Fri
Jan 16 2009 2:34pm

Coincidence or Contrivance?

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 mutilated—only 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.

11 comments
Jane Noel
1. noelx99
It's interesting how we enjoy and are sometimes amazed by a string of "coincidences" in real life when that exact same string of coincidences would be just awful in a story. Where coincidences seem to add interest to the reality, they take the interest away from ficition.

Looking at the coincidences in your life, it makes you want to contemplate your own alternate histories. What would have happened if...
Paul Howard
2. DrakBibliophile
Isn't there a saying "fiction has to make sense, reality doesn't"?


Drak
Jon Evans
3. rezendi
You can sometimes get away with coincidences because they make sense in the larger context of the story. For instance, if you have two separate storylines going on in one book, readers are preconditioned to expect them to intersect at some point, so it won't feel contrived when it happens. Or if you open a book with a coincidence, it's an inciting event, not a contrivance.

You can also play the "hand of Destiny" card, although I don't personally much care for that.

Some authors - I'm thinking of Paul Auster, here - can milk this larger-story-structure/theme to somehow get away with repeated coincidences that don't seem like complete contrivances. I'm not entirely sure how Auster manages this, but he does.
Evan Langlinais
4. Skwid
I was watching an episode of "Numb3rs," recently, in which Charlie was giving a lecture on randomness, using two circles filled with dots as examples, saying that one was a truly random pattern of raindrops, and the other was man-made, and asked his class to guess which one they thought was which, and the vast majority were wrong. The pattern most of the class thought looked more random was simply more regularly distributed, which our minds are predisposed to perceive as random. In reality, random events are just as likely to form clusters as they are to be spaced away from any other individual instance.

My point being, of course, that random clusters of significant events happen in our lives all the time, because they are truly random. It is inherent in our nature, however, to attribute patterns to everything in our perception. In our own lives, sometimes we attribute these patterns to a higher power or psychic abilities, or whatever. In fiction, the higher power is a given: the author. So all patterns point towards them, and significant events must assume an unremarkably "even" distribution, even though "even" is exactly the opposite of random.
Jason Ramboz
5. jramboz
I remember reading something years ago talking about this sort of thing. I believe it was by Orson Scott Card, in the afterword to one the Bean books. He was talking specifically about alternate history and how it can't be half as unbelievable as real history or the audience (and, presumably, the editor) won't accept it.

I'm going from memory here, but the main point ran something to the effect of "History is really just a set of coincidences so bizarre and improbable that no one would ever believe them, except that they actually happened."

Or, in other words, truth is stranger than fiction is allowed to be.
Nina Lourie
6. supertailz
I feel as though this comment is nosy (feel free to tell me it's none of my business) but now I really want to know how he changed your life! How did you cause you live where you do and marry whom you married and and and...now I want the story:)

Other than that tease, a great post. I have - in the past - found myself saying "ok it could actually happen like that, but omg make it seem more real anyway!".
Mary Frances
7. Mary Frances
I've been trying to remember the context, and I can't, but I seem to recall reading an essay or introduction by a mystery writer once, pointing out that this "coincidence = unbelievable" point is particularly important in detective stories. Evidently, in real life, crimes are solved due to coincidence all the time; in fiction, crimes have to be solved rationally. That always struck me as an intriguing comment on both the nature of fiction and the nature of detective stories.
nat ward
8. smonkey
As far as I'm concerned we're riding on a wave-front of absurdly good luck.

I like to look at reality as an infinite multiverse and an we're one of the lucky ones that got this far on pure happenstance and any second now we're going to explode as our atoms get bored and go out for atom-coffee.
Mary Frances
9. Randwolf
I think our intuitions about what is "reasonable" are wrong. "'Million-to-one chances,' said, 'crop up nine times out of ten." Perhaps a way to look at this is that making realistic coincidences plausible is a part of the storytellers art.
Clark Myers
10. ClarkEMyers
For most purposes I'd push a different thought

- taking off from "Plot is a literary convention; story is a force of nature" (Teresa Nielsen Hayden)

I'd say the main stream of at least American and I'd say English language literature

-to include genre - as John Campbell once wrote SF includes everything from before the big bang to after the heat death mainstream literature with a contemporary focus is a small subset of genre.

is in line with the story as force of nature.

Both reality and cliff-hanger serials as well as various new wave and what some have called "New Yorker" plots that don't go anyplace (suddenly John Doe felt very tired) may use the hand of fate/author control (Teela Brown as a favorite character anyone?) effectively. Horatio Alger did well having his heroes succeed by coincidence and many SF stories start with a coincidence - be it winning a lottery so to speak (F.M. Busby) or losing a run-in with the police/enemy forces (some Pournelle) followed by story as force of nature.

Louis L'Amour had great success writing extended series that amounted to cliff hanger serials - painted into a corner an overlooked - no pistol in Act one to be used in Act 3 - trapdoor opens to relative safety and further adventures or a man comes through the door with a gun. L'Amour, perhaps like Patrick O'Brien, did a great deal of more or less plausible setup between published books - just as Zelazny wrote deliberate background he kept out of the published work to give a depth to the setting and characters so too coincidence outside the frame might have all the advantages and few of the defects.

In sum I'd say there's literature with minimal coincidence where the story is a force of nature (to include the noire where the payoff may be coincidence mediated but if not one coincidence than another Hitchock or William Sydney Porter style) and another style where perhaps coincidence is a force of nature.
Jane Lindskold
11. janelindskold
Interesting and thoughtful comments, here.

My addition -- I think a novel can bear more coincidences than a short story, simply because of size. However, I think the same balance remains. If every time there is a problem the writer can't handle the solution is a lucky coincidence, no matter how many pages are involved, the reader will become frustrated.

And for good reason!

Teela Brown and her "luck" is a great example of the brilliant exception that proves the rule. Louie Wu figures out her ability because too many coincidences surround her for plausibility.

I love that!


Supertalz: You asked how Roger Zelazny changed my life. Brief version. Met. Instant chemistry. Corresponded weekly, then daily for several years. Eventually, moved in together. I was at his side when he died.

Met Jim, my husband, through people I would not have met except for Roger. Feel very lucky.

A few more details on my website www.janelindskold.com.

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