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The Use of Coincidence

( Originally Published 1922 )

Now, while it is permissible that a plausible and convincing coincidence plunge the characters of a story into complications, coincidence must stop there. It may get characters into, trouble, but it must not get them out of trouble. In struggling free from a complication, the hero must use his own resources, while the heroine must depend upon her cleverness, her charm, or some other resource of her personality. The reader is not convinced when the writer employs some unlikely coincidence to solve the complication that he seemingly is unable to solve sensibly. If the author gets his characters into complications that he cannot solve other than by some strange coincidence, then he is only making matters worse by further resort to coincidence. You will notice that Mr. Terhune has not tampered with his characters in one particle after complications have been created ; he leaves the outcome to their natural tendencies.

The Difference Between Real and Story Life.—Now, it is hardly likely that in actual life two people of a like or similar nature to those characterized in this story would have acted throughout in the manner we have related. Suppose that the man and the girl were advised by some friend or relative exactly as in the story. It is very unlikely that the two of them could have sustained their falsely conceived role to such a point that the climax could have arrived at such an opportune moment. The author, however, has certain preconceived effects in mind that he must impress. He knows he must do it in as brief as possible a time, with the greatest economy of means, and with a choice of incidents that will arouse 'the interest, the suspense, the emotions of the reader. 'Consequently, he must conceive characters of a certain typical nature, and must have them doing certain things in such an exact, though plausible, way that the climax will be quickly arrived at. In ordinary life, the husband or groom might scoff at the advice of Mrs. Verplanck. Or the young girl might have become huffed at the attitude of the husband and left him to live with her mother. Or the husband, in his attentiveness to some other woman, might readily have become infatuated with her. Or his pride might have prevented him even from becoming angry with her and in calling a stop to the whole business. But that would not have been at all in line with the author's aim. His characters had to do certain things and bring out certain effects, and as long as he could' make them perform action, plausibly and true to nature, that would help him to bring out those ends and aims, lie certainly was bound to do so. Thus, while an author's characters should be portrayed as doing things true to nature, things that could and might be done, it is hardly ever likely that the actions of real persons would be so precise as to bring about a clearly defined climax. People, according to their lights, usually are going off at tangents---changing their minds—forgetting their differences—patching up their quarrels —constantly digressing from their main purposes.

A Theme Involving Greater Conflict.—Now let us cast about for another theme of a different type. Let us consider a theme that has a higher emotional value, that will arouse greater suspense, and that will carry the reader to a higher pitch of anxiety regarding the outcome of characters in turmoil. Turmoil is possible only during conflict, so it is a theme promising conflict that we must seek for. To find such a theme, we must find some element or phase of life set in opposition to another.

Duty Against Love.—How would it be to consider a character bound by duty on the one hand and urged by his desires or by the exigencies of a circumstance on the other? Here we have a man's duty set against something that prevents him from performing that duty. We must ask -ourselves now what is one of the strongest forces in the world that would cause a man to hesitate at the performance of a duty. What greater force in the world is there than to set against the performing of duty than love? Here we have a theme: A man's duty set against his love for some person, some ideal, or ambition, which theme has formed the foundations for stories from beginning of time.

Development of the Duty and the Love.—Undoubtedly a story in which the woman is the recipient of the love would have the most popular appeal. Now to make the hero of the story bring out the meaning of the theme interestingly and clearly, we must give him a duty that it is extremely necessary to preform at a certain place and time and under certain circumstances at the same time that we portray the woman in some great danger. It can be seen at this point that the climax of the story will occur at the period where the man decides between love and duty and we know the result thereof. After he has chosen, his struggle between the two conflicting forces rapidly loses its interest for the reader. The duty to be chosen is not vital, though it should concern itself with some ordinary occupation in life so that the reader can imagine himself in a like situation.

Duty and the Loved One.—The question now con-fronts us, what shall be the duty and what shall be the danger confronting the loved one, whereby the hero will have his struggle? Such a question is not difficult to answer. Readers are far more interested in the reactions of characters upon themselves, rather than in the reaction of characters to events. Let us have the hero's loved one in danger from some other man; then, in addition to emotions of fear for her safety, might be added the greater force of jealousy, hate, and anger.

