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 e.g.in 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
So can we use coincidences in our novels or should we avoid
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.