Years ago, I was staying in a tiny traditional guest house in South Korea for a few days on my two-week journey around the country. Who did I meet there? Someone who lived in my home town back in the UK.
Her mum even worked in the school down the road from my house.
A coincidence that happens in life can often delight and surprise us, but coincidence in fiction needs to be carefully constructed. If a character guesses the key code to unlock the door to the government facility they’re breaking into, it can highlight that the events of the story aren’t real and are being shaped by an external hand (the author).
But handled with care, coincident can create richness and depth.
The kind of coincidence that should be avoided in fiction is the deus ex machina. In fiction, this is a plot device where a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly resolved by the unexpected intervention of a new event, character, ability or object. For example, at the end of The Lord of the Rings trilogy when the eagles turn up to save Frodo and Sam from dying on Mount Doom.
Coincidence in fiction that works
The little coincidence – As we’ve just discovered, coincidences that solve problems can feel like the author is cheating. One way to combat this is for the author to include a coincidence without it having a major impact on the plot. Instead, it adds a spark of delight to a story.
The springboard coincidence – Starting a story with a coincidence provides an interesting springboard of opportunity. All stories need a reason to start when they do. Why not use an interesting coincidence to get the narrative rolling?
The unsurprising coincidence – Consider, too, that novels teach us how to read them. What do I mean by this? Each narrative has its own set of rules, and it’s only when a novel breaks its own rules do things feel jarring. For example, if the author directly addresses the reader but the rest of the narrative is told through a close third-person point of view. The same applies to the events of the story. If characters don’t react with incredulousness towards a coincidence, we might read it as a story in which coincidences often happen or that we’re dealing with characters who believe they do.
Coincidence in fiction and resonance
What makes an event worthy of being included in a story?
Writers may think that everyday events are too boring to write about, but it really comes down to whether parallels can be drawn between a character’s outer world and their inner world.
Resonance is what makes an event worthy of exploration in a story.
We love stories about journeys not because we want to see whether a character will arrive at their destination, but because we want to see the journey they take within themselves. We love stories about conflict not only because we want to see which side will be triumphant, but because we want to explore inner conflict, too. That’s where the really good stuff is. We all experience inner turmoil, and when we recognise similar turmoil in fiction this creates resonance.
Interesting stories have layers. When an author asks themselves what else might be going on in a character’s life, considering coincidence can lead to less obvious creative decisions. As Alice Mattison puts it in The Kite and the String:
Coincidence is often what gives fiction its chance to mean something. When two things come together, improbably or not, a spark is struck. Making those things happen simultaneously suggests that meaning is just beyond the surface.
Coincidence in fiction is often cautioned against, but with the right intention and execution, it can bring depth and meaning to a story. Look out for it, and give it a go in your own writing.