The uses and abuses of coincidence
Coincidences happen in real life all the time…so why do editors swear under their breath when they come across a simple coincidence in a manuscript? Aren’t we supposed to be true to reality when we write? The answer to that second question is a flat out, “No.” Fiction has to be better than reality, cleaner, clearer, and above all else, more causal than random, messy reality. How unsatisfying would it be, for instance, to have your manly hero come down with shingles right before the climax and itch horribly all through his great moment—maybe even in too much pain to enjoy his victory? It can happen to anyone who had chickenpox as a child, and in mundane reality, it just might.
The Coincidence you can’t use: But of all the random things that happen in the real world, the convenient coincidence is a particular problem in manuscripts, because beginning writers tend to use coincidence to get their protagonists out of trouble, or to give them information they need, or to get them into the right place at the right time. In fact, coincidence is even worse than magic as an “easy button” for getting protagonists out of trouble. (see: Taking Away the “Easy” Button: Bell’s three rules for writing about magic.)
For example: The protagonist is wandering through the evil king’s castle, and he “happens” to hear voices coming from the king’s private office. He impulsively decides that it would be fun to eavesdrop on the king. And when he does, it just “happens” that the king is talking about an evil plot to wipe out the hero’s family. Our hero then flees from the guard who caught him eavesdropping (the guard “happened” to need to use the privy just before the hero walked by) the hero’s about to be trapped when he “happens” to fall though some conveniently rotted floorboards. And the tunnel he falls into just “happens” to lead to the hidden room that just “happens” to hold the one weapon that can pierce the evil king’s magical armor, and there “happens” to be a secret passage that takes him too…
The reason this is such a problem isn’t only that this hero is the luckiest guy alive. It’s because all these convenient coincidences make it possible for the protagonist to win without having to fight for it. And that makes him a weak character, and his story unsatisfying. It’s the hero’s struggle, and the grit, the brains, the courage he displays in that struggle, that makes him a hero. And this is true whether his struggle is to overthrow the evil king, or to find a home for a stray kitten.
The Coincidence you can use: So when can you use coincidence in a story? It’s simple—any coincidence that gets the protagonist into trouble is probably fine. When the guard caught our hero eavesdropping on the king’s plot, that’s a coincidence too—but it’s one no editor will have a problem with. (Unless they’re objecting to the fact that it’s also a cliché.) You can still go overboard, even with trouble-causing coincidences. If everything your protagonist touches goes wrong—particularly because of something that comes out of the blue—your story will start feeling fake. But you can rack up a reasonable number of coincidences—in a full novel, maybe as many as three or four major ones—as long as they all make things harder for your hero.
For example: One of my favorite scenes in a TV shoot-em-up was one in which the hero was driving a rental car across the desert, with the bad guys in hot pursuit. He was a reporter, and didn’t carry a gun. You’re watching this chase from a far off perspective so you can see both cars, and also how deserted this part of the desert is. The hero’s car starts moving slower, then slower, and then it stops. The hero gets out of his car, and goes to lean on the fender with his arms folded. The bad guys park behind him and approach cautiously, guns drawn. The hero finally looks up at them and says, “You’re not going to believe this, but I’m out of gas.”
That’s the kind of coincidence you can almost always use, because it increases suspense and escalates the difficulty of the story problem.
Another allowed Coincidence is the inciting incident that kicks off the story. The tornado “just happens” to pick up your protagonist and whisk her off to Oz. The gun-slinger “just happens” to ride into your hero’s town, picks a bar fight with the hero’s best friend and shoots him. When getting home from Oz or avenging the friend is the central story problem, it’s OK for that problem to have come out of nowhere. The inciting incident, which begins the story problem that your protagonist will struggle throughout the novel to solve, is the ultimate example of a coincidence that gets your protagonist into trouble.
“Then how to I get my hero into the hidden tunnel?” the writers wails. “He has to find that sword—it’s the only way to kill the king!” In fact, with just a little thought you can almost always get your hero into the exact same place your coincidences took him—and it will add to the strength of his character instead of weakening him. The secret is in the set up.
Avoiding Coincidences is almost always done with proper set up. I watched an episode of Castle some time ago, where the team needs to solve a mystery in Atlantic City, and they were also planning a bachelor party for one of the detectives. But 1) the bride’s teenage brother was going to be part of the bachelor party, which meant it had to be PG. So Castle decided to throw an unofficial bachelor party in Atlantic City during investigation. 2) As part of the party prep, Castle asks the hotel clerk what’s showing on main stage, and learns that there’s an Elvis impersonator convention at the hotel. 3) As part of the investigation they inspect casino security, and learn that the casino cameras work with facial recognition software. All these steps happen quite early in the episode. But at the end of the second act… 4) The casino owner shuts down the investigation and has them thrown out—they’re out of their jurisdiction, so he can. And they have to get back into hotel. 5) Castle sees rack of sparkly costumes being pushed into hotel. And 6) he realizes they can walk right through the front door, disguised as Elvis impersonators.
If the writers had skipped steps 1 through 3, and just come up with that solution at step 5 (Hey, look at those Elvis costumes. I bet there’s an Elvis impersonator convention going on. Hey, we could sneak in as Elvis impersonators.) it would have seemed “too convenient.” As it was, it came across as quick thinking. And the reason it came across that way was because all elements needed to make it work had been established early on, as a natural part the story.
