Authors: Can Plot and Coincidence Ever Work Together?

bride-looking-surprised-1111629-mToday our ongoing discussion about plot, and the most invasive (yet common) plotting flaws, will focus on coincidences. Readers love to complain about them…. When your plot gets so convoluted that the only solution is a coincidence that’s too convenient, too lucky, and too farfetched, you know you’ve got some rewriting to do.

I’ve totally been there. My very first novel has lots of coincidences like that, which is one of many reasons why, as dear as that awful story is to me, I’ll never attempt to publish it.

Here are some coincidence examples from my cliche-ridden story about a knight and a princess who fall in love, realize it can never be and decide to move on, then join together to save their kingdom from a scheming duke whose allies kill them in the process:

(Yeah. It’s that bad.)

  • The knight and princess meet by chance at one day when she sneaks out of the Palace to go to the market and walk around
  • When they meet, the knight is with his best friend’s sister, who happens to be in love with him but is too shy to say anything about it
  • The knight’s father, who left his wife and son years ago, happens to be at a tavern, with his lover, one day when the knight and his friends also make an appearance.
  • Eventually, when on his way to meet the princess, the knight hears about the princess’s impeding betrothal by eavesdropping on a conversation between two dukes who are walking together after dark in the same deserted market streets where the knight and princess first met.

So, how bad actually are these coincidences? There are lots of factors to weigh in deciding whether a coincidence can work for you in your plot.

After all, coincidences happen in real life, and no rule says they can’t happen in your fiction. Anything that’s a part of life is fair game for a believable, good, and cohesive story.

(There are very few hard and fast “rules” I apply to myself or to others in writing. Even if a device is generally overused, abused, or used poorly, there are a story and an author out there that can make use of it to great effect.

I advise second guessing, and getting beta reader input, and making sure you can articulate WHY you are using a device such as coincidence. I suggest making sure you can defend  what that device brings to your story that you can’t deliver another way. I don’t say, “Never write coincidences.”)

Coincidence is one of those plot devices that work best when used sparingly. Consider:

  • HOW MANY COINCIDENCES DO YOU HAVE? One good, solid coincidence can fit well within the suspension of a reader’s disbelief. Four or five? Not so much. That was one big problem with coincidence in my first novel: the sheer number of coincidences was just too much to feel credible.
  • HOW LIKELY/ BELIEVABLE IS A COINCIDENCE IN THE WORLD OF YOUR STORY? Remember how my princess and knight ran into each other in the market? I made sure to write into the story that the princess sneaks out to the market pretty regularly, if not every day. That makes the coincidence of the meeting a bit more believable than if this was the first and only occasion their meeting was a possibility. The obvious correlation here: the more unlikely a coincidence is to happen, the weaker it will feel to your readers as a legitimate plot progression.
  • WHAT ROLE DOES COINCIDENCE PLAY IN YOUR PLOT DEVELOPMENT? Generally, I feel that coincidence works better–in that it feels much less forced–as a device to begin a plot or subplot rather than to end one. When you need coincidence to wrap things up, you disappoint readers because you have written characters, and asked readers to invest in characters, who can’t get things done without substantial help from the universe/fate/karma/God.
  • HOW CRITICAL IS COINCIDENCE TO PLOT DEVELOPMENT? Is it the hinge on which everything turns? Or is it a smaller factor, one of many pieces that work together to solve a puzzle? Another obvious connection, but one that it’s worth breaking down as a writer: The more critical to the story mere coincidence is, the more likely it is to weaken the fabric of your plot.

THE COINCIDENCE THAT ISN’T A COINCIDENCE

One thing that I’ve always loved as a reader, at least in the mystery/whodunit genre, is the surprise “coincidence that isn’t.”

You know what I mean: what a main character, and you the reader, judge to be a coincidence turns out to be the product of carefully planning and/or manipulation. It’s not a coincidence at all.

This can be a fun device if, again, not too much hinges on it (depending on genre) and the “coincidence” isn’t too unbelievable or ridiculous.

Remember, there will be a period of time that a reader will judge the “coincidence” to be a genuine, real chance occurrence. And if it’s just too outlandish or unlikely, some readers might stop reading before the truth comes out. That’s never good.

ALL ISN’T LOST

Never forget that editing after the fact (after a draft or two) might help you tone down a problem coincidence, if you have one.

Reforming your plot in a major way might be your best option, but depending on the circumstances, you might be able to lower the prominence, up the degree of likelihood, and bring down the importance factor of a trouble coincidence.

I’ve done this…. I’ve changed dates and locations of coincidences to settings that make more sense. I’ve altered the setup of coincidences–the “just before”–so that a coincidence feels less forced and feels less critical. I’ve toned down the content of coincidences, cutting some factors so that my coincidence involves two things lining up instead of three or four.

Don’t underestimate the value of a little tweak, or even two or three little tweaks to the scenario that is too coincidental! The effect of small changes can prove larger than the sum of their parts.

