Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Workshop: Almost Random Events

By Lazette Gifford
2004, Lazette Gifford

A story should rarely, of course, have truly random events thrown in. Some forms of literary fiction may do all right in that respect, but most fiction needs a control of chaos of events, not the creation of it.

However, sometimes a little something unexpected can liven up a spot where you are just not sure what to do next.  This often happens at the end of one phase and before the next big step.  Transitions... how to get from one spot to another?  Sometimes it seems as though the story just comes to a dead stop.  Holly Lisle says to throw in naked women with machine guns.  Others say alligators. However, all you really need is an obstacle for your characters to overcome -- a challenge to get them moving again, and still interesting to the reader.  Characters in motion tend to stay that way if they have something interesting to do.

But once again, remember that the obstacle cannot be truly random.  It has to fit into your story in some way, and overcoming it has to bring your character closer to a goal -- or at least appear to in some way, even if it turns out to be a blind alley.

One of the ways to come up with random events is to have a not-so-random list ready to take you over the hurdles.  Sometimes even when an author outlines, she can still hit a point in the story where things grind to a halt and there seems no way to move on to the next step.  There is no current conflict, and a story is about conflict. 

There are two answers at this point.  The first is to jump the transition and get to the next scene:

Four days later they stood at the door to the lair.

But maybe you don't want them to get there that quickly.  Maybe your story still needs a bit more conflict to develop the characters, or a few more adventures along the way to fill out a novel length story.  Perhaps all you need is a bit of random thought to get you moving on the next idea.

So here is how to create some.  And if you do the preliminary work before you even outline, you might find that this helps you fill in a few spots as you go along.

The first trick is to recognize a spot where you are stuck.  There are a couple different types of stuck:

  1. Don't know what to do next.

  2. Don't know how to get to the next step.

In the case of #1, this exercise might at least get your mind moving along the right path, even if you decide not to use what you get out of it.  Knowing what won't work can often lead to deciding what can.

In the second case, you need to be a little more careful and decide if you have a transition that needs to be filled, or a spot that you need to skip to get to the action again.  Filling in spots with needless clutter does not always help the story.  Balance is the hard part.

On the other hand, you can always write the scene and take it out later if you feel it really doesn't work. It's as important to get the writer moving as it is the story, and if coming up with something that you discard during editing is the key to keeping going, then jump in.  You never know what might help.

So here is the very simple way to do it:

First you make a list of six types of trouble that could affect your story, based on the basics of your plot and your characters.  Maybe you will write vampire attack for an event in a dark fantasy.  Or perhaps you will have a systems failure for an sf story, or a magical attack for a disaster in a fantasy.  The trick is to list out things that could happen in your story.

The list below might be used for a generic modern day adventure of some sort.

1.  Transportation Trouble

a.   Break down/Sabotage

b.  Theft

c.   Road/trail destruction

2.   Weather

a.   Rain

b.    Drought

c.   Flood

3. People

a.   Neighbor

b.      Relative

c.     Authority

4.   Accident

a.      Main Character

b.     Stranger

c.        Friend/relative

5. Enemy

a.      Hunting MC

b.     Accidentally crossing paths

c.     Minion of enemy

6.   Disaster

a.     Earthquake

b.    Flood

c.  Fire


Use two six sided dice, preferably of different colors, or throw one at a time.  The first throw chooses the general type of disaster (1-6), the second chooses the specifics (a=1 or 2, b=3 or 4, c=5 or 6).

So, how does that help?  Well, let's say the list above is to a story about a cop who has been on the case of a serial killer.  The last point in the story says she has just gotten home from the latest murder scene.  She has a new clue, but doesn't know how it fits.  She will have another new clue at the next murder scene... but that won't be for a few days.

You need her to do something in the meantime.  Something that appears random, but --

So you throw the dice... #4 is Accident, and b for Stranger.


The cop is home.  She's pondering what the new clue in the case means. She's thinking about going to work in the morning and playing with the computers.

Then she hears a crash outside her apartment -- and looks to see two cars smashed into each other.  She calls it in, and then, cursing, goes down to the street...

Only the accident isn't an accident, exactly.  One of the cars was driven by the serial killer who knows that the cop has gotten close to the truth.  The killer needed to draw her out of the building and her padlocked apartment, with the security cams in the halls.

And now that she's on the street... well? 


As you can see, this is not totally random.  It's just a way to trick your writing brain into looking at a new scenario and fitting it into the story.  Sometimes the idea just will not work.  Roll the dice again.

Creating 'random' events will not work for every writer.  But sometimes they can be just the key to move your story forward rather than to let it languish.

One last thought:  If you are someone with role playing games around, you likely have a number of dice of various types.  I used six-sided because they are the most likely to be on hand in most houses.  However, I have twenty-sided, hundred-sided, etc.  You can make out far more extensive 'random' lists than mine.  The trick, though, is to make certain that the things listed remain true to your story's setting.

This is not a replacement for plotting.  A novel with nothing but random encounters isn't a story -- it's just a list of events.  However, those encounters might just help you move past that dead spot in the outline or the story writing.  Sometimes a nudge is all we really need.