Michaeline: It just so happens . . . .

Ah, love's young dream and the queer pranks of circumstance! On the other hand, as Ian Fleming writes in Goldfinger, "Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times, it's enemy action." (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Ah, love’s young dream and the queer pranks of circumstance! On the other hand, as Ian Fleming writes in Goldfinger, “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times, it’s enemy action.” (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

I belong to an online book discussion group, and this week, we were talking about coincidence. I said that I’d experienced some amazing coincidences in my life, and ran into a minor coincidence almost every month. And then people shared their own stories of meeting a long-lost friend or relative hundreds of kilometers away from home. Or finding out that an online friend lived only 15 minutes away.

We all know coincidence, yet there seems to be such a disgust of coincidence among readers. On the other hand, is there a work of fiction that doesn’t depend on coincidence? I tried thinking of one; I thought something by Hemingway might work, but even something like The Old Man and The Sea still has the giant coincidence of the man catching this giant fish. There are, as we know, a lot of fish in the sea – why this fish, why now?

The way I see it, we humans are a pattern-seeking species. We see coincidence constantly, and most often the biggest things in our lives happen because of something unusual – a coincidence of people, actions or place.

In addition, fiction is about the unusual – the big moment in life that doesn’t blend into everyday. That’s often going to require a coincidence.

One of the big howling “mistakes” that writers “commit” is the old Deus ex machina – God comes down on a machine at the end of the play and fixes everything. Usually, this doesn’t involve a real god or a real machine, but an astounding coincidence. This can be startling and unsatisfying, and writers are usually told to fix this by foreshadowing and making sure their protagonists and antagonists have a hand in bringing this coincidence about.

In general, I think readers are more accepting of coincidences that incite a series of events, rather than random coincidences at the end of a story. As the old 80s phrase goes, shit happens, but we enjoy seeing how the characters get out of the muck and murk through their own efforts.

So, what do you think of coincidence as a reader and a writer? Do you accept it as something that happens, or do you tend to roll your eyes? And if you roll your eyes, what’s the tipping point? Also, if anyone can point me to a work of fiction that doesn’t involve coincidence at all, I would be edified. Coincidence – is it really that bad? Or is it a necessary part of fiction?

8 thoughts on “Michaeline: It just so happens . . . .

  1. I’m not a big fan of coincidence in fiction—I’m okay with it if a coincidence starts the story, but probably not if it ends it. However, coincidence in any place in fiction leaves me sort of cold, as if the author couldn’t think of a way to make something happen with a reason.

    Coincidence may happen in real life, although I’m more likely to think of chance encounters as issues of mathematical probability, but as we all know, fiction is supposed to be better than real life, so I’m all for finding reasons why Person A has to be on that corner and why Person B has to be catching a cab there at the same time.

    • I’ll agree that it has to have some foreshadowing . . . but I don’t want too much backstory, either. Such a complicated balance!

      I just got to thinking about how often coincidence happens in real life . . . and how often love stories almost have to start with a coincidence (the only exceptions I can think of is the “girl/boy next door” stories . . . but perhaps I’m thinking too narrowly).

  2. The problem with coincidence as a mechanism for solving problems is that it removes agency from the characters and characters without agency aren’t very interesting.

    Love that quote! I’m going to ponder it in relation to my WIP.

    • Yeah, there’s the reactive thing. We want proactive. (-: I lead a very reactive life, though, and if it’s “write what you know” . . . .

      I like that quote a lot, too. I was surprised to find the source. Things do come in threes, and the paranoid (and professional paranoids) can see enemy action behind it (-:.

  3. Real life is full of incredible coincidences – frex, McDaniel deciding to run an online certificate in romance writing, and Jenny deciding to teach it. I read Jenny’s blog about it the very day I finished the first draft of my first (romance) novel and was trying to figure out what the hell to do with it. I was very happy with the universe that day 🙂 .

    I agree with Kay, this is an area where fiction has to be better than reality. And I like Pixar rule #19: coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

    • LOL, and it started on my b-day. That was my big McDaniel’s coincidence that got me moving. AND, I wasn’t the only birthday girl!!

      (-: I needed something important to happen on my birthday when I was 23, though (-:. That’s what I get for waiting for “omens” before I take action.

  4. I have to agree with Jilly on rule 19, though I think I first encountered it somewhere else. Coincidences that cause trouble force you characters to take action. Those that resolve conflict do the opposite. And since the ending is about conflict resolution, it can’t come through coincidence without feeling phony to me.
    Of course, I think the best events are the ones that cause trouble at first, and end up being useful chapters later when the protagonist remembers them.

    • I think perhaps that’s a good way to think about it. A coincidence can be a great tool, but it shouldn’t get in the way of agency. I think I could accept a coincidence (or even funnier, a number of coincidences) at the end, but the characters should be able to take those, and twist them into opportunities. They shouldn’t be a “get out of trouble free card”

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