Phases of the Duty.—Now we have only to solve the question, what duty could demand a man's closest attention, even though he knows his loved one is in danger? Why, the thought 'strikes us, some duty in which other individuals will be prevented from horrible death. There it is! Our hero shall be a signal tower operator. His duty shall be to see that trains rushing towards one another in the blackness of night shall be cautiously piloted on to their scheduled tracks. Upon his hands shall rest the fate of hundreds.

Increasing the Story Values.—But somehow this structure so far built up does not seem to satisfy. The execution of the hero's duty under duress, even knowing his loved one is in danger, might seem too ordinary. We must make the preformance of his duty even of a finer and more outstanding quality. How can we make his sacrifice still greater, for we surely have decided by this time that we are going to have our hero performing his duty and saving the innocent passengers of the train already spoken of. Come to think of it, what sacrifice on the hero's part could be greater than the assumption of a rival's duty, this rival sketched as the person who is to place the hero's loved one in danger? This thought brings further solution. The rival of the hero will be the hero's co-worker at the signal tower, whom he is supposed to release at certain intervals. The rival falls down on the job or premeditatedly shirks his duty, whereat the hero steps in even while he is agonizingly wondering what has become of his loved one.

The Villain.—We already see the character of the rival. We know what kind of a man he would be to shirk his duty. As to the hero, we can make his anguish for his loved one still more pronounced by having her his wife.

The Finishing Touches.—Now the story is beginning to shape itself. With the addition of a few extra details, the plot-structure will be ready for actual development. The pro-per atmosphere for a story of this kind would be a dark, even stormy, night on the outskirts of a town, somewhat remote from any assistance that might be attracted by a scream. The worker of a signal tower naturally would have his home somewhere near the signal tower, while a signal tower, in turn, usually is situated far from any nearby habitats. Such a location renders the designs of the rival more easy of accomplishment and piques the anxiety of the hero to a greater pitch. Inasmuch as the whole of the story centers about the hero's conflict with love and duty, it is the purpose of the writer to get to this climax as briefly as possible. The characters of the story should be few in number and their relationship sketched in a few, suggestive words, of both direct and indirect delineation.

Let us see what we have to work upon. We have the hero of this tale who leaves his home upon a certain dark night to relieve his rival at the signal tower. Now, to the thinking person's mind it will be foolish to make this rival a long-standing admirer of the hero's wife, for that takes us too far back and requires too much explanation and the like. It should be the artistic purpose of the builder of a plot to use as few characters in his story as possible and make the action of the story occur in as brief a space and time as is possible. So it is the part of wisdom to designate the rival as such through some action or attitude of his just lately occurring. Let us handle this story in the space of the single night upon which the train wreck is averted. Returning to the hero, he arrives at the station tower to relieve the villainous rival. Since the latter is not to be pictured in the best of light, perhaps we had better make him a vindictive, cruel sort of a fellow addicted to strong drink, under the influence of which he is this eventful night. Now if the hero is to find it necessary to perform the duties of his rival whom he relieves and who does not return at the usual time, we must have someone or something bringing to the husband news of the wife's danger at the hands of the villain. At this very time the hero is confronted with the necessity of sudden action in order to avert disaster to two trains that are hurtling themselves toward one another in the black night. Now you say : If someone can bring to the husband news of his wife's danger, why can not that person render immediate assistance? But suppose the carrier of the tidings is a small child, what then? Let us make this little messenger the small son of the signal tower operator and his wife.

