Maybe you’ve met someone only to discover a mysterious kinship. Or a piece of news comes to you in some unexpected fashion. Or an object turns up that presents an odd connection. I’ve even read of someone who bought a house for no better reason than it felt right, only to later discover deep parallels with the previous owners.
Up pops a coincidence, and now you see everything a little bit differently. It shake ups and can even redefine your world.
But what happens if you try to use coincidence—this Get Out of Jail Free card—in your writing?
Push your reader too far in what you’re asking him to believe, and you break the spell of your creation. Your reader now sees the man behind the curtain, sees the artifice for what it is—illusion, make believe, pure hooey—and he no longer trusts you.
Funny, in real life we tally it up. We share stories of coincidence with our friends and marvel at the implications. Why, for example, have I heard from not one but two women these past weeks, both living in South America of all places, and neither of whom have communicated with me in forty-two years?
It’s a fact, but in a piece of writing, it would feel strained. A reader isn’t interested in if it’s real or not. What he wants is believable.
So, how to use coincidence well?
Provide an explanation for it, something to help your reader along in his suspension of disbelief, like a character with psychic abilities, or a wise old elder, or a street-smart, savvy one known for his hunches.
Or maybe your character has a job that puts him or her at the nexus of things, like a newspaper editor, or the town librarian, or the waitress at the most popular café.
Or maybe there’s a natural disaster, or conference, or train station that might throw strangers together in coincidental ways.
Give your reader some reason to ignore the implausible, the convenient, the highly coincidental—and he will. This is not because he’s being terribly understanding of the challenges you face in plotting your stories but for the sake of preserving his own entertainment.
What he seeks is to have the dream of your narrative sustained, so give him reason to believe.
Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: bunny and cat stockphoto.com/automatika; wee westie and president by Randy Robertson