Last June, my husband went to England to attend my son’s graduation. Turned out to be the same weekend as the Queen’s Jubilee. In September, I went to England on a long-planned birthday trip. Turned out to be the Queen’s funeral. This May, my husband and I are going on a trip to Hever Castle. (Home of Anne Boleyn. Very excited.) Turns out to be the King’s Coronation. This is either a lot of coincidences, or we just go to England a lot. Or we love our son and have a lot of bonus points. But regardless, if I were in the royal family I’d begin to worry that the Breens were stalking me.
Coincidences happen. All the time. And they’re fun to read about.
For example, according to bestlifeonline, in 2014, there were two plane crashes involving Malaysian Air flights. The first was shot down over Ukraine, and the second disappeared without a trace somewhere over the Indian Ocean. Dutch cyclist Maarten de Jonge was scheduled to take both flights, but in each case, he survived because he happened to change his ticket at the last moment in order to take a cheaper flight.
The problem is that coincidences can feel like a cheap trick when you read them in a novel. Like the author couldn’t be bothered thinking about a more coherent plot. How can we work coincidence into our novel in believable ways?
3 Tips on Handling Coincidence
- Use coincidence at the beginning of your novel. Not at the end. Say you are a New Yorker, and you’re visiting a small town in Texas. You go to check into a motel and you see your next-door-neighbors–the ones who are married to other people–checking in. (This actually happened to my mother. She told me never to have an affair in Texas.) You might believe it at the beginning of a novel. Strange things do happen. But as a climactic scene, it might be hard to accept. Another way of putting this is, Don’t use coincidence to solve a problem
2. You are allowed one coincidence. Especially if you power through and don’t make a big deal of it. Have you ever read Flannery O’Connor’s chilling story, “The Misfit?” There’s a killer on the loose in Georgia. A family goes on a drive, their car breaks down, a man shows up. Of course. It’s the killer. I’ve heard a lot of people discuss that story and no one has ever said, “Wow, what a bizarre coincidence that that guy shows up.” It just makes sense in the world and context of that story and so you accept it. Plus, you’re so distracted by the other stuff going on that you don’t care.
3. Keep it small. Which is to say, don’t make the coincidence an important part of the plot. Say your protagonist goes to a small town and Texas and runs into her neighbors. Maybe the novel has nothing to do with infidelity, so the coincidence doesn’t matter. But it adds a small spark of delight. Gives the protagonist something to ruminate about. Reminds her that the world is full of amazing and remarkable things. Then a coincidence can work.
If you want to read further about coincidence
Coincidentally, there’s a wonderful novel on this topic called Coincidence ,by J.W. Ironmonger. It’s about a young woman whose life is devastated by a series of bizarre coincidences and comes to believe she’s going to die on Midsummer’s Day. Truly a 5 star read.
How about you? Do you use coincidence in your work? Or have you experienced any strange coincidences? Please comment and let us know.