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?