When I was reading and reviewing Eifelheim a few months back, I ran across a critical review on Amazon which essentially said (of the modern section of the plot): "Oh come on. What are the chances that a historian and physicist would both happen to come on such oddly relevant problems at the same time, and happen to be a couple so they could run into each other and figure it out? That's not realistic."
As I thought about it, it struck me that in a sense this underlines how stories are like life, and how they are not like life.
In traditional form, a story begins with some sort of inciting incident, and tracks a character or cast of characters through a set of unfolding events which result in conflict and change. While the inciting incident, conflict, change, resolution arc is in some ways stylized (and all good writers break the rules sometimes in some ways) it actually allows us to see something more clearly in books which actually is at work in life as well. Often things we do, or things that happen to us, have far reaching consequences that continue have effects over a period of time until the conflict results in change and/or resolution.
Some years ago, there was a time when I went out to a bar after work with a bunch of "the boys" for a happy hour. I found myself down at one end of the bar with a guy (we'll call him "Tom") whose second wife had just left him. Tom was drinking fast, and I hadn't had much to eat all day, so between the two of us we were unknowingly headed towards an in Shiner veritas situation. (For those not living in Texas, Shiner Bock is the local beer of choice -- and rather better than the national mass-market brews.)
On his second beer, Tom started talking about his marriage that had just ended. His second wife had been ten years younger than him, which made her my age, though I didn't point that out. Things done, things not done, paths taken and not. Tales could, I'm sure, be told of any marriage. These, however, were now told from the standpoint of its ending, all seen in light of that fact.
After a while he paused, and there was silence for a while. Then he started again.
"You know, but thought I was always making it easy on her, giving her everything she wanted. Back when we were engaged she got pregnant. That seemed like it would make everything harder, so we had an abortion. We never did have any kids." A moment of silence. "I'd really hoped we'd have kids, but we were never ready."
He finished his third beer. "Yeah, a lot of things could have been different."
Tom was facing the end of a story, and trying to figure out how it had started. Trying to figure out where the complications had been, where people had changed, and why. Not because there was much that he could do about it at this point, but because human minds want to know, want to come to some sort of understanding of why the world works the way it does.
That's why we write stories -- in an attempt to distill reality down to a dram that makes some sort of sense. And by making sense of it, to understand and say something about what the world is and how it works.
Very often, stories only make sense in retrospect -- if then. Only after the conflict and change have occurred do we see what the inciting incident was, and even then we seldom know at what point the die was cast, at which point we moved from complication to falling action.
Which is why two thousand years ago (and again on every mass altar) God made man stretched out his hands between heaven and earth -- and between past and future -- and cried out, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."