Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What a Coincidence!

by Elizabeth

So I'm trekking along with my WIP, and things are going pretty well. I didn't include its beginning in Karen's post the other day, because the current first line won't survive long. What's more likely is a scene now in the middle will open the novel, and the work of crafting the first sentence is yet in my future.

Although my blog reading recently has given me a touch of pause about one aspect of said scene. My main character is rushing off to an emergency and encounters a person from her past, a minor character who nonetheless matters later. What a coincidence! But maybe too much of one?

Over at the ever-useful edittorrent, Alicia recently blogged about coincidence in writing. Her thoughts sent me scooting around the web (ahem, research, not procrastination), where I found a useful essay in Rebecca Talley's blog. To sum it up, she urges writers to make it real if coincidence is to be used. Good advice.

Now I had to think hard about my own scene. My character runs into a man she once knew when his taxi runs into her. He's in town for business, and she, distracted and injured, doesn't recognize him at first, though he knows her immediately. The question is, will readers buy it?

Well, for what it's worth, I once ran into a fellow California college student in the McDonald's in the French Quarter. (Before you are appalled at my Crescent City dining choices, let me assure you I was merely confirming the weird rumor of biscuits and gravy on the menu. It was true.) Another time I saw a man I'd met in the jungles of Belize at an airport in Phoenix. And just yesterday a guy gave me a quote to trim my photinias, and I'm pretty sure he shared my row on a flight to Dallas in 1993. Coincidences all, and while you probably don't doubt me here, would you believe these things if you read them in a novel?

Jane Austen relied on coincidence; think of the revelation of Willoughby as the scoundrel of Colonel Brandon's life, and that circumstance eventually winning Brandon the woman they both love. Snape's dark motivation through all the Harry Potters is eventually revealed to be tied to the fact that he and a fellow young witch happened to play at the same park as children; what a coincidence! (At the same time, J.K. Rowling points out that sometimes things are too convenient, like when Hermione chides Hagrid's lack of suspicion when a hooded stranger happens to possess a dragon egg, something Hagrid covets.) In Julia Glass' wonderful novel I See You Everywhere, a chance meeting, the merest of coincidences, serves as a kind of glue. (Not a spoiler, don't worry.) Did I believe all of these? You bet I did. Because the authors did their jobs, and made these fictional lives as real as my own.

So that's the trick, I guess, and something my beta-readers will be warned to be on the lookout for when they get that first chapter: Is it real? Do you believe it? If they don't, I haven't done my job well enough and revision will follow. But to leave coincidence out of a book would be like erasing it from life. And what fun would that be?

Speaking of fun, oftentimes coincidences are just that. You are probably already familiar with the Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy stuff, and how the lyrics of "Amazing Grace" fit perfectly into the Gilligan's Island theme song music. (It's even more fun to sing the Gilligan verses with the hymn's tune.) But Love Boat and Star Trek? Who knew! And what about you? Any fun coincidences in your life, or a favorite from fiction?


  1. Great post! Now I'm going to be dwelling on this all day to the point of paranoia. :)

  2. I was doing business in Tokyo and had a huge meeting in an area called Sunshine City. I got lost on the subway and ended up god knows where. I don't speak Japanese and I wasn't having any luck. I was getting desperate and as I struggled to communicate with a business man I looked up and saw a friend from high school. He now lived in Tokyo and took me to my meeting which I made just in time.
    Greg Gutierrez

  3. Thanks for mentioning my post. A recent coincidence is that the young man that bought my son's housing contract in another state at college, roomed with my son's best friend from home and decided to come back with this best friend to our home area and then met my daughter. They are now getting married.

    Great blog.

  4. Stina, don't worry one bit. Just write what you need to and let your beta readers tell you if you're off base. Keep plugging! That's my plan.

    Greg, wow, that is amazing! Now that is one that I'm not sure I would believe in a book (though I do believe you). I mean, how many people live in Tokyo? Hope the meeting went well.

    Rebecca, glad you came by, and thanks for your terrific post before. And enjoy that wedding!

  5. I run into random people in the oddest of places :) For such a big place, it's an awfully small world!

  6. A fun and thoughtful post, Elizabeth. As a global nomad, I agree with Staci. I ran into people I met in Maine at the airport in Bangkok. Met a woman in Shanghai who grew up in my hometown. Shortly after my husband and I married in Steamboat Springs Colorado, he introduced me to close friends of his in Sedona,AZ. Turns out I spent an afternoon with these people months before I met my husband.


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