Monday, 5 March 2012

There Is no Such Thing as Coincidence: Fictional Plot and Verisimilitude

I am currently enjoying Swedish state television SVT's big science fiction venture Äkta människor (Eng. Real Humans) and would like to urge any and all Swedish readers who have missed out thus far to catch up via SVT Play. International readers should definitely keep an eye out for the series, because I would argue that chances are good that this will be exported. It is an excellent take on an alternate reality / near future, where hubots (i.e. humanoid robots) have become an integrated commodity on the market and in society, yet where both ideological resistance against machines replacing real humans and questions of what constitutes actual humanity and intelligence exist side by side, and in opposition to a smooth integration. Through make-up and superb acting, another reality is projected unto the screen and the result is quite possibly Swedish television's finest hour in a loooooong time.

However, fond as I am of the series after its first eight (out of ten) episodes, there is one thing that has started to bug me somewhat as the plot is slowly gaining its momentum: the nature of coincidence.

There is an old adage that knowingly states that there is no such thing as coincidence. While I am not necessarily ready to subscribe to such a notion completely (if for no other reason than the fact that we would have to define coincidence in a pretty precise fashion), I am willing to agree that there is not really any such thing as coincidence in a fictional plot.

Do not get me wrong: there is clearly a possibility of real world coincidences influencing authors or artists in their narrative choices (in film or television this would furthermore seem even more true as casting choices or even weather conditions on a shooting day might affect the finished product). However, that being said, the nature of plot itself is to create a believable sequence of events, or a mesh of intricate plot strands that unite in a complex yet unified story. Reality may very well be quite disorganised, but a narrative requires a certain sense of order, let us call it narrative logic, to be believable. This line of reasoning obviously resonates in the old Chekov quote about a gun on the wall in the first act of a play needing to be used in the second. In short, a reader will only tolerate so many red herrings, and even then they need to be relevant herrings.

As such, plot is its own enemy, because in trying to create this narrative logic and impose verisimilitude, it also runs the risk of violating the same verisimilitude it tries to achieve. We may not accept the disorganised chaos of reality as narrative proper, but nor do we accept the too neat narrative as real. And this is where coincidence becomes relevant.

Chekov's example above is good because it shows that stories should avoid being bogged down with needless things. Just because an author has a whole world at his disposal, it does not necessarily mean that going anywhere and everywhere in it is beneficial. In fact, and following Chekov's logic, authors need to restrain themselves and only go where their plot needs them to go. The trick is to follow that logic while masking its blatant intentionality.

If every piece and part of a narrative services the plot and the story, it needs to do so without calling attention to the plot or the story (unless it is a case of metafiction, where such a tactic may be suitable). What do I mean? Well, if coincidences are starting to stack up (e.g. chance meetings between characters, deus ex machina type scenarios where there are just enough guns on the relevant wall at the much needed time, etc), we as an audience are less likely to believe that they are coincidences, and we inevitably start sensing the intentionality of plot. It is not that we normally are entirely unaware of the fact that there is a plot, nor even that we do not look for it; it is more a case of a plot suddenly staring us in the face or in other ways calling attention to itself as a plot.

So why do I feel the urge to discuss this in connection with Äkta människor then? Well, the series and its creators have done a fine job of creating an alternative reality or near future, and do an impressive job selling it to the viewer. Verisimilitude is high in this series, to be sure. Yet then there is a nagging sensation, which grows the further into the story we go, that all of our characters (several, but still fairly limited) are interconnected on far too many levels. In this sense, it becomes less an interconnected weave á la Altman's Short Cuts or Haggis' Crash, and much more of an everyone crossing paths with everyone else. The effect, quite naturally, is the sensation of a shrinking fictional reality, where the intentionality of plot is starting to be visible at the seams.

Still, I would not want to end on too harsh a note, because (as stated) this really is SVT's finest hour in a long time. And it bodes well for the future of Swedish science fiction.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting! Thanks for posting about this. Alternate or Possible Worlds theory is a growing field apparently and has researchers in philosophy, linguistics and narratology!