Coincidence? Or can you just explain it away?

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?



6 thoughts on “Coincidence? Or can you just explain it away?

  1. Eric John Kurt

    One of the most overused: major character is about to get killed and at the very last moment is saved by the good guy. It’d be nice (& more believable) if the good guys showed up early once in awhile.
    Thanks for the post Ben, looking forward to more on writing.

  2. Dave LeLacheur

    These are good points Ben, and I’d like to add another. I think we all have a deep need to feel that there is a sense of order and purpose, both to our lives and to the universe at large. The experience of everyday life undermines this at every turn ~ or at least quite a few of them. When we seek the solace of a leisure activity, the last thing we want is to be reminded of the power of randomness. I’ve encountered this as game designer time and again. Players want to control their outcome; it’s more important to them than winning per se. They want to feel that, if they lost, there was a good reason why ~ and that next time, armed with superior knowledge, they have every reason to hope to reverse the outcome. I believe that reading encourages a similar perspective. We want to feel that the characters in the book are there for a purpose, and that there is (somewhere underneath it all) a sense of order to the progression of the story. Coincidences can’t be accidental … that’s unsatisfyingly like every day life. We want more from our writers than that. I suppose that’s why writing is so hard! Thanks for being such a good guide through the murk, and I look forward to more posts over the coming weeks.

    1. Ben Post author

      I think you’re right, DlL, that that’s one of the satisfactions of fiction—feeling like the attention we’ve paid to a narrative is rewarded by a logical, “fair” conclusion, whether it’s a “happy” or “sad” ending notwithstanding.

      I do suspect there are writers would chafe against that, and suggest that fiction must reflect reality in all its messiness, and there’s a case to be made on that side, too; you must be careful of being too pat, too schematic, where x leads to y and y to z—because life, as you note, is rarely so accommodating.

  3. permababy

    Coincidence is actually an excellent way to enrich a story. The author however has to know which “kind” of coincidence that feels right. The Fugitive has a number of coincidences that work wonderfully. The bus accident turns into a train wreck (the train tracks and the approaching train are a coincidence.) When Kimble retrieves the list of one-armed patients he runs into young patients from a bus crash (the bus crash is coincidence.) When Kimble flees the prison after visiting an inmate he uses the St-Patrick’s day parade as a cover (the parade is a coincidence.) What these elements of coincidence have in common is Uncontrolled. In The Fugitive the only kind of coincidence that will work are those that are Uncontrolled. But coincidence goes further than that. A coincidence of the right kind will allow the Protagonist to make a choice between an accommodating response or an unfavorable response. In the case of the train wreck and the bus crash Kimble makes the wrong choice (Help). In case of the parade he makes the right choice (Hinder.) Again, the author has to be aware of these opportunities in his story’s structure.

  4. Ben Post author

    I don’t know the Fugitive, Permababy,but I’m not sure those examples are coincidences, at least in the sense that I mean. If a parade happens to be going by when he is fleeing the prison, that’s good luck (and maybe makes the reader go, well, that’s lucky!), and, as you say, gives the writer opportunity to show the resourcefulness or foolishness of the hero, in using or wasting that opportunity.

    But if the Grand Marshal of the parade happens (by coincidence) to be his high school English teacher, who spots him and aids him in the escape, that’s where I call foul.

    Another possibility, of course, is that the hero chose to visit the prison on St. Patty’s day, because he’s a crafty devil and knows that the parade will pass by just in time to give him cover. Then it’s neither coincidence nor luck, it’s the result of a resourceful protagonist, arranging the world to his liking. That’s a hero we can get behind. (Even if the plan doesn’t work out).

  5. James Britt

    There are two case of well-done coincidence in a novel that came to my mind. Les Miserables, and David Glen Gould’s Carter Beats the Devil.

    My recollection might be hazy, but in both cases there were instances of seemingly (to, say, a casual observer) coincidental occurrences that felt not just right but satisfyingly correct. The reason was that the author established a compelling series of events and circumstances such that the resulting interactions came off as inevitable. (The characters, of course, would experience the events a pure coincidence.)

    This framing seems essential. In the case of the parade grand marshal who is also the escapee’s former teacher, if this plot twist is just tossed into the story it comes off as being not just unlikely but a bit too convenient for the author. If, however, both characters have been introduced in the story, and their circumstances and motivations made clear, then when their lives intersect it can feel inevitable instead of contrived.

    I think readers look for a feeling of internal consistency in the world-logic of a book. It doesn’t have to be real-world logic consistency but it can’t be capricious. Suddenly adding a parade grand marshal to move the plot is jarring. Having an established (even if minor) character take on that role can happen with book-logic consistency.

    Indeed this feeling of consistency, perhaps inevitability, is one of the pleasures of reading. If the story takes a twist that appears to break the consistency but is then revealed to adhere to a more sophisticated or clever consistency the pleasure is heightened. (I’m reminded of music here, where a piece seems to take a left turn and perhaps become discordant, but then resolves itself with some thematic unification that slowly unfolds. I have no example of this offhand.)


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