by Zoë Sharp
Coincidences happen every day. They’re a fact of life. And while there are a few of us who still firmly believe that instances of déjà vu are nothing more than a glitch in the matrix, they happen, too, often in a way that’s really quite corny. I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that real life is a lot more badly written than an average novel.
Can you imagine sitting down with your agent or editor, and explaining to them the idea for your next book. A courtroom drama that unfolds after a beautiful eighteen-year-old model is found murdered just yards from her front door after a night out with friends. She’s been stabbed seven times and brutally raped. The police question her boyfriend, but his DNA doesn’t match that found on the body and the case goes cold. Then, nine months later, a man is arrested after a scuffle in a pub. His DNA is taken as a matter of routine and fed into the system. Twelve days later the police arrest him for the young model’s death and he goes to trial. In court, his defence is that he found the teenager lying on the ground and assumed she was passed out drunk so he, "took advantage of the situation", not realising she was dead until afterwards. Yes, you tell your agent, this is going to be his defence, under oath, in a court of law.
Or, what about a serial killer? There are a lot of them in fiction, it seems – far more than in real life. So, you decide to write a serial killer book. Your killer is going to murder five prostitutes in a single mid-sized English town over a forty day period. One other woman is going to have a lucky escape when the killer is interrupted. But rather than have him totally baffling police with the total lack of clues, forensic scientists are going to lift a full DNA profile from three of the bodies, which he carelessly dumps on dry land rather than in water. Not only that, but they’re also going to match 177 clothing or textile fibres from the killer’s home to his victims.
The killer’s car is going to be seen kerb crawling the local red light districts, and blood is found in the back of it. Oh, and by the way, the police will already have his DNA on file after a minor robbery he committed five years previously. His defence in court? Our old friend coincidence. Yes, he did indeed frequent the red light districts, and by amazing chance did indeed have sex with all the girls in question, on the very day they disappeared, but everything else was one big fat coincidence. Or fifty of them, I believe it was, during one period of cross-examination by the prosecution.
So, no criminal masterminds at work here, then.
Tragically, both these cases are real life. Mark Dixie has just been sentenced to life for the rape and murder of Sally Anne Bowman in Croydon, South London. Steve Wright has just had a similar sentence passed for the murders of Tania Nicol, Gemma Adams, Anneli Alderton, Annette Nicholls, and Paula Clennell, all working in Ipswich, Suffolk. Both these men may well be very sad, twisted – even downright evil – individuals, but what makes them all the more pathetic is that it almost seems like they couldn’t be bothered to put any effort into planning their crimes.
In books, serial killers connect with their victim in some way – even if it’s only inside their sick little minds. They stalk their victims, photograph them, create little shrines to them for the detective to uncover – usually illuminated by a single swinging lightbulb. As writers we simply can’t rely on the same level of random chance, coincidence and happenstance that seems to occur time and again in real life. We have to make our villains more – I hate to say it – larger than life.
More human, even.
Some writers complain that occasionally they’ve taken an aspect of real life and inserted it into a novel, only for that to be the part that readers pick out as being the most unbelievable bit. I know if I presented either of those two scenarios to my agent, she’d point out the plot-holes and bat them right back at me. Must try harder.
So, my question is this. Are there times when you experience something, or see it on the news and say to yourself, "If I’d written that in a book, nobody would believe it …", and how much coincidence and happenstance will or won’t you accept – both as a reader and a writer – in fiction?
This week’s Word of the Week really ought to be mesmoronic, as mentioned in my comment to Louise’s blog, but we made that one up so it doesn’t really count. Instead, it’s actually outfangthief, which is the right of judging and fining thieves pursued and brought back from outside one’s own jurisdiction.
For those of you who live in the US and can pick up XM 155 satellite radio, you might be interested to know that I’m on over the course of this weekend. I was interviewed by Kim Alexander, host of Fiction Nation. The times you can listen in on Take Five XM 155 are:
Friday 3/7 11:30pm
Saturday 3/8 6pm
Sunday 3/9 10am
Sunday 3/10 8pm
Monday 3/11 midnight
And on Sonic Theater XM 163
Thursday 3/13 3:30 pm
All times are EAST