An element commonly used in stories, in general, is the random encounter. This is what adds spontaneity to a narrative, and is usually the reason for things happening in the first place.
The random encounter is why peasant boys get tied up in princely politics, or why otherwise peaceful times are disrupted. In many video games, this is simply a mechanic used to insert action and a means of garnering experience points or money, and in novels it can be used to expand the pages. The well-written ones are either A) those coming from out of left field, or B) those we saw coming, but weren’t sure how.
Take the journey of a caravan along a lengthy route, or perhaps a group of adventurers on their way to complete a quest. In such an event, any unforeseen obstacle along the way, particularly those involving bandits, monsters, or even a natural disaster, might present itself. It is the duty of the author to show meaning in these encounters; otherwise, there is an argument that they contribute nothing to the plot.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Adversity and obstacles are what make life life, and often enough, they serve no obvious purpose. In most any given day, a person will experience a long succession of forgettable moments that did nothing (visibly) to affect them. Minutiae will shape us, to be sure, but this does not make for good writing. It makes for boring text. How many of you remember (any of) those random encounter battles in [Insert_Serialized_RPG_Here]?
I too have fallen prey to this – writing encounters for the sake of encounters, because writing “…and they made it across the desert,” simply would not do. Or worse, because of NaNoWriMo or otherwise, trying to expand one’s word count. I’ll never forget a sequence in a certain line of novels about a certain famous dark elf where a horde of trolls was encountered in a swamp; I remember, even in the throws of enjoyment while exploring this novelist’s rendition of a familiar world, what the point of the sequence was. There was expansion for the sake of expansion, and this can be proven through by asking one’s self this:
Is the scene there because it provides foreshadowing, character development, or otherwise something else that moves the plot along?
Does the story suffer if the sequence were to be cut out via a certain Russian razor I’m fond of invoking?
Or is it there simply because you like it?
What inspired this post was in fact a random encounter in my own life; meeting up with an old High School friend after nigh ten years of, well, not communicating, was an experience both enriching and uplifting. It was not another forgettable event in an otherwise less than remarkable narrative, but something that rekindled memories and spurred a bit of on-the-fly creative juice for a certain blog post.
How’s that for random?