Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Coincidence? I think not…


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!

10 comments on “Coincidence? I think not…

  1. Phillip McCollum
    July 1, 2014

    And there was poor Lana, thinking the green coloring in her smoothie was from the kale…

    Nice post. Exaggeration is the essence of good fiction, I think, but as you say, careful exaggeration usually works best.

  2. ericjbaker
    July 1, 2014

    I maintain that, as long as one’s line-level prose is flawless, readers will forgive any other weaknesses we have as writers. My go-to example is Stephen King. Name a creative-writing rule, and he usually breaks it within three pages. His plots are paper thin and most of his novels are overblown short stories, but his prose is so effortless and refined that you just sail along until the book ends. They scary parts are scary, you worry about the characters, and everything burns down on the last page. Best seller.

    My problem with coincidence is when it becomes a glaring contrivance. Like that bucket of water that just happns to be sitting there for Dorothy to pick up and throw on the Wicked Witch.

    To your first point, I’ve experienced some real-life coincidences that would never fly in fiction.

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 2, 2014

      You’re probably right about the prose. It makes it seem as if they author knows what he’s doing, even if, maybe not.

      Good example, that bucket of water. I guess the castle janitor was there a few minutes before and forgot his bucket.

  3. John W. Howell
    July 1, 2014

    Thank you for this. You always have such good thoughts about writing.

  4. 1WriteWay
    July 4, 2014

    I like it when you reflect on writing, what works and doesn’t work … or, in this case, what might not seem to work except in the hands of a good writer. It’s interesting that you mention the end of Dr. Zhivago. It actually seemed plausible to me, that the doctor would see Lara at that moment. I’ve had enough experiences like that. That he could not get her attention heightened the tragedy of their love affair. While I wanted him to be with her again, if he had and then was able to die in her arms, well, that would have been too much. And, as you say, dying without seeing her at all would been a WTF moment.

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 4, 2014

      Thanks, Marie. I don’t like to pontificate a lot, but when I land on something writerly I’m either dealing with in a WIP or feel strongly about I don’t mind chiming in.

      Can you imagine that scene in Zhivago if he’s just sitting in his seat as Lara walks by, neither of them the wiser? Sounds like the MAD Magazine version…

      • 1WriteWay
        July 4, 2014

        Maybe you should write a revision of Dr. Zhivago 🙂 You might even make him a vampire hunter. I saw an ad on my Kindle for a novel that takes one of Charles Dickens’ characters and makes him a vampire hunter. I was so appalled I immediately swiped the image away and forgot the character. But, hey, apparently there’s a market for this sort of book 😉

      • Kevin Brennan
        July 4, 2014

        Yeah, here’s a great tag line: “Dr. Zhivago. He makes house calls, but only at night.”

        In this version he’s actually a vampire, but he only takes the blood of terminal patients. Hippocratic Oath, dontcha know…

      • 1WriteWay
        July 4, 2014

        I love the tag line!

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This entry was posted on July 1, 2014 by in Publishing.
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