books · coincidence · criticism · novel · reading · second draft · statistics · writing

It’s a narrow world

I was reading the Guardian bookclub article today and it was a short piece about coincidence. It is a matter of coincidence that I have been tinkering with in a touch-up of my oh-so-nearly finished novel recently. There is, in the fourth chapter, a coincidental moment that takes control of the story and gets my protagonist to where he needs to be standing. The question is does this particular coincidence clang like a poorly constructed device designed to do nothing more than grab him by the shoulders and turn to face him in the right direction?

I have been aware of the perils of coincidence in narrative for a long while. The rule that I read said that for beginners all coincidences should be avoided and for more advanced writers – lets call them brown belts – coincidence should be used to get your protagonist into trouble, but never for getting them out of trouble. It makes perfect sense not to use a coincidence as the pivotal point in resolving the narrative. Stories are about people and satisfying endings should evolve from deliberate choices and actions made by those characters.  It has always seemed like one of the oddest qualities of writing convincing fiction that coincidences should be so sparingly used. They are, after all, very common in everyday life. It’s a bit like the lottery. The odds of winning it are astronomically small, but the fact that someone, somewhere wins it is really no big surprise at all.

I watched an old favourite film this evening, It Could Happen To You – coincidentally about winning the lottery – and there is a scene in which the two central characters both turn up at the same hotel at the same time. Films are littered with this kind of small coincidence. There is a scene toward the beginning of The Shawshank Redemption in which one central character walks out a parole hearing at exactly the moment another central character is appearing for the first time. The two events have no real connection but are butted together to allow the narrative to unfold smoothly. These sorts of coincidences don’t cause the story a problem because they don’t really affect it. It’s a bit like bumping into a friend in the street, it’s not really all that amazing and doesn’t have much of an impact.

The coincidence that happens in chapter four of my novel involves the protagonist chasing someone until he becomes exhausted and can run no further and stops. Where he stops just happens to be immediately outside the one building in the entire town of any significance to him. This feels like too much of a coincidence. Bumping into a friend in the street isn’t so amazing because we tend to live near our friends, and streets are pretty obvious places for people to bump into each other. These sorts of small coincidence are fine in fiction as they don’t arrest the story. They are tolerable because of the commonality with which similar things happen. In fact more than tolerable, they are necessary. Necessary because without them the fictitious world would be slightly less realistic. Have you ever seen a film or read a book in which every last thing that happened turned out to be the evil machinations of the sinister villain; everything from the surprise allegiance of a previously sympathetic character to the bizarre connection that the hero has to the waitress in the opening scene? Stuff like that always felt equally unlikely to me and having my character stop outside the building I need him to stop outside is either some kind of incredible act of fate or a coincidence of significantly less likely odds than Red’s parole hearing ending at the same time as Andy Dufresne’s arrival at Shawshank.

So I am going to change it, ever so slightly, so that he stops running when he is too tired to carry on, and encounters the building as he walks back to where he was. Still a coincidence, yes, but the chances are a little more likely and so it seems to clang a little less loudly.

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