Life is a web of interconnecting events. Our paths cross and brush up against one another before we each head off in our own unique direction. Sometimes when paths converge we wobble a bit and the contact sometimes knocks us slightly off course sending us into an unintended orbit. I am fascinated by those direction-changing meetings or incidents.
A woman stumbles and falls and a gentleman comes to her aid and the two develop a relationship that wouldn’t have otherwise happened. A man twists his ankle and misses a train that is in a fatal derailment. A boy alters his usual walk home and gets caught in the crossfire of a gang shootout. A ceiling fan in the kitchen falls on the head of a woman while fixing dinner causing an injury severe enough to send her to the hospital. When she comes to, she has total amnesia and has to relearn her entire past, as well as reestablish a relationship with her husband and family (this last one is a true story reported in The Washington Post a year or two ago). If the fan had been properly installed or the family had gone out to dinner that night, the woman’s life would have been radically different.
These little brushes with fate are called coincidence. Life is coincidental. We are constantly being forced off on different tangents by circumstances beyond our control. But if we include a bit of coincidence into a story, readers immediately cry foul. “Give me a break. That would never happen in real life.” But it does happen. Every day. Coincidence is part of our fabric of life and should be a part of our stories as well and there are ways to weave in coincidence that is believable and keep readers from howling, “Cheater!”
Foreshadowing coincidence can help make coincidence seem less contrived. A man is taking a walk in a park. Unbeknownst to him he is the target in a sniper’s crosshairs. But just as the trigger is pulled, the gunman sneezes affecting his aim and sending the bullet away from its mark. Unbelievable, right? Come on say it along with me: “Give me a break. That would never happen in real life.”
But if we foreshadow the incident, there is precedence and believable reason for it. Let’s take the same scenario:
Marko dug at his itchy eyes as he rechecked the scope and silencer on his rifle. The pollen was ungodly he mused and as if confirming the thought, he ripped yet another sneeze into the crook of his elbow. He roughly wiped at his nose with the heal of his hand, closed one eye and focused his sights on his mark strolling along the pea gravel path. The man in the park was heading away from him and would soon be rounding a corner into a stand of trees. Marko needed to act now if he was going to get a clean shot. He took a breath, held it, let his heart rate settle, lined up the crosshairs on the back of his victim’s head and… sneezed. His finger unintentionally fired the weapon as the barrel jerked and the shot went high and wide.
Jason Blysmith heard a branch snap in the tree to his left. Squirrel, he thought. He checked his watch and jogged on ahead, the gravel crunching softly beneath his shoes. He was running a little late.
Now that didn’t feel too contrived, did it? That’s because we established the fact that the gunman was already suffering from allergies and hinted at the idea that he had been sneezing all morning. We even see him sneeze as he prepares his rifle. If the gunman had simply plopped down, readied himself, sneezed just as he takes his shot and you then try to explain it away with mention of hay fever, you would be hearing people all around the world—you included—say: “Give me a break. That would never happen in real life.”
Another way to deal with coincidence is to draw attention to it. If a character remarks on the coincidence then the reader doesn’t have to.
Baxter sat nursing a beer. His table was near the entrance and a blast of cold air raced over his shoulders as the door banged open. He looked up to see who the latest wretched soul was to enter. Christ, that’s Wycliff, he thought as the embarrassment of their last meeting all those years ago rose in his face. Never thought our paths would cross again. What the hell brings him to Plano, Texas?” Baxter tucked a ten dollar bill under his glass and quietly slipped out the door before he was spotted by his old rival.
If Baxter had not wondered at the sudden appearance of a long lost enemy or, even more unlikely, called Wycliff over to rehash old times (which evidently were not good ones) we would be hollering: “Give me a break. That would never happen in real life.” Baxter’s surprise and curiosity are enough to point out the coincidence so that the reader doesn’t have to do so, stammering in utter disbelief. Baxter’s urge to slip off undetected is also more believable and sets them up for a possible confrontation later on down the road.
However, what you want to avoid doing, when pointing to a coincidence, is using a more blatant approach. Don’t, for God’s sake, have Baxter think something like: “My God, what a coincidence. I hoped I’d never see old Wycliff again.” That would be way too heavy handed.
Coincidence can also be employed to work against the protagonist rather than in his or her favor. A reader is much more accepting of a contrivance that adds a barrier than they will be of one that makes life easier. Terri needs to discretely withdraw some cash from her account and drives to a neighboring town to a branch that she doesn’t regularly visit. As she steps up to the teller window to make the transaction she finds herself standing face to face with an ex-boyfriend who she knows isn’t likely to stay quiet about a large withdrawal.
While that scenario might seem a bit forced, most will let it slide as it puts the protagonist at a disadvantage. On the other hand, contriving to have Terri dealing with an ardently loyal life long best girlfriend (who wouldn’t finger Terri even if she had held the teller up at gun point) would be far from believable: “Give me a break. That would never happen in real life.”
There are other ways to work coincidence into your work when necessary without raising a red flag. I learned this from the ever enlightening Dr. John Yeoman who offers a subscription to something called the Writers’ Village Academy consisting of lessons delivered weekly via the web. I have been participating for the past 26 weeks and I have amassed some good tips and information. If you liked what I touched on today, then I urge you to check out his web site. I get nothing from this endorsement. I just want to give credit where credit is due and I throw it out there for your consideration.
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And now to a little housekeeping. As promised, I would like to award the pdf copy of the 1878 publication An Elementary English Grammar and Exercise Book by Osborne William Tancock, Clarendon Press, Oxford, to Steve Meitz for his hilarious and wonderfully inappropriate simile shared with us last week:
Her nose wrinkled like the haunches of a Shar Pei puppy only without the smell, ironically.
A tie for close second goes to Alphabetstory and Heather Villa for their respective submissions:
His mind was blank, devoid of any thought, much like an empty pool after it has been drained because someone threw up in it.
She persevered, like someone struggling to lick their own elbow.
Thanks to all who played along. Actually, all of you are winners and anyone who wants the grammer guide can download it yourself from here.