Jan 7, 2012

Coincidence in Writing

I'm up in Brisbane this week, organising my move before I dash back down to Yass. One of the down sides of moving interstate is that I'll be leaving some good friends (and amazing students) behind. I've been kind of sad that we won't be catching up as much.

But this week there is a friend of mine from Yass visiting their relatives in Brisbane - so today we are catching up. This has me thinking about the luck of coincidence that we are both up here at the same time, and I thought I would share a post I did previously on the use of coincidence in fiction:

The Hand of Fate should not write stories.
Coincidence. It happens all the time, and never more than in stories. Many narratives depend on coincidence, but is it a good or bad device? Like most tools, if used well it can make a story move neatly towards the conclusion, but if abused it reeks of lazy writing.

A lot of mysteries and thrillers will include coincidence as a way of bringing a crime to light (but not usually to reveal the culprit). Steven King masterfully winds coincidence into his horror stories to give them a dark fateful theme. So how should you use coincidence?

Narratives are small worlds or micro-communities. We don't want a cast of thousands in our story, so we zoom into a portion of life. This makes coincidences more likely to take place. Here's some tips I picked up from my recent writing course with Sydney Writers Centre.

Bring it in early. Have your coincidence set things rolling. Your protagonist has a fight with her boss when she's fired, later that day, while walking her dog, she drops her mobile phone. Not a good day for her. She starts searching the bushes in the nearby park for said phone, and what does she find? The dead body of her ex-boss. Coincidence. Now your protagonist is a suspect and has good reason to try to solve the crime herself. See how coincidence has moved your plot along?

Coincidence shouldn't be used to solve crimes though, we want to think our amateur detective is using their wits, not luck. And please don't end your story with coincidence - most readers hate that! (including me) Okay, some like it, and some fateful endings have been successful.

Ending with a coincidence, or 'by the hand of God', has a name: Deux ex Machina. This is where a plot problem heads to such a point it seems unlikely to be solved, and then, by the hand of God, all is resolved by fate. 'The Postman Always Rings Twice', is an example where it seems the two lovers will get away with murder, until fate steps in. Although a successful film, this ending always makes me feel robbed of a proper resolution. Having said that, I did like the ending to the first 'Sherlock Holmes' movie, but at least Sherlock used his wits to solve the crime first.


  1. Good point about bad luck or fate at the beginning of a book but not solving the ending.
    In the fantasy world or writing, we often use the phrase 'and then a dragon appeared' to mean Duex ex Machina.

  2. I think you can read a story where coincidence seems to work in a reasonable way, but when you try to use it yourself it becomes glaringly contrived.

    Tricky to get right.


  3. Thanks. This is helpful. I can see that overuse is not desirable. In life coincidence does not occur too often

  4. Coincidence happens in real life a lot more than anyone would tolerate in fiction. And, just as we have to eliminate the boring chit-chat dialog in our stories, we have to eliminate the coincidences that really happen but detract from the story's credibility. I mean, you HAVE to believe an unlikely coincidence if it HAPPENS, but you expect fiction to be more realistic than real life.

    Unless there be dragons, of course. ;)

    Marian Allen
    Fantasies, mysteries, comedies, recipes

  5. I've a feeling I saw this post previously, and it makes as much good sense now as it did then.

    Coincidence is often needed to start the story off, but I agree, the ending should not be solved by luck. Things that make the ending should have been foreshadowed earlier on in the story otherwise the reader is likely to feel cheated.

  6. I remember throwing a book down when after 1,000+ pages the whole ending was based on coincidences. I was so mad! You are so right about bringing it in the beginning. There is a place for it as it happens in real life, but in a book sometimes its a cop out. great post!
    Blessings, Joanne

  7. This is great advice. We'll accept the coincidence if it's been set up for us. It can't just be "oh, how convenient." But, in real life, they happen all the time.
    Good luck with your move!

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