from the path he has taken. In this way, the characters are driving the plot forward, rather than being pulled around by convenient circumstances.

When it comes to this syndicate and this letter, ask yourself some questions about the elements involved. The existence of the syndicate, the protagonist's involvement in it, and her missing sister are probably not elements which can be altered, but the time period of the sister's absence and the delivery of her warning via a handwritten letter specifically addressed to the protagonist could be changed in order to achieve their intended purpose, which is to spur the protagonist on into a dangerous situation while revealing how dangerous it is (beyond the obvious; it is a crime syndicate, after all). As long as you retain the purpose of a plot element, you can change the exact nature of the element until it best fits the needs of the plot without coming across as too implausible for the audience.

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Re: How do you avoid "convenient" or "coincidental" plotting

#12 Post by Yunou » Thu Feb 16, 2017 5:34 pm

First off, thanks for all your advice. I wrote this last night before bed and had classes non-stop today so I'm only now getting a chance to respond. It's long, sorry about that.

Also, although the whole Mary and Jane story was a spur-of-the-moment example I came up with, I'm kind of getting attached to the story idea. Will I ever do anything with it? Probably not. But it does seem pretty cool after reading everyone's suggestions.

--
Sonomi wrote: they would make the letter appear in a seemingly unimportant scene, completely out of context (and before it's of any relevance to the story).
Imperf3kt wrote: That is how I do it - introduce the character to the thing in question, long before it seems important.
So both of you are suggesting the letter be set up as a Chekov's Gun. Some ideas I'm kind of running through my head is Mary's mom giving her a box of Jane's old things. The problem is why would her mom give this box to her?

Also, Mary still hasn't forgiven Jane for disappearing. The police claimed Jane just took off and stopped investigating after while, claiming that Jane was just another teen runaway and there was no foul play involved. Mary thinks that is bullshit but she also irrationally blames Jane for leaving her alone and causing her so much emotional pain over the years.

She wouldn't want to look inside the box or go through Jane's things because it would be too painful.

Kuiper wrote: Give the gang a specific made-up name, like "Patheon." Seven years ago, Mary received an email from her friend warning her about "Patheon," but at the time, Mary wasn't familiar with the organization, so she ignored the email and forgot about it. Or maybe the email was so dramatic that she thought it was a joke--"These people will destroy you" seems a bit over the top. Or perhaps she never saw the email in the first place; she certainly wouldn't be the first person to let an email sit in her inbox unread. (Quite plausible, considering that most people receive hundreds or thousands of emails each year, and seven years is a long time to remember a specific email like that.) Then, more recently, Mary begins following Patheon in the news, and sets up a news alert site to send her an email any time "Patheon" is mentioned in a headline. She gets 1-2 emails per month as the gang's activity continues to escalate. At some point, Mary wants to find a Patheon-related story that was emailed to her several weeks ago, so does a search of her inbox to find all emails mentioning "Patheon," and the email from 7 years ago comes up alongside all of the more recent results.

Is this plausible? Well, I'll use myself as an example. I've used the same Gmail account for over 10 years, which has all of my emails from forever archived, and there are times at which I have accidentally stumbled upon emails from close to a decade ago when I did a search of my inbox for a name that happened to also be the name of an old classmate. This can happen easily when doing a search of my inbox for any uncommon word, especially proper nouns. Someone accidentally stumbling upon an email from 7 years ago in this fashion seems reasonable to me.
That makes sense. I'm not sure if it would work 100% for this situation because Jane would not have wanted Mary to read it initially (Mary was 9-years-old at the time she left).

But regardless, I think that would be a cool scene to find something out like that by searching through an email account. In Mary's world, they'd definitely be using the same email address (they only have one their entire lives) so something like that would make since in this story. Thanks for this!
Vegeluxia wrote: The drawer could just not be locked in the first place. Maybe that's the drawer where the handgun is, and Mary just never needed or wanted it until she decided to consider getting into a crime ring. That also seems like a pretty decent reason for the letter to be there too.
I actually really like this one. Jane could have given the box with the gun to to Mary when Mary was still a kid but told her to never ever open it unless she was in danger--she'd tell her it was a gun and show it to her so there wouldn't be the temptation to open it to see what it was. It was probably Jane's old handgun but she knew she wouldn't be needing it anymore (or that Mary would need it more in the future).

