Coincidence makes things happen, in life and in fiction.
If I hadn’t just happened to run into Roy at the Bi-Lo, I never would have known they were hiring at the quarry.
Could be your brother-in-law telling you how a stroke of good luck will keep him out of foreclosure. Could be your character Yolanda, an out-of-work hairdresser, beginning a long-winded explanation to her bail-bondsman about just exactly how she came into possession of the twenty tons of gravel she dumped on her ex-husband’s Bronco. Life is full of happy and disastrous coincidence, and writers need coincidence to move their stories along, especially in satisfyingly unexpected directions. So why do readers sometimes roll their eyes about “too much coincidence”? And what should writers do to about that?
Coincidence becomes a problem in fiction when it sticks out—when it calls attention to itself as not credible, or as a contrivance obviously more convenient to the author than pleasurable for the reader.
Suppose your character Emmeline, a local woman with a big heart, a small future, and a face as ordinary as oatmeal, is a huge fan of a hot thirty-something movie actor, and when he comes to town, on location for his next film, they fall in love. I mean, they really fall in love; this is the challenge you’ve set yourself, you’re going to write a funny, sensitive, believable, insightful, fresh take on the redemptive value of unlikely love. That the movie idol Rory Brave comes to Emmeline’s hometown is already a coincidence, of course, but a credible enough story premise, since movies are shot in all kinds of places, and Emmeline could reasonably learn about this one from the star’s website. But how do you get these two to meet and spend time alone together?
If Emmeline is rushing her pet husky (savaged while saving her from a backyard bear encounter) to the vet in a violent rainstorm, and when she gets to the river the bridge is washed out, and while she stands on the pavement wringing her hands about how to get herself and Jules (the dog’s in shock, his breathing shallow, his eyes glazed) across that raging water, and along comes Rory, zipping merrily through the mud on an ATV (enjoying what just happens to be his favorite X-treme hobby), and—being a gentleman as well as a movie star—he halts the four-wheeler to ask her how he can be of assistance, and while she’s struggling to stammer her answer, a huge oak falls across the road behind her Toyota, cutting off any possibility of any other outcome except an ATV ride, her arms around Rory, his arms cradling Jules while he steers with his knees…well, you’ve probably got an overload of coincidence, and—assuming it wasn’t your intention all along to parody the romantic comedy—the drama you meant to write has morphed into melodrama.
Too frequent or too obvious coincidence robs readers of the chance to remain fully immersed in a story. It keeps reminding them that the author is pulling strings and doesn’t mind yanking them around. Readers of fiction have a profound wish to participate in a story’s unspooling. Truly engaged readers experience characters as people they know, and they want the keenly human pleasure of anticipating, successfully or not, what might befall them. Readers do wish to be surprised by what happens (otherwise the story is boringly predictable), but events and outcomes that strain credibility violate readers’ trust. They may stop reading, and the story may become laughable in a way the writer never meant it to.
Thus, since coincidence is necessary in fiction, it has to be carefully managed, at the outset and in revision. Here are three basic ways to go about this: set it up, own it when it happens, or finesse it.
To set up coincidence, clearly incorporate it in the fiction’s premise. If Emmeline has for years worked the counter in a little dive serving delicious BBQ, and it’s established in the opening pages that the dive’s proximity to the movie location means everybody from the electricians to the wardrobe people to the director himself is in and out of there every day, then it’s inevitable—and to the reader’s satisfaction—that Emmeline and Rory will meet. The question—a source of pleasant anticipation for the reader—is when.
To own it when it happens, acknowledge right on the page that what’s about to happen is coincidence. As Emmeline speeds toward the vet’s office in the blinding rainstorm so typical at this time of year in this climate, she thinks, I bet the damn bridge is flooded. It happened before, the last time it rained like this. As long as you don’t resort to this strategy too frequently, readers will skim past a bit of exposition about local weather and road conditions, glad for the information but mostly worried about Emmeline, her dog, and her heart.
To finesse it, you distract the reader’s attention from a coincidence you just can’t do without. Think of the skill with which a magician fixes the audience’s attention on a fluttering string of brightly colored scarves or a razzle-dazzle card-shuffling technique while “invisibly” stripping the mark’s wristwatch from his arm. If you absolutely must—for your plot, your theme, your artistic vision—get Emmeline, Jules, and Rory on that four-wheeler at that very moment with no other way out, then the tree must fall. Direct the reader’s attention away from the convenience of that one tree’s crash by, for instance, writing in rich sensory detail about the many manifestations of nature’s destructive force in that moment. Or focus the reader’s attention on something small but significant: in Jules’ response to the mighty thud of the felled oak. Emmeline senses in the twitch that half-bares his teeth his vigilant spirit still present. Or give Rory a hilarious or wry line of dialogue that reveals a new and fascinating dimension to his character, and relegates the tree’s fall to the background.