So, what do you think about coincidence in plot? Where for you, as a reader, does the line get crossed? When is something just too lucky? What are your guidelines for coincidence as a writer? How do you handle it as a plot device?

If you liked this post, you can sign up to follow my blog by email at the top right of the page. You might also enjoy these other posts on plot…. and don’t forget to drop by Wednesday, for the continuation of this “plot issue” series. We’ll be moving on to pacing your plot development.

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42 responses to “Authors: Can Plot and Coincidence Ever Work Together?

  1. I don’t like coincidence in most genre. I am finding; however, that in the crime novel/murder mystery genre, without any coincidence there are just too many players in the mix. There has to be something that clicks in the reader’s mind…Oh yeah!, I get that now. It just can’t be too obvious.

  2. Yes, I’m always wary of coincidences. Totally agree that using them to clean up towards the end is not a good thing. Cringe-worthy, in fact. But I’m a bit of a fan of the coincidence that isn’t. They often provide a good twist. But as you say, use them sparingly or you lose the reader. Great post!

  3. I think a little coincidence isn’t bad because there’s always that factor of chance even in life. You happen to run into an old friend who helps you get a job. The day you leave late for work, you find you could have been in an accident if you left earlier (been there twice!). There’s a level of chance that one can deal with such as minor events. Yet, I don’t think more than 2 major plot events should be coincidence-based.
    That first coincidence from your book sounds like how Aladdin and Jasmine met. I think a lot of characters meet that way. Even in real life, we make friends simply by ‘stumbling’ into them at some point.

    • It’s funny you say that…. I think “Aladdin” was definitely an influence on that scene! 🙂 I definitely agree that there is a place for some level of coincidence in good fiction, because as you point out, it’s a part of life, some days a very big one. WOW to the two avoided accidents!

      • I think the romantic meeting is traditionally a coincidence. Been a long time, but I think that’s how Romeo & Juliet met too. I use it in my books as well.

        The accidents were pretty messy. For one, a coworker who knew my route and schedule thought I was in it because they saw the same type of car in the mess.

        • oh my gosh! that’s awful!!! glad you were running late, wow!

          And you’re right about Romeo and Juliet…. Doesn’t he sneak into her family’s party or something? And hide the fact that he’s a Montague at first? I think that’s what happens. His friends take him there to get his mind off some OTHER girl who wasn’t interested!

        • I’m trying to remember. Romeo & Juliet was read to me, so I didn’t enjoy it. I had more fun acting out Julius Caesar. Those were the only two I did in high school for some reason. Unless I skipped Hamlet because I didn’t like the name. I do remember trying to claim that being Jewish prevented me from reading ‘unkosher’ stories.

        • I need to read Julius Caesar!!! Always wanted to. One of the Shakespearean works I never picked up (and I had to read tons in college). I wish I could say I’d acted in a Shakespeare Play at any point.

        • It definitely an interesting story and can be bland, but we each got a part in the class. So, we had fun with it.

  4. I agree with your observation that coincidence is better used to introduce a plot point than to end one. As Charles commented, coincidences are part of life, so using them occasionally can be a good technique. And I do love a coincidence that isn’t–not easy to do well, though, is it?

  5. Good thoughts. This reminds me of Pixar’s rule of storytelling — coincidences are OK to get characters into trouble, not OK to get them out of trouble. So yes, I agree that coincidences might only belong earlier in the story and not later … except for that one genius who figures out how to craft a satisfying coincidental climax.

    • If only I could be that genius, haha!!! 😛 I agree…. there is always that one person who can fly in the face of the “rules” to great success, both artistic and in terms of acclaim.

  6. Coincidence is part of the plot which any of us as authors tries to build. It is an important part of any story that needs interesting, horrible, tragic, romantic elements. It depends on an author how he treats a plot in his story or novel. At http://literaryyard.com/, we have published a number of stories where coincidence is well-woven into a plot of a story.

  7. I think the issue is when the coincidence becomes confused with fate and every movement of the characters becomes based off of it. I like gentle coincidences rather than glaringly obvious ones.

  8. I was lucky that my first novel was a murder mystery, and so I automatically linked every plot point together somehow. I think that’s one of the reasons I still have some desire to see it in publication one day.

    However, I agree that to say ‘never write coincidences’ might be too strong. I like that you wrote, “Even if a device is generally overused, abused, or used poorly, there are a story and an author out there that can make use of it to great effect.” I’ve read some stories where, looking back, coincidence was a factor, but the writers have disguised/used it well.

    • I’m so glad to have back up on that point! 🙂 Thanks! “Coincidence” is such a broad generalization/ category…. there are all kinds of coincidences, and they all can have a different role or purpose in an individual story.

  9. The very idea of trying to work and plan out a ‘coincidence’ that rides smooth and not suspicious gives me a headache!