There's the whole element of Mary not listening, but at the same time, since Jane disappeared the next day, she'd be too distraught to think about the gun. And once she did start thinking about it, Mary would have thought Jane literally did runaway on purpose at the time and would be too pissed off to even want to look at the box.

When Mary decides she needs the gun, to probably protect herself when she goes to meet with some higher-up in the syndicate or they want her to get into a dangerous situation, she opens up the box and finds a note that Jane had stashed with it. The note would be more like, "I don't know why you need to use this, but if God forbid it is because of [Syndicate Name], please read this letter carefully..." The note would also explain that she had screwed up and didn't mean for any of this to happen, but that she'll probably never see Mary again and she is sorry for everything.
Mammon wrote: Usually with such 'astronomical coincidences' it's all a matter of finding a way to rationalise or explain it. Y

Bet there are a whole bunch of other options that could work too, probably the same goes for your real conundrum. Depending on their motivation, that antagonist of your real story could be the cause of a lot of things (if it in any way benefits his plan). It's just a matter of finding one that works in your story.
Yeah, I completely agree. I guess I'm just at the point that I'm not sure exactly what would work best in the story rationally, but I do think that everything can fit together just perfectly like puzzle pieces.... it's just getting there.
indoneko wrote: It's possible that Jane knew that the letter wouldn't change Mary's fate unless Mary only finds the letter after she's already (or about to get) involved with the ring. So, actually Marry didn't find the letter by accident; all events leading to it were "happened" by design (which you should expose later in the story).
Absolutely. I was also thinking that the "letter" would be a kind of apology letter to explain a little bit about what happened to her and why she disappeared in the first place, but also to tell her to not make the same mistake she did.
Artalija wrote: Her sister's letter doesn't have to be an explicit "RUN FAR AWAY FROM THIS RING", and probably shouldn't be. Instead, Jane could have been doing research on the ring (and have come to some unsettling conclusions), or finds suspicious communications between Jane and members of the ring. If still living in the same place as she was with her sister before, it's not so crazy that documents such as this were found. Spring cleaning, burying old, painful memories, or preparing to move to get away from said old painful memories; all are good reasons to uncover something that's been unnoticed until now.

If Jane is still living in the same area and the ring is still active in that area, it's not so crazy that it could touch someone else in Mary's life.
I like this as well, I'm trying to balance having Jane directly address Mary and Mary uncovering her correspondences. I think Jane would want to address her directly to tell Mary that she is sorry for leaving--Jane would probably be manic and crying while writing the letter because she knows something bad is about to happen to her--but she'd want Mary to know that she didn't leave her on purpose and to not make the same mistake she made.

I also want Mary to uncover what Jane was up to by digging deeper and finding Jane's old notes or recordings or something that are not addressed to her, but addressed to people in the syndicate. Then Mary would get to know some of these strangers before ever meeting them and know a little bit about the role they had played in the syndicate at least seven years ago.

RotGtIE wrote: When it comes to this syndicate and this letter, ask yourself some questions about the elements involved. The existence of the syndicate, the protagonist's involvement in it, and her missing sister are probably not elements which can be altered, but the time period of the sister's absence and the delivery of her warning via a handwritten letter specifically addressed to the protagonist could be changed in order to achieve their intended purpose, which is to spur the protagonist on into a dangerous situation while revealing how dangerous it is (beyond the obvious; it is a crime syndicate, after all). As long as you retain the purpose of a plot element, you can change the exact nature of the element until it best fits the needs of the plot without coming across as too implausible for the audience.
Absolutely. Right now I'm going and reworking my plot to better suit the needs of my story so changing elements of it to make better sense is not a problem at all. The "letter" in my story has to be in the format it is for it to be able to get to MC, but how he finds the "letter" is the issue at hand.

