Mar 3, 2011

Should Your Narrative Include Coincidence?

The Hand of Fate should not write stories.
Coincidence. It happens all the time, and never more than in stories. Many narratives depend on coincidence, but is it a good or bad device? Like most tools, if used well it can make a story move neatly towards the conclusion, but if abused it reeks of lazy writing.

A lot of mysteries and thrillers will include coincidence as a way of bringing a crime to light (but not usually to reveal the culprit). Steven King masterfully winds coincidence into his horror stories to give them a dark fateful theme. So how should you use coincidence?

Narratives are small worlds or micro-communities. We don't want a cast of thousands in our story, so we zoom into a portion of life. This makes coincidences more likely to take place. Here's some tips I picked up from my recent writing course with Sydney Writers Centre.

Bring it in early. Have your coincidence set things rolling. Your protagonist has a fight with her boss when she's fired, later that day, while walking her dog, she drops her mobile phone. Not a good day for her. She starts searching the bushes in the nearby park for said phone, and what does she find? The dead body of her ex-boss. Coincidence. Now your protagonist is a suspect and has good reason to try to solve the crime herself. See how coincidence has moved your plot along?

Coincidence shouldn't be used to solve crimes though, we want to think our amateur detective is using their wits, not luck. And please don't end your story with coincidence - most readers hate that! (including me) Okay, some like it, and some fateful endings have been successful.

Ending with a coincidence, or 'by the hand of God', has a name: Deux ex Machina. This is where a plot problem heads to such a point it seems unlikely to be solved, and then, by the hand of God, all is resolved by fate. 'The Postman Always Rings Twice', is an example where it seems the two lovers will get away with murder, until fate steps in. Although a successful film, this ending always makes me feel robbed of a propper resolution. Having said that, I did like the ending to the first 'Sherlock Holmes' movie, but at least Sherlock used his wits to solve the crime first.


  1. Thanks for sharing; I love these examples, it really elevates one's writing!

  2. I hate it when that happens in a TV show or movie let alone a good book. Great advice.

  3. In my stories, often I try to make what seems like coincidence at first, turn out not to be.

  4. As soon as I saw the title of your post, I knew what I was going say. Then you pretty much said it for me.

    Coincidence to end the story...bad idea (as a rule, and we all know what writers think of rules :D). But coincidence early on that the reader doesn't yet realise the significance of, well, that's called set-up!

    I think coincidence is almost inevitable in storytelling, but the more it can be sneaked in under the reader's radar the better.

  5. I definitely agree with using coincidence earlier on in your narrative. Let it feed the action, but don't allow it to overtake your story. Great post!

  6. One of the worst books I ever read had a relied on coincidence to move the plot forward at every turn. I'm having a mental blank at the moment or I would name the book and author. The effect was terrible simply terrible.
    Having said that I have used coincidence in a limited way in my writing.

  7. Ella - thanks :)

    Susan - me too

    Lynda - oooh tricky with the false coincidences

    Botanist - you know what they say about great minds thinking alike ( notice my rules on cliches are not as strict)

    B.Miller - thanks :)

    Al - Yep, I don't have much patience for over- use of coincidence, but a little is good. After all, we don't get through real life without the occasional coincidence :)

  8. I agree. I feel cheated if a resolution happens by coincidence or accident. I wonder if the writer got stuck and just gave up. Then I wonder how the writer got that ending published...


  9. As a device, I really love things that look like a coincidence at first that by the end the reader finds has been orchestrated by someone with an agenda. That said, the book I just edited had a couple coincidences first draft and a first reader called me on it. Now I still have ONE (that my MCs who didn't know each other but are connected run into each other early) but all the others have explanations written in. It took a couple iterations before I felt like it was adequate without seeming forced in there.

  10. Bel - at least when we see a published book using poor devices, it gives us hope for our manuscripts

    Hart - I agree, that sounds like a nice twist when the coincidence turns out to be engineered. And of course coincidences do happen, so some are okay. Some romances use coincidence to give a suggestion of fate bringing a couple together. I think in moderation that's okay - it can be kinda sweet.

  11. Thanks for sharing! I am now going back to my former ms to see if I used coincidence incorrectly. I try to stay away from using it, but sometimes it inserts itself in between my words.

  12. Alleged Author - Chocolate always inserts itself between my words ;-j