Now have we done everything in our power to make this story dramatically strong and emotionally of great tensity? The hero's anxiety regarding the safety of his wife can greatly be heightened by a taunt from the villain to the effect that the latter is going to visit the hero's wife that night to see if she does not prefer him to her husband. He then departs, ostensibly for the purpose of carrying out his avowed mission, while the hero is forced to stay at his post, even though his own vigil has elapsed and he is working on his rival's time. Then, as the two trains race closer and closer and disaster becomes more imminent, it should be an opportune time to have the little boy rush into the signal tower with the message that his mother sent him to his daddy for help, that the rival was attacking her and she was in great danger. The trains have not as yet been taken care of, however, and, no matter what the danger to his loved ones, the signal tower operator must look after the precious cargo that, by a little slip, would be sent crashing into eternity. Here is the point of greatest climax—of greatest dramatic power--of greatest heart appeal.

Actual Development of Story.—Incidentally, this plot is the actual working scheme of the story, "The Signal Tower," by Wadsworth's Camp, which appeared in Metropolitan Magazine. The story is largely one in dialogue, the characters revealing their emotions and intentions and characterizations by what they say more than by what they do. The small amount of pure narrative contained in this story is told in brief, terse sentences, expressing deeply the agony of mind borne by the hero at the crucial point of the plot. I quote freely, in order to show you clearly just how the author so admirably has developed his subject. The story starts out:

"I get afraid when you leave me alone this way at night."

The big man, Tolliver, patted his wife's head. His coarse laughter was meant to reassure, but, as he glanced about the living-room of his remote and cheerless house, his eyes were uneasy. The little boy, just six years old, crouched by the cook-stove, whimpering over the remains of his supper.

"What are you afraid of?" Tolliver scoffed.

The stagnant loneliness, the perpetual drudgery, had not yet conquered his wife's beauty, dark and desirable. She motioned towards the boy.

"He's afraid, too, when the sun goes down."

Tolliver lifted the tin pail that contained a small bottle of coffee and some sandwiches. He started for the door, but she ran after him, dragging at his arm.

"Don't go! I'm afraid!"

The child was quiet now, staring at them with round, reflective eyes.

"Joe," Tolliver said gently, "will be sore if I don't relieve him on time."

She pressed her head against his coat and clung tighter. He closed his eyes.

"You're afraid of Joe," he said wearily.

Without looking up, she nodded. Her voice was muffled.

"He came last night after you relieved him at the tower. He knocked, and I wouldn't let him in. It made him mad. He swore. He threatened. He said he'd come back. He said he'd show us we couldn't kick him out of the house just because he couldn't help liking me. We never ought to have let him board here at all."

Note how the author plunges into the dominant tone of the story and mentions the uneasy eyes of the hero as he attempts to reassure his wife. Joe, identified as the villain, seems to be the one who will cause the conflict that is to come. In the first few paragraphs, the reader gets an intimate idea of the surroundings, the atmosphere, and becomes more or less acquainted with the story's four main characters.

Tolliver departs for the signal tower after promising his wife that he will have a talk with Joe. As his wife evinces a premonition that something will happen, Tolliver takes the boy with him, promising to send him back home with some-thing that will make the wife feel easier. The father and ion reach the signal tower. Then:

When Tolliver's head was above the level of the flooring he could see the switch levers, and the table, gleaming with the telegraph instruments, and dull with untidy clips of yellow paper; but the detail that held him was the gross, expectant face of Joe.

Joe was as large as Tolliver, and younger. From that commanding position, he appeared gigantic.

"Cutting it pretty fine," he grumbled.

"Tolliver shook his head. He placed his hands on his hips.

"That's one thing I want to say to you, Joe. Just you keep away from the house. Thought you understood that When you got fresh with Sally the other night."

Joe's face flushed angrily.

"Guess I was a fool to say I was sorry about that. Guess I got to teach you I got a right to go where I please'."

As Joe' is departing, Tolliver notices a special telegram. Joe answers:

"Forgot," he said as his head came through the trap. "Some big-wigs coming through on a special train along about midnight. Division headquarters got nothing definite yet, but figure we'll have to get her past thirty-three somewhere on this stretch. So keep awake."

Note that after the story has progressed only a few hundred words, mention is made of a special train due along about midnight. Already the author is working rapidly toward his climax.

