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Right Place, Right Time Syndrome

September 3, 2014 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified September 3, 2014

The discussion on a recent article about learning from movies and TV reminded me about another issue that can challenge a reader’s belief in fictional events and characters. I’ve written about coincidence before (Coincidence Destroys the Suspension of Disbelief), but I want to specifically address a type of coincidence, one involving the character who is always, always, always in the right place at the right time, stretching plausibility beyond the breaking point.

Such characters have right place, right time syndrome. No, that’s not a medical title or term. It’s simply what a writer who hasn’t planned well curses one or more characters with in order to make plot threads work. But the attempted fix doesn’t work. A character with the syndrome, especially an advanced case of it, can set a whole story off kilter. Maybe make it diseased. Definitely make it weak.

Let’s look again to television for a clear example of the syndrome and the reasons it doesn’t work.

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In the first season of the TV show Smash, a character named Ellis Boyd became the assistant to composer Tom Levitt. Ellis was smarmy and sneaky, a true troublemaker. He also suffered from right place, right time syndrome. No matter what secret was being spilled, he was there. No matter who was doing the spilling, he was there. No matter what odd room or building (or even street corner) in which the secret was being spilled, he was there.

Now, if you have a character who sets out to purposely ferret out the secrets of another character, you can make that work. You make the ferret character watch and listen and follow and make plans to be in the right place when he knows something is going on. But for the ploy to be realistic, he’d have to be unable to get to the right place at just the right time at least sometimes. He’d have to get caught sometimes. He’d have to not be able to understand what he learned sometimes. That is, he couldn’t always be where he needed to be, couldn’t always hear a great secret, and couldn’t always be able to get in and out without someone noticing.

He couldn’t be successful at his sneaking around 100 percent of the time.

To be real and credible, his actions have to be subject to the same rules and laws that govern the other characters as well as real people.

Sometimes people are delayed and miss out on what they were supposed to do. That should have happened to Ellis, but never did. He always was there just at the right moment to catch the juiciest tidbit.

And he never got caught.

And no one else ever happened to be at the right place at the right time, just him.

And he didn’t always deliberately go somewhere as part of his plans; he often just happened to be exactly where he needed to be—in a hallway, on the other side of a door—when a secret was revealed or something took place that needed to be kept hidden.

And he always knew that the information he picked up or what he saw happening was important or was something that others wanted hidden. It was always the good stuff; he never overheard boring and commonplace conversation.

And he always immediately understood the importance of what he overheard or saw. He had no need to guess about meaning, even if what he heard consisted of only a few words. He was brilliant at catching the significance and implications of a single sentence or a look between characters.

He didn’t hear or see a bunch of nothing; he picked up the juiciest of the juicy tidbits because that’s all he ever overheard. He never wasted his time only to gain nothing new. No, he was successful every single time, even if the telling of the critical information lasted but a second or two. He was the quintessential Johnny-on-the-spot.

Ellis was always competent at ferreting out secrets while at the same time all other characters were lax in their protection of them. Any spy agency would offer him a job, he was that successful.

He had the syndrome and he had it bad. And because of this condition given to him by the writers, he was not a credible character.

No single character can always be in place when that one vital line of a secret is spoken.

No single character can always be in place when every other character spills secrets. The first character might have reason to spy on one or two other characters, but not on every other one. He couldn’t always be in their personal space at the critical moment, not without a logical reason, and it’s unlikely he’d have a logical reason to be there at the spilling of secrets of every other character.

No single character can always be the one to see the hand-off of the secret document or discover the document lying on a desk or be there to receive it from the mailman or UPS guy. One character shouldn’t always even understand the importance of the hand-off or the delivery.

No character can always be the one to accidentally discover information and then afterward be the one to stumble across an object that’s the key to that information or an object that was the topic of the discussion he overheard.

No one character should always be the one to so neatly be able to put the elements of a puzzle together because he received the puzzle pieces in just the right order. That is, sometimes we come to know something about piece number three before we know pieces one and two even exist. So a character might dismiss information that held no meaning for him until he discovered the first bits of information and was then able to put the whole thing together.

One character shouldn’t always be the one to even come across the puzzle pieces—especially not be the only one to do so—unless he’s actively searching them out.

A character with right time, right place syndrome is unreal, and he makes your story events less credible. Can make them implausible.

Unless a character has a reason to be searching for information and clues and objects that are linked to one another, he shouldn’t be the one to find all the pieces. Especially not by accident. It wouldn’t happen. So as you write, create reasons for a character to be where he is when he is, and be especially careful to give the character solid reasons to be in place if while he’s there he learns vital information and he understands what that information means.

Rather than always putting one character in the right place through happenstance—

Plot out a character’s discoveries so that they are logical and believable.

Show more than one character making discoveries.

Show some characters uncaring of the discoveries they make.

To keep a character credible, show what happens when nothing happens, when the character isn’t in the right place at the right time. Make sure the character isn’t successful all the time.

Let someone discover the character in a place he shouldn’t be. And let there be consequences.

Make the character miss a vital revelation.

Make a character misunderstand what she thinks she hears so that she shows up at the wrong place or at the wrong time or for the wrong reason. (A character who overhears others talking about a murder that will happen at precisely 8 p.m. that night could show up at a play starring one of the other characters’ children.)

Overhearing some seemingly innocuous bit of information is one thing. But having just the right character in place to hear that bit at just the right time, with that character being the only one to know what such info means because he also overheard some related bit of information? That’s coincidence that doesn’t work.

Keep your characters free of right place, right time syndrome. Don’t write an Ellis character who rides coincidence like a wave and does so without effort and without error.

Use plotting rather than happenstance to put your characters where they need to be.

Write believable plot threads with credible characters.

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2 Responses to “Right Place, Right Time Syndrome”

  1. TP Hogan says:

    That’s great advice.
    I must admit I’ve been guilty of writing a character such as this. Though not to the ‘Elliot’ degree.

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