Set up is also necessary to establish a sufficient the motive for your character’s actions. Remember when our hero “impulsively” decided that it would be fun to eavesdrop on the king’s conversation? That kind of thing is an even worse method than coincidence for getting your hero where you want him to go. Worse, because instead of simply making your story-world feel fake, it makes your hero look like an impulsive idiot. And it shouldn’t be too hard to create a good motive for the protagonist to eavesdrop on the king. Suppose it’s time for court appointments to be made, and he wants to see if his father will get the cabinet appointment he’s been lobbying for? Or better, if his father is about to be kicked off the cabinet, as the king’s been threatening. And as he strolled past the room, where the door had been propped open because it’s an unusually hot day, the words that caught his attention were, “…may have to make some difficult choices.” If you set it up right, seizing a chance to eavesdrop on the king’s conversation would be perfectly natural thing to do. Even if the hero knows it’s risky.
Can’t a protagonist ever do risky, stupid things? In fact, they can. You just have to set the situation up properly. The easiest way is to conceal information, so what turns out to have been a bad idea was a perfectly sensible choice, given the information the protagonist had. Turns out the scary, crazy dude with a skull tattooed on his forehead wasn’t the poisoner after all—it was the charming, pie-baking granny, who just asked for a lift to the end of the deserted lane and is now in the backseat of your car. Oops.
A little more difficult, but sometimes more rewarding, is to have your protagonist so heavily personally motivated that they’ll do something everyone knows is a bad idea…but they’re so driven they do it anyway. In my novel, Navohar, the heroine is a biologist who helped create a virus to repel an alien invasion, which later mutated and started affecting humans…including her beloved nephew. She’s spent her entire, obsessed life trying to find a cure for that virus, and she’s on the verge of finding it—but it’s in a place where primitive aliens will attack humans who linger in their territory for too long. When the warning drums sound, she tells herself that the aliens always hold off for a few hours before they attack, sometimes for several days. And she keeps saying, “Just a few more hours. Just a few more hours…” until, of course, the aliens attack. The reader knew they were going to attack, even Irene knew they were going to attack. But she’s such a driven character that it’s believable she’d push the safety limits too far.
One final thing worth noting is that doing detailed set up, and forcing your protagonist to work for his victory instead of lucking into it, not only makes your hero stronger, it makes your whole story richer and more complex.
Let’s take our lucky eavesdropper and the evil king. There are actually better ways to resolve this situation, but let’s say you really want your hero to find that magic sword in the secret tunnel. How could you set this up?
Suppose that that instead of conveniently overhearing that the king is plotting to destroy his family, the hero learns about it when a band of mercenaries come to arrest his parents. (The hero’s father is in the cabinet, and too popular for the king to send the army to do the evil deed.) Using his quick wits, our hero hides from the king’s goons and escapes being arrested. He wants to know where his parents were taken, so he goes to the tavern where mercenaries are known to drink, and gets a job there waiting tables—hoping to overhear where they took their prisoners. He works in the tavern for many dreary days. The room where he sleeps shares a chimney with the taproom, and the noise when the maids start to clean comes up that chimney and wakes him every day at dawn, and he hates it. And worse than all the rest, he doesn’t manage to overhear anything more significant than a few grumbles about how long it’s taking the mercenaries’ “employer” to pay them off.
Finally the mercenaries hold a meeting in the tavern with a guy who wears elegant clothes under his cloak—maybe the guy who hired them! But they go into a back room, and the innkeeper is waiting on them himself. Because you’ve already established that sound rises up the chimneys, it’s not much of a stretch that our hero thinks of getting into the room above that private room and listening in…but there’s a fellow servant in that room, and the hero uses most of the money he has left to bribe him to leave for a few hours. Then he can overhear, not only that his family is being held in the dungeons under the castle, but also that the king is planning to seal off those old escape tunnels—so much more sensible to destroy your enemies than to keep a back door open in case you need to flee. And mercenaries will destroy your enemies with far fewer questions than the army would! Their next job is to…
Bribing his fellow servant will make working at the tavern problematical anyway—the guy he bribed is bound to tell the boss eventually. So the hero goes out and burgles the office of the construction company the king hired to seal off the tunnel. It makes sense that a builder would have less security than the palace, and after he uses his quick wits to get past the guard dogs, the hero can make his own copy of the secret-tunnel-map. To his great disappointment (but rather logically) there are no escape tunnels that connect with the dungeon. But if he gets into the palace, maybe he can find a way to free his family.
He enters the tunnels before the construction crew arrives, and hides inside as they seal the entrance. Then he can lurk in the tunnels under the palace, stealing food from the kitchens and sleeping behind piles of books in the dusty library where no one ever goes. It takes him some time to steal the keys, so he can get into the king’s office to try to find evidence of his family’s kidnapping. When he finally breaks in, he can’t find the evidence he needs…but he does find a whole pile of information in a secret compartment in the king’s desk. Part of that information is that the king’s magical armor can be pierced with a particular sword, but the sword has been hidden/lost for centuries. Maybe some of those old diaries he’s seen in the library would hold a clue…
OK, most of this is pretty farcical. And there are several things here that might be seen as “coincidences” that help the hero; the fact that sound travels up the chimney into the hero’s room, the paymaster meeting the mercenaries in the tavern where the hero is lurking, the fact that the king keeps information about the missing magical sword in the secret compartment in his desk. But because I made the hero work to get this information, laboring as a servant, outwitting guard dogs, lurking like a rat in the palace walls, it won’t feel too “lucky” when he finally gets some success from his efforts—because he’s earned those victories.
And also observe how much you can build his character, as this previously-somewhat-spoiled rich kid waits tables in a low tavern. How many action scenes you’ve added as he eludes goons, outwits guard dogs, and lives by his wits in the tunnels. How much more complex, how much richer the whole story becomes when you make your hero overcome obstacles to get what he need, instead of “lucking” into it. Abandoning fortunate “happenings” will make your whole story stronger…and that’s no coincidence.