I don't really care how Mary discovers the "letter" whether if someone gives it to her or she finds it on her own some how, though Jane does have to be gone for exactly seven years for the plot to make sense later on. I'm just trying to figure out how to adjust the elements that are adjustable to allow the situation of Mary finding the letter at the time she finds it under those circumstances as believable as possible.

--

Thanks again for everyone's input! That helped a lot and worked as a pretty good exercise. I think ultimately, in Mary and Jane's situation, I would go with a letter being hidden inside a gun case that Mary was told by Jane to only open if she was in immediate danger. If Mary knew the case only had a gun in it and she never had reason to use it until now, it would make sense for her to find it now.

This seems believable to me because I was given a gun when I moved out when I was 18-years-old and it sat unopened for years in my closet. I only opened it ~5 years later when I was moving. I could totally see a note being hidden underneath it in the case.

Do this seem believable to you?

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Re: How do you avoid "convenient" or "coincidental" plotting

#13 Post by Katy133 » Thu Feb 16, 2017 10:09 pm

The trick is to use "Chekhov's Gun." Also known as a "plant" or foreshadowing.

Introduce an idea or element as early as possible to make it seem inevitable. If you want something to fall out of the hero's pocket, mention earlier that the hero's pocket has hole in it and that they plan on fixing it.

A brilliant example of using this method is the series Arrested Development. Every episode uses Chekhov's Gun constantly and to great dramatic/comedic effect. Something will be introduced early as a gag or something unimportant, but will later on end up being hugely important.

Another example, specifically on getting around "convenient" plotting is from a 90s film I don't even necessarily like, of all things. I once wrote an article about several "bad" films that I thought had potential. One of which was A Simple Wish. The whole article can be found here, but I'll quote the bit I want to point out below:
What is [A Simple Wish]? - [A] clumsy male fairy godmother named Murray tries to help grant Anabelle’s wish to have her father become a successful Broadway actor. Meanwhile, an evil wicked witch has taken control of the fairy Godmothers’ guild (titled, “NAFGA”–The North American Fairy Godmothers’ Association). And now she is trying to track down and take Murray’s wand…

[...]

I also really like ONE plot twist in the film: The reason why Murray is the only Godparent who can save everyone (even though, out of all the fairy Godmothers, he’s the most hapless) is because of his haplessness: He forgets to go to a fairy Godmother meeting. During this meeting, the villain comes and traps all of the Godmothers, leaving Murray the only free fairy Godparent left because he wasn’t there. The levels of irony in that!
In other words, make the plot unfold from of your characters' personalities.

Hope this helps! :D
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Re: How do you avoid "convenient" or "coincidental" plotting

#14 Post by Cakey » Wed Jul 12, 2017 4:58 am

I think that even convinient coincidence can be put in very realistic way if you make their reactons very realistic and find a good reason for everything. We have tendency to omit really human- like situations or make them show only main goal which is bad thing from the core. Most people isn't psychopaths and instead focusing excusivly on main goal, they livekly react to every thing that happens and it affects their decisions. If you would make a big deal from that letter in the story, and all characters see it as very convinient coincidence, it isn't bad. Coincidences happens. Simply saying: "So you send it to me NOW?! When I already CHOSE?!" Can make a big difference in the story.

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Re: How do you avoid "convenient" or "coincidental" plotting

#15 Post by SundownKid » Wed Jul 12, 2017 7:58 am

Thats a hell of a thread necro, but anyway, I think Imp3rfekt hit the nail on the head. You need to actually include something in the story from the start, because if you suddenly introduce it without warning it feels contrived.

That isn't to say that in real life things don't happen without warning, and sometimes stories can pull that off without it feeling contrived. But most of the time, foreshadowing is required. When foreshadowing is done well it can impact the reader a lot more as well as making the story feel more deep.

Just as an example. Here is a contrived situation that I actually encountered in a game. Evil villain pops out of nowhere and kills X character without warning. It's "played for tears". That's lame. What wouldn't be lame is something like: X character decides to lend their chestplate to Y character the day before because Y character's armor broke, which seems innocuous until he is accidentally struck in the chest. Y character feels guilt and runs off to avenge character X, but is saved by rest of characters and realizes they shouldn't throw their life away.

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