Tuesday 3 April 2012

Coincidence Is Part Of Storytelling

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.
If you found this post of some small use, please give it a retweet. Cheers.

Trying to visit as many A2Zers as I can. Leave a comment and I'll do likewise. Follow the blog and I'll follow back (as long as you leave your blog address is either in a comment or in your profile).


Anonymous said...

What an interesting writing post. I've always known that coincidences can't be too "convenient," but I'd never given much thought to how much we as writers actually use them in our writing. Very thought provoking! Thanks for posting --I'll definitely be back to haunt your writing posts again. :)


Michael Di Gesu said...

Hey, Mood,

Helpful as always. Definitely something to think about when incorporating a coincidence into a story.

Sari Webb said...

Mood, this is a great post, and sums up my thoughts exactly and in a far more eloquent way. I've been doing an internship reading slush recently, and one of the big issues that I have on a regular basis is when coincidences happen that are just TOO convenient.

Lisa Campbell said...

I've been seeking out and devouring great writing tips lately. I've just started writing my first attempt at fiction and coincidence certainly plays a part, but I don't want to overdo it. Thanks for the post!

I'm doing the whole A to Z thing too over at my humble blog All Things Campbell.

Veronica Sicoe said...

Interesting post, Mooderino. I believe that coincidences in fiction shouldn't be coincidences at all, but incidents carefully arranged and hinted at by the writer, rooted in the reality of the story and following logically out of previously mentioned elements. But I guess this all depends on how you define coincidence.

Anyway, great choice of topic and you're most certainly right that readers crave for the one in a million chance of the great stuff happening before their eyes! ;)

mooderino said...

@erin-thanks, I'll be checking out your site too.

@Michael-cheers. I'm enjoying your riddles over on your site, btw.

@Sari-I think when things don't work the immediate response is to get rid of it, but what's really needed is to learn to do it better.

@Lisa-the internet is a great place to find the answers, although not so great at telling you how to implement them. Trial and error will probably be your best teacher.

@vero-the fact that their are coincidences in real life (sometimes very weird ones) means there's a place for them in fiction. Although it isn't always handled very well.

Sophia said...

I'm such a dork, but the '[s]earch your feelings' line totally made me laugh. And very good point; I read (somewhere?) that coincidences that make things worse for the character/s are more easily accepted by readers than ones that make things better, because, you know, bad stuff happens all the time. Good stuff? Not so much. Or something.

mooderino said...

@sophia-I do wonder how many people got that joke and how many think I'm just a very melodramatic person.

I do think placement of coincidences makes a bif difference to how they're received.

Darlene Steelman said...

It is interesting that you chose coincidence as your C word... I love it.

I think it would be difficult to convey a coincidence in writing(or even a movie) unless outwardly spoken.

Like the broccoli incident, yes, that would be silly.

Great post!

Anonymous said...

Great ideaf or a post. There are times when I am reading that either too many coincidences happen or they are too predictable. That can be grossly disappointing.

mooderino said...

@darlene-thanks for commenting, off to check out your site.

@rebecca-I think you have to choose your moment. Too much or too obvious is bad for all elements of storytelling.

Simon Kewin said...

Great post; you sum it up perfectly. Thanks for dropping by my blog!

Rena Lesué said...

I tried to think of a real life example, but all I could come up with is that I married a guy that was in my English class when we were in 11th grade and learning about The Scarlet Letter. He was a TERRIBLE student then.

Now I teach 11th grade and The Scarlet Letter. He's in grad school and his professor thinks he's Yale material. WTW?!

I guess that's more irony.

Visiting from A to Z.

Rena at prose-spective.blogspot.com

mooderino said...

@simon-thanks for returning the favour.

@rena-maybe you helped his brain develop. Do you feed him a lot of fish?

@Karen-Excellent. Your University of Mooderino diploma is in the post.

Matthew MacNish said...

