Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
One reason I posted the tale of George Brennan last week was to make a subtle point about the use of coincidence in fiction. For some reason, we expect — and almost yearn for — outrageous coincidence in real life, but we seem to loathe it in fiction.
Or at least we say we do.
Yet so many classic novels and plays rely on coincidence to make their plots work. In movies it happens all the time too; primary characters are always running into each other on the street (in Manhattan, no less — what are the odds?), lovers happen to spot each other in the act of cheating, and superheroes miss being lased by less than a hair’s width as the villain rails maniacally. So how come creative writing gurus will tell you to eschew coincidence or risk appearing amateur?
Phooey on that. Like so many other literary techniques, the use of coincidence is only as good as the writer’s skill.
Let’s face it, there are natural coincidences and unnatural ones. Natural ones feel like they’re within the realm of possibility in context. They seem like something real life might dish up. Unnatural ones come out of the dark and slap the reader upside the head, which, though sometimes effective and even believable, can backfire and pull the reader out of the fictional world you’ve been so careful to build. And sometimes something that really happened to you doesn’t translate well into fiction because it’s just not plausible. True, but implausible. Like George Brennan.
By the same token, predictable coincidences that you see can coming a few hundred miles away soil your story like road apples. I find that the best coincidences aren’t really noticeable till later. “Hey, this story would have fallen apart if Chad hadn’t come along just then to keep Lana from drinking that poisoned smoothie!” You’re just so relieved that Lana isn’t dead that you didn’t notice how unlikely Chad’s timely appearance was. It’s a workday after all.
I don’t know if it’s in the book or not, but I just thought of the end of Dr. Zhivago, when the doc, on a streetcar, sees Lara walking alongside. Seriously, really? But if he died of a heart attack without having had a glimpse of her, we’d go, WTF? That’s it?
And don’t get me started on Shakespeare. Othello alone is soaking in coincidence.
Stuff happens. And in novels, everything that happens is arranged. In a way, coincidence is just an exaggeration of some of the material every novel is made of. You just have to be suave about how you use it.
Think of Wile E. Coyote with a box of TNT. That’s how not to do it.
Meanwhile: Please vote!