Coincidences Or Not?

January 8, 2017 | By | 8 Replies More

Coincidences – a dirty word for us novelists, particularly amongst those ‘who know’, i.e. the more experienced writers, and even more so, those who publish books on How to Write and How to Get Published.

Accusations of resorting to outlandish coincidences instead of ‘proper’ plotting cause fiction writers’ hearts and souls to cringe. We are warned this practice doesn’t belong in the writer’s toolbox. Or does it?

Truth is often stranger than fiction. Most of us can drum up one or two – maybe many – incredible coincidences that have happened to us. So why shouldn’t we be allowed to use such a ploy in our own stories? Surely our stories represent or echo real life and our readers can relate them to their own lives. That’s why soap operas are still incredibly popular, even after years or decades.

The characters in our novels must be larger than life to be interesting to our readers, and if that is so, surely coincidences in our stories should occur as frequently and have the same impact as those in real life.

Only the other evening I flagged down a taxi in London. The driver rolled down the window and said, ‘Charing Cross, miss?’

Rather taken aback I said, ‘Not tonight, but why do you ask?’

‘Because I took you there a few weeks ago and you gave me your book, Seller Beware, about the business you sold to the those two crooks. ’

We both roared with laughter, yet it’s the fifth time this has happened to me with taxis. Four other times in London and once in Edinburgh. The Edinburgh driver took me to Stobo Castle Health Spa many years ago. Two years later I decided to go to the same health spa again. I arrived in Edinburgh, flagged down a taxi, asked for Stobo Castle, and the driver said, ‘I took you once before. Must be a couple of years ago.’

‘I can’t believe it,’ I said. ‘Are you sure it was me?’

‘Definitely. You’ve got an estate agency business in Kent.’

I was astounded as I hadn’t been to Scotland at all in those two years. I asked him how many taxis were there in Edinburgh and he said 12,000. I believe there are around 20,000 in London.

If I’d used one of these incidents in my novels my reader would say, ‘Oh, come on, that’s a bit far-fetched.’ And the professional would say in a sarcastic tone, ‘How very convenient, and how very unbelievable.’

Patricia Highsmith, the best-selling crime writer, wrote an excellent non-fiction book for writers: Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, with her take on coincidences. She says she loves coincidences in plots and situations that take the reader to the limit of their credulity but are still just possible. This sounds surprising from someone of Ms Highsmith’s calibre, but she warns that while you can stretch it, you must not break the reader’s credulity.

There has to be some lead-up to show how the coincidence could happen plausibly. Your heroine and hero shouldn’t just bump into one another in Las Ramblas, Barcelona when they haven’t seen each other for a year and have had no contact at all. You have to give a reason why the heroine is there, and a different reason why the hero is there (unless they’ve been looking for one another so it’s feasible they should both ‘accidentally’ be in the same place).

You must subtly lead the reader to the point where it’s inevitable they will unexpectedly meet, and this won’t then be seen as mere contrivance. Furthermore, the reader will love knowing something is going to happen before your heroine and hero know.

The warning is: don’t litter your novel with coincidences. One or two are perfectly allowable and acceptable – three at most, and only one big one. More than that will grate on the reader, and worse, she will dump your masterpiece into the nearest charity shop.

We’ve all read the story where the heroine who gets trapped on an island with the tide coming in, and she’s just about to drown when a boat comes round the edge of the cliff, and there’s the hero, waving his arms, in the nick of time to rescue her. Not very exciting reading. The heroine in this case must try to get out of the problem herself, which of course presents a greater difficulty for the writer trying to work out how she could do this. How much easier (and how lazy) to just coincidentally allow the boat to come round the corner.

I read a true story not long ago of a woman – we’ll call Linda – who gave birth to a baby when a teenager. She was forced to put the child up for adoption. Twenty-five years later Linda attempted to find her daughter, but after several years and virtually no leads, gave up.

Linda became a writer. One day her editor invited her back to the publishing house. A pretty receptionist brought them in a tray of tea and biscuits and gave Linda a beautiful smile. Linda commented to her editor what a charming girl but that her eyes looked sad. The editor said Jackie was adopted and although she had wonderful parents she longed to find her birth mother.

Immediately Linda felt drawn to find out more about Jackie. After checking dates and names and places it transpired that Jackie was Linda’s daughter! Coincidence? Fate? Randomness? Intervention from the gods? Whatever it was, it’s an example of high emotional drama – perfect for your novel.

When I recount that story to anyone it still makes me go tingly. So why should we deprive our readers of such thrills? We don’t need to.

Just don’t allow the boat, or the taxi, and in particular your gorgeous hero to arrive just in time to save your heroine – or your reader will simply throw the book at him!

Denise is the author of Seller Beware: How Not To Sell Your Business
pub. by Biteback Publishing and Annie’s Story and Juliet’s Story, Book 1 and 2 of The Voyagers trilogy published by SilverWood Books.

Find out more about Denise on her Website  www.denisebarneswriter.com

Follow her on Twitter: @denisebarnesuk

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Category: Contemporary Women Writers, How To and Tips

Comments (8)

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  1. Rosanne Bane says:

    Advice that has helped me is that coincidences are good for getting your characters into trouble, but shouldn’t be what gets them out.

  2. Charlotte69 says:

    So true. The bar for fiction is so much higher than real life. Anything I could possibly come up with in my novel, I would google and there would be a similar but much weirder and worse news story about. Real life is indeed much, much stranger than fiction.

    • You’re so right. I pitched to an agent recently. She said, ‘I love the writing but it’s rather far-fetched.’ She gave me a sharp look and added, ‘Or is it based on truth?’ ‘No, it’s all made up,’ I said. She looked thoughtful and then said, ‘Saying that, the person before you had written something much more far-fetched and when I told her that she said, ‘It really happened!’

      So there you have it.

      Denise

  3. Maj says:

    Coincidentally, whilst idly reading this excellent article, I realised I knew Denise – she once valued my house! I had no idea she was a writer too! Having just rediscovered my passion for the written words, Denise’s story is fascinating. It’s a small world!

    • Hello Maj

      I’m wondering now exactly who you are, and feeling just a little hurt that I only valued your house and you didn’t instruct me to sell it! 🙂

      I sold the business after 17 years to become a full-time writer, but unfortunately I sold to a couple of fraudsters. However, I wrote a book about it which was published a few years ago: Seller Beware: How Not To Sell Your Business. It was a horrible nightmare, and actually there were a few true-life coincidences which wouldn’t have rung true in fiction. It doesn’t seem fair.

      Denise

  4. Many thanks for this thought provoking article.
    I think we should try to avoid any coincidence that is too obviously a device to get the author out of a plotting difficulty. And as you point out, we can often make a coincidence less unlikely, e.g. characters meet by chance in a small town whereas this would be less probable in a big city. (My protagonist has several distressing sightings of her ex in Cambridge, where they both live. Far less likely if they had lived in London.).

    • You say about bumping into someone in a small town which is more believable than London but I must tell you this story. My husband bumped into his father on two separate occasions in London. Neither of them had any idea at all that the other was going to London. They both lived out in the country completely separately from each other in different towns on different train lines.

      But again, that’s real life where huge coincidences can and do happen. We just have to be careful in fiction. But I love them, true or fictitious!

      Denise

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