Excellent point, Moody. It's one of those things that almost impossible to define, but easy to recognize.

farawayeyes said...

Hi Moody,nice to meet you.

In writing coincidence can be fun,in real life I don't believe there is any such animal. Everything happens for a reason. Sometimes it takes eons to see the reason but alas it's there.

Unknown said...

very timely! My WIP needs a coincidence of names. But since it's set in Portugal where everyone's a Maria or José then I think I can probably manage to make it plausible!

Rachna Chhabria said...

Very interesting post on coincidences. Convenient coincidences can make a reader feel cheated, but not a coincidence that a writer has worked hard on and which has a sense of credibility to it.

Fran@Broken Cookies Don't Count said...

I've had some pretty far out coincidences in my life, so I almost Always believe them in books!

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

My biggest thing in writing is trying to create the illusion that coincidence is not in fact fabrication. I guess that all comes out in the wash.

T. Powell Coltrin said...

Coincidence to me must not look like such in a story, but as in life, it is there.


mooderino said...

@Matthew-I think it's the complex stuff most writing sites/books tend to stay away from. But reading a book and writing a book are as different as building a clock and being able to tell the time. One's a lot more complicated than the other.

@farawayeyes-I have no way of knowing if that's true or not.

@susan-I know of a Portuguese Christiano.

@Rachna-I think readers can sense when a coincidence enhances a story and when it's just a cheat to get out of a tricky predicament.

@Fran-I'm sure the ones in your life were much more amazing than the ones in books.

@Michael-I think there are techniques to hiding coincidence, the first step being to be aware of them.


Anonymous said...

Hi Mooderino,

I agree - coincidence can be an effective tool when used in the "right" way. I'm willing to suspend a little belief when I'm reading. Plus, I've had a few real-life coincidences that seemed weirder than fiction. :)

Love the visual, by the way: Luke wielding a stalk of broccoli instead of a light saber.

(Found you via A - Z. Have fun this month!)

Shay said...

I have to say, I would not have loved the Star Wars saga as much if Vader's cryptonite was broccoli. LOL

Found you on A-Z. Looking forward to reading more:)
Think my link is in my profile, but not sure, so here it is: http://shannan-afterwife.blogspot.com/

Catherine Noble said...

Excellent post! There definitely is a fine line between coincidental and contrived! The broccoli scenario did give me a chuckle though :)

mooderino said...

@Tracy-the weird coincidences in real life are worth being amazed about, the ones in fiction aren't so impressive because they are easy to arrange.

@Shay-thanks for dropping by, will check your site out.


Theresa Milstein said...

Definitely a lot of coincidences in books. If they are almost unbelievable, I appreciate when the authors acknowledges it somehow. Makes it more believable somehow.

Fairview said...

Another great post. You lay it out so clearly. Do you teach by chance? If not, you should!

mooderino said...

@theresa-true, characters acknowledging what's odd in the story really helps convince the reader you're in control.

@fairview-no, I just act like I know what I'm talking about.

PR said...

Interesting. I'm new to writing and this had been a great help, thank you :)

Universal Gibberish

mooderino said...

@Anna-nice to have you here.

Golden Eagle said...

Great post about coincidence!

The Golden Eagle
The Eagle's Aerial Perspective

Sharkbytes (TM) said...

I think is to make to coincidences at least plausible so that readers don't feel as if they were tricked. I'm trying to visit all the blogs in the A-Z Challenge.

mooderino said...


@sharkbytes-a lot depends on the context and type of story you're writing.

KjM said...

"Search your feelings, you know it’s true."

Had to smile at that. "Convenient" in a story gets viewed as laziness on the part of the writer, but when well-woven into the fabric of the story, the reader sees it as inevitable - and believable.

Excellent post on writing.

Margo Berendsen said...

With a little creativity you can make coincidence believable - sometimes it spawns interesting plot twists.

Beth MacKinney said...

Great post. : ) Thank you.

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