Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Should we use coincidences in our novels?

Paula ponders the use of coincidence in novels

Have you ever read a novel where there seemed to be too many coincidences? The heroine meets the man of her dreams but, for whatever reason, fails to exchange contact details with him, and since she is leaving town, she doesn’t think she will ever see him again. But then, of course, he ‘just happens’ to have the seat next to hers on the plane the next day. And it turns out not only that his father ‘just happens’ to be the sworn enemy of her father, but also that he fathered a child in the past who has been adopted by the heroine’s sister.

Okay, I made all that up, but I have read some novels where the coincidences pile up one on top of another in a similar way.

Of course, coincidences do happen in real life. I’m sure you can think of examples in your own life. I recall running into a friend’s son on 44th Street in New York – we only lived about half a mile away from him at home, so it really did seem strange to be talking to him on a NYC street! Several years later, after my friend had moved to Scotland, she called me to say she had met another friend of mine, who lived in the same Scottish village. This other friend was actually someone I had once stayed with when she lived in Brussels!

More recently i.e. last weekend, I was searching online for some information. On one site, I saw a photo of a man and immediately knew he looked just as I imagine the hero in my current ‘work in progress’. Out of interest, I read the short biography about him, and you can imagine my amazement when it dawned on me he was the son (now in his early 40s) of someone I had a serious crush on when I was in my teens – and no, he doesn’t actually look like his father, whom I’ve not seen or even heard of for over 50 years anyway!

However, it made start to wonder about coincidences. Even the best writers have used them Pride and Prejudice, Mr Collins ‘just happens’ to be the clergyman who is under the patronage of Darcy’s aunt, and Elizabeth’s aunt, Mrs Gardiner, ‘just happens’ to live near to Darcy’s Pemberley estate.

So can we use coincidences in our novels or should we avoid them?

The novelist John Braine said, “The reading public expects one coincidence and is cheated if it isn’t given one, but scorns two.”

I would add that any coincidence should be realistic so as not to stretch the reader’s credulity too far. Using coincidences to move the plot forward may appear too ‘contrived’ for the reader to stomach, and certainly the happy ending should not be the result of a convenient coincidence, unless you want your reader to feel cheated out of seeing the characters earn their happy ending through their own efforts.

It's true that coincidences happen in real life, but it seems the reader is less likely to accept them in fiction.


  1. Paula,

    I agree that it's a balance. One coincidence is fine and many times is needed to move the plot and the conflict along in a romance. But too many, and the story becomes too unrealistic. And while we romance writers love our fantasy, for me personally, there has to be some grounding in real life.

  2. I agree with Debra. I'm okay with one. Possibly two if it's really well done. More than that and it's just ridiculous.

  3. Someone on FB pointed out that most coincidences in real life aren't 'convenient' ones in the sense that they don't actually affect what is happening in our lives at any particular time - but that's how we sometimes use them in novels, which is perhaps why they don't ring true for the reader.

  4. The worst convenience, IMO, is one that magically solves the story at the end.

    1. I agree, Ana. The h/h have to solve their own problems and not have some wonderful act of God solve it for them!

  5. Eight years ago, a coincidence that "reunited" the H/h in the final chapter of a western historical romance infuriated me so much that I decided I could write a better book. That's when I embarked upon my "author journey."

    1. In this case, the coincidence was a good thing, since it spurred you to start writing, Ana!

  6. In an interesting coincidence (!), I was listening to the "Journey Into . . ." podcast, episode #4 (from 2011) on the way into work this morning, just AFTER I saw this link show up on Facebook. It prompted me to think about coincidence in fiction.

    In the podcast story ("In Spite of Himself," by Nathaniel Lee), the main character is a super villain who keeps accidentally thwarting crimes instead of committing his own, and being mistaken for a superHERO, instead.

    It made me consider that you CAN use more than one coincidence in a story if it's a humorous story and the intent is to make the audience roll their eyes at the number of improbable events that are happening to a single character.

    I also thought of the now sadly defunct TV show "Strange Luck" from a long while back. The main character was someone who had, well...strange luck. All kinds of bizarre coincidences happened to him daily, but the audience expected it and WANTED it. In one of the few episodes I remember, he is making dinner and opens a can of beans to find a glass eye inside. He calmly rinses off the eye and puts it in his pocket. Next day, he goes to his favorite diner. He coincidentally overhears two men talking, one of whom is wearing a patch over one eye. "Yeah, I have no idea what I'm going to do. I bent over the canning machine and my glass eye popped out and that was the last I saw of it."

    Chance (the main character) takes the eye out of his pocket and just puts it on the table in front of the guy and continues walking. Because for him, these kinds of things are a common, everyday occurrence.

    Very thought-provoking question, and I felt like I could provide a different point of view than I suspected you'd get. :)

    1. Gary, I think you're right that 'coincidences' can play a big part in humour. Maybe that's why, when too many coincidences happen in novels (romance or any other genre), it can start to have a comic effect - and make readers rolls their eyes - which is probably not what the author actually intended.
      Many thanks for visiting to show this different aspect of coincidences.