I picked up The Art of Fiction by Ayn Rand from the library yesterday. The book is highly recommended by jemima.
What I appreciate most about this slim volume is its logic and clarity of purpose. Most of all, it all makes perfect sense, especially when it comes to using language as objective rather than subjective -- that there should be no hidden meanings or motives in the word choice, thus eliminating all debate of whether indeed there is subtext. I finally understand what my 12th grade teacher was all about when he harrangued us to become specific with our meanings, rather than using vague terminology such as "it" and "that" and "those", for it allows us as readers to draw our own conclusion when the writer herself isn't clear and specific about what she means.
About theme and plot, Rand makes it very clear that characters must have choice, that they cannot react to what happens to them, acceptance of fate, if you will. If things simply happen and for that reason the character moves in response, then that's boring -- that's not what we as readers want to read. Indeed, it makes the job as a writer harder because then it's necessary to come up with several things that just coincidentally happen to the protogonist and where's the interest and promise in that?
Rand writes: "Coincidence is always bad in writing, and it's disastrous in plot writing. Only lesser plot writers, usually bad mystery novelists, characteristically employ coincidence, though some great writers, like Hugo, are guilty of it at times. But it is to be avoid at all costs. A plot represents free will and a man's achievement of, or at least struggle, for his purpose -- and coincidence is irrelevent to anyone's choice or purpose. It can happen in life, but it is meaningless. So do not write the kind of stories in which conflict is suddenly resolved by a natural disaster, such as a flood or an earthquake that conveniently kills the villain at the right moment."
We often refer to these coincidences as plot devices or deux ex machina, but sometimes it's just plain silly. Stranding two unlikely people on a planet or causing injury to one so another has to take care of the first and in both situations, undying love is finally confessed -- these are occurrances of coincidence, contriving a situation that forces an outcome, rather than allowing for a natural one. In other words, the author shows her hand very clearly in such a scenario and the ending is a foregone conclusion. And as such, the suspense is eliminated and the story uninteresting to the reader.