  10. I just happened to be browsing the web for conversations about coincidence in writing when I stumbled across… oh, wait. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist!)

    I enjoy stories with seemingly isolated, unconnected characters introduced one by one before (eventually) revealing their crossed paths as coincidental meetings.

    As you’ve stated, coincidence can be an energizing springboard to kick off the plot. Alfred Hitchcock’s films did that beautifully. (The fleeing embezzler stops at a twisted taxidermist’s hotel, the convalescing photographer notices suspicious activity across the courtyard, the dashing advertiser stumbles into a murder-by-spy scene and ends up scaling presidential rock faces…)

    Of course, once Hitchcock orchestrated his protagonists’ perils, he left them fighting for themselves (or with allies) until they either resolved their dilemmas–or didn’t. No lightening struck down his villains in time to save the damsels.

  11. I’m glad I read this post, because I’m in the middle of a draft and I’m wondering if I have one too many coincidences. I’ll have to investigate that in revision.

    • Revision is the time to worry about that, for sure! If you’re in the middle of a first draft I wouldn’t stop writing 🙂 Glad you found the post timely, L. Marie! Coincidence is such a tricky thing in writing, isn’t it?

  12. I completely agree about coincidence, and loved how you mentioned that it’s okay to set something up, but definitely not to wrap it up.
    As far as romance, I think “coincidence” is the most common way people meet. Heck, I can technically trace my life back to my dad one day having a pesky headache.
    When using this technique to get the plot rolling, or even be the seed of the novel/story, it is more “Providence” than “coincidence.” I suppose “providence” in a way is a sort of “coincidence that isn’t a coincidence.”

    Much of our lives are formed by this. So I don’t really have any problem with that. It’s when there is a lot of “just happened to” or “stumbling upon” …it’s like the ones who work hard to earn their victory are cheated by those who “just happen to be in the right place at the right time.”

  13. There is no such thing as coincidence. There, I said it.

    In fiction, if something seems like coincidence, it’s because it hasn’t been explained enough. I’ve read some stories written in third person omniscient that explored the reasons for different characters to do what they did, and from any one character’s viewpoint, what happened would have seemed like coincidence. But each character’s actions were explained, so the reader knew that what happened was not coincidence. I rather enjoy those kind of stories.

    One book I’m reading now is “Web of Light,” by Kyra Dune. Each chapter has five sections, each section told from the perspective of a different character. The first section of each chapter is dedicated to one specific character. The second section of each chapter is dedicated to another specific character. And so on, for five different characters. So you get to know the motivations for everything each of the five characters do. Through conversations those five have with other characters, you can anticipate actions of additional characters too. So nothing feels coincidental to the reader, but you can imagine how coincidental some things feel to the characters. It’s fun to watch the events unfold!

    I met my wife at a contra dance. It felt like coincidence to me at the time. But she was a regular at the dances. I had started going to the dances because I was going through a difficult time and wanted to get out and meet people. While it felt like coincidence, it wasn’t.

    Coincidences are simply events not explained fully. You might go back to your first story and write some scenes about those other characters who just happen to be where you needed them to be, and explain their reasons as to why they’re there, doing what they’re doing and saying what they’re saying. Then you won’t have those ugly coincidences.

    Of course, it’s tougher when your stories are like most of mine, written from the viewpoint of a single character. Explanations of events sometimes need to be delayed. They can still be made, as long as, like you said, you don’t lose the reader before you get to the explanations.

    Great post, as usual, Victoria. You always give your readers something good to mull over.

    • WOW, this comment is so awesome! I had never thought of it in that way….I guess an author could take any coincidence, in some way, and tone it down by adding an explanation that removes the big coincidence factor.

      I would disagree that there is no such thing as coincidence in fiction…. There can be, if an author presents it that way. But I really love your point that depending on how something is presented what was presented as a coincidence can be changed so that it isn’t.

      “How I Met Your Mother” does that a lot, I think. With Ted’s, “Had I done this….” or “To understand this, you have to go back to the month before, when….”

      • I was being dramatic in saying that there are no such things as coincidences. 🙂 Events coincide with other events all the time. My point is that the reason events feel coincidental is because the reasons for those events are not explained well enough. Of course, the explanation might be boring and thus not story-worthy. It’s in those cases when the author will want to present events as coincidences, and when the author should consider whether such presentation will be well received by the reader.

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  16. Another helpful post, thank you so much! I think it’s interesting how writers themselves run into coincidences when writing plots. Oftentimes I find myself thinking through plot scenarios and I realize a few similarities between events that can lead to a great “coincidence that wasn’t” when in reality … it was by total mistake I thought of it.

    It almost makes me feel guilty!

    • hahaha! I feel the same way sometimes. I’m always running myself into coincidences. It’s kind of awful 🙂 But fun in its way too. I like laughing at myself, at least when I can figure out a way to make things better down the road and improve my plot

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