You’ll Never Believe This, But… Coincidence in life and fiction

I’m going through a coincidence phase. I can barely have a conversation these days without discovering that, eg, the other bored mum at a kid’s party used to live in Kenya and my aunt out there is her godmother. Or that, while our new lodger from Manchester only knows one person in London socially, that person used to be my landlady. Six degrees of separation? I’m running on a maximum of two.

This sort of thing is trivial, mildly amusing, perhaps a little freaky the fourth or fifth time it happens in a fortnight.

In a book, it would be rubbish. Once, OK. Twice, I’m tapping my fingers. Three times: there had better be an amazing plot thread to explain why it wasn’t coincidence at all. Otherwise I’m flinging the book away in disgust. Oh, you just happened to overhear a complete stranger talking revealingly about your brother’s girlfriend, including identifying details? Oh, you just happened to go into the toilet cubicle where some girl had written your husband’s phone number on the wall? Oh, you just happened to bump into the same guy at three huge events in a row, and then again in a completely different country, in the course of one summer? It won’t do. Cheap tricks. Lazy, poorly plotted rubbish.*

* All of these are actual coincidences that happened to me or people I know. (The toilet wall one was not me, thank you.)

The Victorians could get away with coincidence. More than that, they embraced it. When Jane Eyre leaves Mr Rochester and goes out into the night alone, she winds up, exhausted and starving, at the doorstep of some random house…which belongs to her long-lost relatives. Obviously. Of all the people in the entire country, she pitches up at the house of her hitherto-never-heard-of cousins, by sheer chance.  It’s not even like she has a big family. 

Is Bronte embarrassed about this? Has she seeded the text with references to Jane having family in the area to make it remotely plausible? Has she hell. This isn’t a plot device so clunky you can hear the gears scream, it’s meaningful fate

In Victorian literature, coincidence was the operation of Providence. If you swam out to save someone from a foundering ship, you’d better be braced to learn that they’re your long lost half brother, or that their father murdered your father, or that once the amnesia has passed they’ll turn out to know where the lost will has gone. In a Victorian novel, of course my lodger would know my ex-landlady. I’d probably have murdered the woman and buried her under the floorboards (don’t think I wasn’t tempted), and our new lodger would be the operation of Divine Justice hunting me down.

If you ask me, Victorian authors didn’t know how lucky they were. Fine, they had to do their quarter of a million words longhand, and if you wanted to change a character’s name the ‘search and replace’ process involved a day’s work, and their equivalent of the Blue Screen of Death was the maid chucking the manuscript on the fire, from which nobody’s IT genius nephew could save you. But at least if they wanted to join two plot strands, all they had to do was bang them together like a baby with a couple of plastic cups. These days most writers will spend ages trying to make these things look plausible, using backstory and judiciously seeding hints to show there’s a solid, evidence-based reason for it all.

I believe in evidence, not Providence. But it doesn’t make my writing life easier.

Do you think authors are entitled to play with coincidence, or does it ruin a book/show/film for you?

7 replies
  1. Nora BBreen
    Nora BBreen says:

    “Radio Lab,” on US National Public Radio did a story recently, one segment of which dealt with uncanny coincidence. Two girls living miles apart and responding to a balloon message, were the same age, hair color, had same type of pet, enjoyed same music, had same name, etc. There were many similarities. Uncanny? Well, not if you enlarged the sphere to include the things they didn’t have in common or the times when like events occurred. (The coincidences were almost magical as first presented on the show.) … Maybe the moral is: who cares about the details if the story is enhanced by the coincidence?

    This veers off-topic, but authors often repeat or emphasize certain details. As an instance, “The Magpie Lord” refers to Lucien’s clothing and its outstanding tailoring. Even more often, we read about Stephen’s shabby suit, which seems to be the same one throughout the story. Is this done to reinforce the difference in wealth, appearance and status or to emphasize that Lucien is a man who will be center of attention and Stephen’s gift is to disappear? Is there more significance than that because the point has been made without the clothes references. … When an author makes a point of some detail, am I supposed to wonder if it’s foreshadowing something or if it’s just an author’s “tic?” This applies to almost all books or series and even to TV programs like “Lost.” What’s significant and what is just there to confuse us? Many contemporary authors (not including Ms. Charles) don’t seem to want to play with symbolism or foreshadowing. Too bad; I love it.

    And “smirk.” What definition does it have these days? It does not mean smile. And sarcasm and irony are not the same either.

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Not entirely off topic, because it’s the tiny details that help the writer avoid the impression of a hulking great coincidence. If you’ve seeded enough foreshadowing into the book early on, so the reader knows something’s coming, or recognises it when it happens it’s Meant to Be.

      Reply
  2. MishaBurnett
    MishaBurnett says:

    Somewhere I read a list of guidelines for plotting stories, and one of them was that you can use coincidence to get your characters into trouble, but not to get them out of trouble. I like that, and when I think about specific examples of coincidence in fiction I realize that I am more likely to accept unlikely events when they work against the main characters than when they work in their favor.

    It seems to be easier to sell bad luck than good luck. Les Miz, for example, relies heavily on Valjean’s uncanny ability to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    Reply
  3. Becky Black
    Becky Black says:

    Tom Jones is another one with a bigass coincidence as a crucial plot point, when Tom meets quite by chance a woman we’ll learn is the woman we think is his mother… (It’s a complicated book. :D)

    There’s quite a lot of coincidence in my favourite book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – some of it caused by The Infinite Improbability Drive, some of it not. But I suppose if a book isn’t going for a naturalistic story, and the characters are often swept along by events, then we forgive it, because we’re having lots of fun reading.

    I think these days the readers won’t accept coincidences if they are just used because there’s no other way to get the story to work. And arguing “but that really happened to a friend of mine” gets you nowhere. 😀 But I think they can be used intentionally if they are what the story is about. Like fate has a hand somewhere, there’s some force at work.

    The TV show Lost uses coincidence all the time, but with the implication that it’s because there are weird forces at work. Lots of the characters have crossed paths before, often unknowingly, the numbers Hurley won the lottery with are the same numbers that have to be entered into the computer, Locke’s father is the conman who destroyed Sawyer’s family, Desmond is trapped on the island when he’s shipwrecked in the boat Libby gave him, then Libby ends up on the island after the plane crash but dies right before Desmond reappears. Come to think of it Desmond is at the centre of a lot of the connections… Don’t get me started.

    Anyway, in an interview the makers of the show talk about using coincidence and how they were influenced in that way by Dickens, who as you say uses plenty of them. They even make Desmond a big fan of Dickens.

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      I am bang alongside weird forces at work, or Providence, or inevitable cruel fate, or anything *as long as it works with the book* – if the author’s confident in that, the reader is swept along as well. Probably author confidence (chutzpah?) is the trick to getting away with it, in fact…

      Reply

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