Coincidence is a recognized element in “real life.” All of us have anecdotes about those times when, by the merest coincidence, we avoided some disaster or stumbled onto some wonderful experience.
My personal favorite series of coincidences involve the narrow margin by which I nearly did not meet Roger Zelazny, a person who would become very important in my life. At this time, Roger and I had only exchanged a handful of quite formal, if cordial, notes. I thought that would be it.
Then Coincidence One hit. A friend mentioned to me that, although his office didn’t usually receive such materials, a flyer for a science fiction convention had come in his mail. He went on, “The writer who has been kind enough to answer a couple of your letters is the guest of honor.”
I’d never been to an SF convention. Neither had any of my friends. We decided to check this one out. I wrote Mr. Zelazny and asked if he would mind if I introduced myself. (This was back in the days of snail mail).
Many days passed, and I received no reply. I concluded that I had overstepped the bounds of propriety. My friends and I would still go to the convention. I would attend talks and readings, but I would not put myself forward.
The day before the convention, a plastic bag containing a mutilated piece of paper arrived in my mailbox.
Within the bag, in fragments, was Roger’s reply, along with an apology from the U.S. Postal System for the damage. Once I pieced the letter together, it proved to contain Roger’s polite comment that he anticipated “with pleasure” our possible meeting. (Aside: Roger and I would correspond for many years thereafter. Not a single letter after that one was lost or mutilatedonly that one, life-changing missive.)
Had that letter arrived a day later, or had some embarrassed postal worker decided that it belonged in the trash, my life would have been radically different. I certainly would not now be living in New Mexico. Even more strangely, I would not be married to the gentleman with whom I am about to celebrate a twelfth anniversary.
Two big coincidences. A flyer for an event reaching a source that normally didn’t receive such materials. A letter that almost didn’t make it, arriving just in time to keep my inherent shyness from preventing me from speaking to someone I respected, and who I felt had already been very kind.
If I were to write these experiences as part of a story, an editor would probably say: “That’s really a bit much, isn’t it? Can’t we have either the coincidental flyer or the mutilated letter? Isn’t both stretching believability? Go with the mutilated letter. There’s drama there. Your character can learn about the convention in some other way. Maybe she works in a bookstore, and they get convention flyers all the time.”
The odd thing is that, even though this would be a violation of what actually happened, the editor would probably be right. Most writers and editors of fiction will agree that, while a story can handle one coincidence, two is stretching matters, and three is “right out.”
Why is this? Well, one reason is that overuse or abuse of coincidence makes the story seem contrived, the events within forced. This in turn comes across as sloppy plotting. If the only way the writer can make the plot work is to repeatedly have someone “coincidentally” overhear key conversations, or by chance discover important documents, the reader feels somehow cheated, as if the characters in the story aren’t “real” people, but are instead pawns to be pushed about the story board.
If the hero “coincidentally” finds he has a key that will fit the prison lock, or the heroine discovers her latent magical powers (with no prior hint these existed) just in time to save everyone from disaster, again, the story seems thin and contrived.
The abuse of coincidence is one reason many stories based on role-playing games don’t work. Maybe the situation has changed now, since games are played more and more on computers, but I recall hearing an editor say about such stories that, at a particularly improbable turn of events, “you could hear the dice rolling.” Sadly, this was too often true. When challenged, the eager writer would say, “But that’s how it happened! I rolled it!”
A common complaint about stories that include excessive coincidence is that the story is “unrealistic.” When a writer is already stretching the bounds of reality by writing within a science fiction or fantasy setting, that writer must realize that excessive coincidence makes the fictional reality the writer is creating less “real.”
This isn’t to say that there isn’t room for coincidence in good speculative fiction. One might argue that the entire sub-genre of alternate history revolves around taking actual incidents, splitting them so they don’t coincide, and then investigating the ramifications.
In any story, drama may be intensified by the characters realizing by how narrow a margin they had managed to succeed that is, where coincidence played a role. This is one of the more realistic ways to use coincidence, because rarely do we realize how important a coincidental event is until after the fact. However, sometimes it’s just plain fun to include a coincidental meeting or event that becomes a turning point for the story.
The trick is not to over-use coincidence, no matter how “real” such events might be in daily life. Real life can be contrived, but the same does not hold true for fiction.