I’ve been trying to put my finger on the logical explanation for something I know instinctually to be true, which is that coincidences, while so delightful in real life, are so obnoxious in fiction. (Not always, but almost always.)
My tentative conclusion is that our main job, as fiction writers, is to create an illusion of reality. (I’m talking just in general here, just with realistic fiction and its close cousins—so not, for example, meta-fiction, or even high-genre stuff like thrillers and romance, witch & wizard stuff. ) The basic requirement of the gig is to create and maintain what John Gardner in The Art of Fiction calls “the vivid and continuous dream,” to make the reader feel like they’re immersed not in the product of a writer’s imagination but in an actual time and place. To make the fictional world, in other words, feel like it is the real world.
Anything that makes the reader question the reality of the fictional world (consciously or unconsciously) must then be edited or excised. Gardner talks about this in the context of “infelicitous” or “lumpy” writing that distracts from seamless storytelling, or a narrative voice that is too clever or too constructed, where the story is not being treated with due seriousness.
On the same list, for me, is a storyline that is full of wild, improbable events, not related at all to the motivations or needs of the characters—long-lost lovers meeting by chance on a city bus, that sort of shit. The sorts of events that make a reader go “oh, come on,” break faith with the reality of the story, and throw her book against the wall.
This despite the fact that, reality being the infinite and infinitely interesting thing that it is, long-lost lovers must, from time to time, meet by chance on a city bus. Right? But when those things happen in real life, they make us say things like “I never would have guessed it!” Or “I never would have believed it, unless I had seen it with my own eyes!” That’s what coincidences are, right, they are events that don’t seem like they belong within the confines of normal existence.
Coincidences by their nature seem to be somehow off the playing field, occurring outside the “rules” of real life. They almost seem like cheating, like someone circumvented the natural ways things are supposed to go, in which our actions and circumstances lead us inexorably but unpredictably toward our life’s next events. Which is exactly why they stink in fiction, because they give us the feeling that the author is not playing fair—he’s moving pieces around on a chess board instead of letting what is inside his characters drive them through the story.
Crucially, when coincidences happen in life, they do not actually cause us to question the the realness of reality. There is no book to throw across the room, no vivid and continuous dream to be interrupted. Because we know that no one literally authored this unlikely event, our response is to go “that’s weird” and move on; in fiction, because we know that someone did literally author this event, we say “oh, come on” and throw the book across the wall.
Final note: There are a lot more elements that have the opposite property, i..e. they are good in fiction but bad in real life. Like, for example, terrible people. The obnoxious pretentious asshole at the dinner party is a nightmare if you’re actually have a dinner party, but if you’re writing about one, he’s a goldmine.
Final final note: I’m going to try and write about writing a lot in the next month, since we’re entering November, in which a lot of people participate in NaNoWriMo, where you try and write a whole novel in a month. Which some people dog on, saying it’s silly or whatever, but I say more power to ’em. Everybody who wants to write should write all the time, for any reason. Right?