I hate coincidence. I think writers have been influenced by examples of coincidence in great literature. Here I need to insert a disclaimer and a plea for help. Though I’m a voracious reader at times, I don’t tend to read the classics. Not since high school (and Cliff Notes then! LOL!) So if you have some extra examples of things that seemed coincidental in literature, send them my way.
- Darcy just happened to be visiting the house where Elizabeth was a dinner guest while she visited a nearby family. ~Pride and Prejudice
- And again when Elizabeth encountered Darcy after his unexpected swim. ~Pride and Prejudice
- “Of all the gin joints in all the world. She had to walk into mine.” ~Casablanca
I tried to come up with some examples from The Scarlet Pimpernel or some of Alexandre Dumas’s books, but those are all so intentional, every detail planned for, that it’s hard to come up with anything that even resembles coincidence.
So first, to dash the coincidental nature of the first three examples:
- Darcy didn’t just happen to be a guest at the house. It was revealed earlier that he was a relative of the lady of the house. Elizabeth’s host even embarrassed himself once before as he introduced himself to Darcy, claiming a connection on the basis of Darcy’s relative.
- Darcy swam on his own grounds. Elizabeth toured homes in the area with her aunt and uncle. She knew he could be there. Not that she intended to see him, but it was his house (estate).
- Casablanca has become a standard for coincidence. But this isn’t a coincidence. At all. Most everyone who visited Casablanca found their way to Ricks at some point. Didn’t one of the characters even say something like that? And Casablanca had become the jumping-off spot for all people heading to safety in America. So it shouldn’t have been surprising that Ilsa and her freedom-fighting husband came through. Just a surprise to Rick who didn’t know about her freedom-fighting husband.
Now that I’ve dashed the elements of coincidence that I found in stories I call classics. Let’s get to the real problems. Those events that turn stories or provide perfect opportunities by sheer luck and chance.
That’s what coincidence is by the way. Sheer chance that something happens to be a benefit at just the right moment. I remember a perfect example! King Ralph!
John Goodman played Ralph in the 1991 comedy. He’s the new king of England when the entire royal family is electrocuted during a ginormous family portrait. Now THAT’s a coincidence. But it’s comedy so it works.
In novel writing, it’s just sad. I listened to an old recording of a past conference class. The teacher, a sought-after publishing editor with several writing credits of her own, graciously offered her time and experience to work through some of the story ideas of those attending. One lady pitched a historical. It went on and on. Had an interesting premise, but would only work with a number of coincidences. First, the heroine shows up unchaperoned to hero’s family party. No explanation there. Then, three people had to die in order for the hero to be in the position he needed to complete his character arch. One was killed in a mugging. One was fatally injured. And one was kidnapped. He just happened to contract some disease and die, saving the kidnappers the trouble. Voila’ road paved to glory for the hero.
This editor was amazing. Patient and careful. She tried redirecting a few times. When the writer continued to explain why her way would work, the editor finally said something to the effect, “Yes, it will work, but readers don’t like coincidence.”
Boom. And the writer really clued into what she was saying. (I bet her book is GREAT!) The editor was right, of course.
There’s no character growth when there’s no intentional action taken to achieve a goal. Tweet this!
Let me say that again: There’s no character growth when there’s no intentional action taken to achieve a goal.
Intentional. That’s key. Paramount to completing any character arc. Think about Sweet Polly Pureheart, the quintessential damsel in distress. Tied to the railroad tracks, she’s only cast for her great scream. But when she acts—fights with the antagonist or cuts through her own ropes (Maybe even saving the hero’s neck while he rescues her.)—she grows beyond who she was at the beginning.
Voila. Character arc.
When things just happen for the benefit of the hero, might as well be happy people in happy land – another reason to reject a book.
Your Turn: We’re the readers. Do you have an example of coincidence in a recent read or movie you’ve watched. Did you like it?
Oh wait! I just thought of another example in the movie Cellular. Kim Bassinger just happened to call Chris Evans. That coincidence almost proved disastrous, though. He was a bum! Made for a GREAT movie – one of my faves!