After the departure of Joe, Tolliver attends to some of his special duties, then taking a polished six-shooter from a drawer in the tower, hands it to his boy with instructions to hasten home with it. After the departure of the child, Tolliver studies out the special forms before him. He sees that it will be incumbent upon him to follow carefully the schedule of number thirty-three, the road's most treacherous responsibility, a fast pullman train that passes over the division. At this time of the year it run crowded and erratic; more often than not, late.

As Tolliver tends to his duties, his mind is constantly returning to Joe and his wife. He wonders where Joe is—whether or not he is at the Inn drinking—what the outcome will be—whether. or not his son arrived home safely. Suddenly he receives instructions from division headquarters to hold twenty-one until thirty-three and a special train containing company officials have cleared. Twenty-one is a freight running on the main track. As Tolliver's anxiety increases, he receives a special message from division superintendent:

"NT. NT. NT. Is it storming bad with you?" "Pretty thick."

"Then keep the fuses burning. For God's sake, don't let the first in over-run his switch. And clear the line like lightning. Those fellows are driving faster than hell."

Tolliver's mouth opened, but no sound came. His face assumed the expression of one who undergoes the application of some destructive barbarity.

"I get afraid when, you leave me alone this way at night."

He visualized his wife, beautiful, dark, and desirable, urging him not to go to the tower.

A gust of wind sprang through the trap door. The yellow slips fluttered. He heard the lower door bang shut. Someone was on the stairs, climbing with difficulty, breathing hard. A hat, crusted with snow, appeared. There came slowly into the light ,Joe's face, ugly and in-flamed ; the eyes restless with a grave indecision.

Tolliver's first elation died in new uncertainty. "Where have you been?" he demanded fiercely.

"Don't you wish you knew?"

Tolliver stooped, grasping the man's shoulder. In each fist he clenched bunches of wet cloth. In a sort of desperation he commenced to shake the bundled figure.

"You tell me where you have been—"

"NT. NT. NT."

"Switch whichever arrives first, and hold until the other is through."

It was difficult to understand clearly, because Joe's laughter persisted, crashing against Tolliver's brain as brutally as the sounder.

"You got to tell me if you been bothering Sally."

The hatred and the cunning of the mottled face grew. "Why don't you ask Sally?"

Following this, Joe's actions show that he will be unable to take care of the special and thirty-three. Joe seems to be even too intoxicated to light the signal fuses in accordance with instructions that have just come over the wire. Joe staggers and falls in a stupor. Though it is Tolliver's right to re-turn home, and protect his wife, he knows that in order to get thirty-one and the special by safely, he must stay at the keys.

Suddenly, Joe, who has been simulating the extent of his drunkenness, staggers up and starts down the ladder leading out of the signal tower. As the author tells us:

"Where are you going?" he asked hoarsely.

Joe' laughed happily.

"To keep Sally company while you look after the special and thirty-three."

Tolliver advanced cautiously, watching for a chance. When he spoke his voice had the appealing quality of a child's.

"It's my time off. If I do your work you got to stay at least."

Joe laughed again.

"No. It only needs you to keep all those people from getting killed."

Tolliver sprang then, but Joe avoided the heavier, clumsier man. He grasped a chair, swinging it over his head.

"I'll teach you," he grunted, "to kick me out like dirt. I'll teach you and Sally."

With violent strength, he brought the chair down. Tolliver got his hands up, but the light chair crashed them aside and splintered on his head.. He fell to his knees, reaching out blindly.

"NT. NT. NT."

He struggled to his knees, his hands at his head. "No, by God ! I won't listen to you."

"Thirty-three cleared LR at 12:47."

One tower north ! Thirty-three was coming down on him, but he was only glad that the pounding had ceased. It commenced again.

"NT. NT. NT. Special cleared JV at 12:48." Each rushing towards each other with only a minute's

difference in schedule! That was close—too °close. But

what was it he had in mind?

"NT. NT. NT." "I won't answer."

