Coincidence Can Ruin Your Story
A few months ago, I was at nearby Lyrebird Dell, doing my monthly volunteer bush regeneration. While grubbing out invasive weeds, I found broken beer bottles, a pair of deteriorating panties, and this train ticket.
Only the ticket is memorable. Why? Because I pulled it out of the mud on 2 April, the same date as the ticket, although given the Monday date, it was probably issued two years ago. What an amaaaaazing coincidence.
But what if I wanted to include a similar incident in a story? A woman is desperate for money to pay off a bad guy but can’t get the funds. She finds a dirty slip of paper—a lottery ticket. Checking the lottery website, she discovers it’s the winning ticket! Need more of a coincidence? How about if the day she finds the ticket is the deadline for collecting her winnings?
Coincidence works better in real life than in fiction. We’re like hearing about real examples. Like an acquaintance who journeyed to remote Easter Island, only to run into a work colleague. We tell each other these true tales and comment on how amazing life is, six degrees of separation, fate, and so on.
But the allure of coincidence diminishes in fiction, particularly when it breaks the sense of authenticity readers expect. It’s not that writers eschew coincidence. It’s common in genre fiction such as crime novels, where it can help mislead readers. In comic writing, coincidence can up the humour, as readers wonder ‘what else can possibly go wrong?’ In the movie The Great Muppet Caper, Miss Piggy needs to stop a jewel heist but is stranded on the side of the road. Guess what? A motorcycle fortuitously falls out of the back of a passing truck. As she puts it, it’s the perfect most ‘unbelievable coincidence’.
If a movie or novel is fast-paced and/or complex, viewers and readers may not notice the coincidences piling up until later when they can reflect on the story. But use one ill-considered contrivance crucial to the plot, and readers can no longer suspend disbelief. Examples:
- A character is looking for someone, and uncanny as it seems, that person shows up precisely when most needed.
- Something (spaceship, car, boat, walking boots) malfunctions, threatening disaster. But lo and behold, the character has some little thingy that is exactly right to fix it, thus saving the roadtrip/escape plan/planet.
- A note falls out of a book, and amazingly, it provides the most important clue. Or a character discovers the very information she has been searching for when she overhears two people discussing it.
- Two individuals both fall in love with each other at first sight. (Contrast this with the richer story possibilities when one character falls in love and the other doesn’t know or care.)
- A favourite from a forgettable movie I saw. A young woman spills something on her blouse and chooses to walk to the laundry, way at the back of a dark, spooky yard, to clean it, where, as fate would have it, the murderer waits.
- A woman who takes an interest in a young woman’s career discovers that this person is the baby she gave up for adoption years ago.
How the above items play out depends on how awkwardly or cleverly they are slipped into the story. And my point is not that writers should never use a coincidence. But rely on it too much, or use one to to create an unbelievable revelation or plot twist, and your readers may give up.
If the incident is crucial to your story, you can foreshadow. Making your mild-mannered teacher suddenly go a killing rampage leaves readers bewildered. But if small examples of the teacher’s inability to control himself are included earlier, his later meltdown becomes plausible. Some movies and books do this very well, escalating the seriousness of each subsequent incident so that the final, major outcome makes perfect narrative sense.