The Art of Coincidence

Have you ever watched a television show or a movie and said “No Way!” to a sequence of events that were just too improbable?  Did the plot seem way too dependant on luck?

Suspending belief is a key piece to enjoying some movies, but sometimes the creators simply take too many liberties with the audience.  As writers, we must be careful not to fall into that trap or we lose credibility.

Does that mean that we should avoid the use of coincidence and luck in our writing?  Absolutely not, after all, what is life but a series of unexpected events?  It just means that we shouldn’t use them as a crutch; they should be used sparingly but with surgical precision to move the story along.

Take, for example, the comic book industry.  How many of the key characters went from being some ordinary schmo on the street to a superpowered hero because of a miraculous chain of events? 

Or look at a more mainstream fiction example.  What is the likelihood that an expert in symbology will be present in Paris at exactly the same time that a certain albino zealot murders a museum curator (who had the expert’s name in his day-planner for a meeting, no less)?

In both examples, something (or some things) extremely improbably happened, either to create motive or plot.  But isn’t that exactly how life works too? 

A waitress serving a table is discovered by a movie producer or a man gets hit by a falling pane of glass from an office tower (that had been run into by a bird the previous day).  In both cases, the outcome could never have been foreseen and in both, the lives of the central characters are changed (or ended) forever.

The biggest thing to keep in mind is Use Coincidence sparingly and usually only as a seed, not as the fertilizer (It’s safe to use coincidence to start a story, but not grow it too much).  And never, EVER, use it to end the story.  Nothing can kill a good tale like the illicit use of ‘Deus ex Machina’.

To paraphrase the Bard:  “To use or not to use… that is the question”  I guess to properly answer that you need to remember that, what is life but a series of random events (unless you believe that everything has already been foretold and I’m afraid I have nothing of use to say to you)?  To me, the answer is (and must be):  use it in moderation and only to move ahead, never to end.

Good writing.


One comment

  1. A great phrase I picked up from the writing podcast Get Published is: plot twists/reveals should be unexpected but inevitable; meaning you didn’t expect it, but it makes sense when you think back on the story, it could happen. On another note, some of the things you mention above not to do are why I didn’t like the movie X3. I LOVED X-Men 1 & 2, but X3 had me saying “Really? Come on now! Really, everyone coming over on the bridge?” It was all over the top for me, I forget who directed it, but it wasn’t Bryan Singer, the director of the first two movies, and I think that’s mostly why I didn’t like the 3rd, different director made a huge difference to me, I could tell it was someone else directing it. The director of novels is (obviously) the writer/author, and these comments you give are ones to pay attention to. Nice post. I think sometimes it’s easy to think, could this really happen? But life is crazy like that. There really is so much to crafting a good story isn’t there? I think I’ll read more of your posts to help me in that endeavor.

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