Coincidence is an important part of most stories. People have to meet, things have to happen at the appropriate time, connections need to be made.
In some cases ridiculous coincidences that would never happen in real life are the only way to make a story work in a satisfying manner. The need for fantasy/wish fulfilment in storytelling is a very strong instinct within all of us. It’s why we like stories in the first place.
The lovers bump into each other again; the miracle cure is found; the million to one shot works.
I’d go as far as to say any story with a happy ending probably got a little help from coincidence along the way.
When a story is well written but things don’t turn out well, even though it may be poignant and deeply meaningful, there’s a part in all of us that goes, oh if only... Because we have that desire for ourselves, that hope that it will all work out despite the odds against it.
Of course, coincidence happens in real life. The difference in fiction is that the writer can make anything happen at any time, so it’s a lot easier to arrange. In real life a coincidence can have staggering odds against it happening. One in a million. One in a trillion. And it’s stupefying when it happens anyway. In fiction it may appear to be the same, but in fact the odds are always the same no matter how unlikely the event: one in one.
This power to turn even the most rare occurrence into a certainty is open to abuse. It’s so easy to make the roulette wheel stop on Red 18 a hundred times in a row that it becomes meaningless. But it’s also an ability that enables us to create great stories. And readers have an innate understanding and expectation of this.
If I write as story that switches between two unrelated protagonists, the reader will be waiting for the two storylines to intersect. It has to happen, otherwise what’s the point?
Was it a coincidence Darth Vader was Luke’s father? No, it was part of the plan all along, we just weren’t privy to that plan until the second film.
Would we have cared if they hadn’t been related? Probably not. But by providing a reason for why Luke’s power was as strong as Vader’s it gave meaning to the connections that had appeared to be random. So while coincidence is acceptable in many circumstances, it isn’t as powerful as cause and effect.
However, if it had turned out Darth Vader’s weakness was an allergy to broccoli, and Luke just happened to have a stalk of the stuff in his pocket from lunch, that coincidence would not have been acceptable. Not because it was so unlikely (or stupid), but because it was so convenient.
When a coincidence is too convenient, when it allows easy success, then it becomes useless for the story. If it enables characters to have the perfect tools for the job just when they need them, then that will be seen as an abuse of the writer’s power.
But coincidence is definitely a valid tool to use in your story, if you use it properly. Search your feelings, you know it’s true.
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