Tolliver, in his agonized indecision, is still able to know that to keep the passengers of the train safe, it will be necessary to retard the special until thirty-three is on the siding and he can throw the lever that closes the switch and makes the line safe. He wavers. Suddenly his son crawls up the steps of the signal tower on his hands and knees.

He screams for his papa to come' at once, that his mother is in danger, that Joe broke down the door. Let the author tell the climax :

"But mama had the gun," Tolliver said hoarsely. The boy shook his head.

"Mama wouldn't let Sonny play with it. She locked it up in the cupboard. Joe grabbed mama, and she screamed, and said to run and make you come."

In the tower, partially smothered by the storm, vibrated a shrill cry.

From far to the south drifted a fainter sibilation, like an echo of thirty-three's whistle. To the north, a glow increased. The snowflakes there glistened like descending jewels. It was cutting it too close. It was vicious to crush all that responsibility on the shoulders of one ignorant man, such a man as himself, or Joe. What good would it do him to kill Joe now? What was there left for him to do?

He jotted down the thirty-three's orders.

The glow to the north intensified, swung slightly to the left as thirty-three took the siding. But he had to hurry. The special was whistling closer—too close. Thirty-three's locomotive grumbled abreast of him. Something tugged at his coat.

"Papa! Won't you come quick to mama?"

"It's too late now, Sonny," he said to the importunate child.

The tower shook. A hot, white eye flashed by, and a blurred streak of cars. Snow pelted in the window, stinging Tolliver's face. Tolliver closed the window and picked' up thirty-three's orders. If he had kept the revolver here he could have prevented Joe's leaving the tower. Why had Sally locked it in the cupboard? At least it was there now. Tolliver found himself thinking of the revolver as an exhausted man forecasts sleep.

Someone ran swiftly up the stairs. It was the engineer of thirty-three, surprised and impatient.

The engineer departs and hurries down the stairs. The long train, filled with warm, comfortable people, pulls out. Tolliver tries to stop his trembling and to think.

The author concludes as follows:

There was someone else on the stairs now, climbing with an extreme slowness. A bare arm reached through the trap, wavering for a moment uncertainly. Ugly bruises showed on the white flesh. Tolliver managed to reach the trap. He grasped the arm and drew into the light the dark hair and the chalky face of his wife. Her wide eyes stared at him strangely.

"Don't touch me," she whispered. "What am I going to do?"


She covered her face and shrank against the wall. "I've killed a man—"

Through her fingers she looked at her husband fear-fully. After a time she whispered :

"Why don't you say something?"

His trembling had ceased. His lips were twisted in a grin. He, too, wondered why he didn't say something. Because there were no words for what was in his heart.

He went to the table and commenced to tap vigorously on the key. She ran across and grasped at his arm.

"What you telling them?" she demanded wildly.

"Why, Sally!" he said. "What's the matter with you?— To send another man now Joe is gone."

Truths emerged from his measureless relief, lending themselves to words. He trembled again for a moment.

"If I hadn't stayed ! If I'd let them smash ! When all along it only needed Joe to keep all those people from getting killed."

He sat down, caught her in his arms, drew her to his knee, and held her close.

"You ain't going to scold?" she asked wonderingly.

He shook his head. He couldn't say any more just then; but when his tears touched her face she seemed to understand and to be content.

So, while the boy slept, they waited together for some-one to take Joe's place.

Consider how much less effective this story would have been, had the husband known that the wife really had the revolver handy for ready use, or if he had not introduced the child at a crucial moment calling for help and thereby making the fight with duty even more tremendous.

Later Improvements.—Now it is not always possible to introduce in a story at once all the elements necessary to increase the suspense, heighten the effect of the climax, and make the reader more absorbed. Sometimes hints as to what to introduce and what to leave out will come during the course of the writing itself, although the main structure of the plot should be firmly fixed in your mind before your start is made. Even after the story is completed, the writer, in going over it, will see ways of improving it by introducing greater suspense or by characterizing the principals of the, story in such a fashion as to heighten and strengthen various effects—to make the outcome more problematical—the conflict more intense the conclusion more humorous.


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