What a Coincidence! The Use and (Mostly) Misuse of Coincidence
by John Robert Marlow
Few things are more deadly in the hands of the inexperienced. Not coincidentally, few things can destroy believability and author credibility with greater efficiency. With astonishingly few exceptions—most of which relate to works of comedy—the use of coincidence to move the plot forward marks the writer as a hack in the eyes of agents, publishers, and readers.
COINCIDENCE AS ARTIFICE
The impression conveyed is this: the writer is incapable of formulating a sensible plot, and must therefore rely upon coincidence to force events into compliance with his or her notion of what should be happening in the story. Using coincidence also deprives the reader of the chance to think ahead and try to guess what’s going to happen next: because what happens next makes no sense (being coincidence), it cannot be reasoned out, or even guessed. Nor, for the same reason, can it be satisfying. It’s a roll of the dice—and readers can get that a lot cheaper (and faster) elsewhere.
Generally speaking, and in the vast majority of cases, you can’t use coincidence to get a character out of a jam. Readers want to see your main character get himself out of trouble through his own resourcefulness; that’s the journey they signed up for when they started reading. They did not sign up to see this guy luck out through coincidence.
Sure, Douglas Adams gets away with it in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series—but he is writing comedy and he does, after all, have the Infinite Improbability Drive to make things, well, at least a little less (or more) improbable than they might otherwise be.
Coincidence can be used to get your character into a pickle. Here we’re talking about something that makes life harder for the protagonist—so coincidence is working against the character, rather than for him. Mistaken identity is a classic device in this category. (In both El Mariachi and Red Rock West, for instance, the main character is mistaken for a professional hit man.) You cannot, however, have a series of such coincidences—even if they’re all bad news for the character—because this stretches credibility to the breaking point.
ART IMITATES LIFE?
Let’s say you have a plot involving the abduction of the Queen of England from Buckingham Palace. Which would most likely mean a thriller. You might start with a criminal mastermind, who then hires a crack team of specialists—driver, sentries, an electronic security specialist, a hacker, an assault/grab team, an inside man if possible, and perhaps a negotiator to quibble over the ransom. Your team would have to get the building plans, modification/renovation plans, security system details, patrol schedules, and so on. Next would come The Plan, followed by its harrowing execution—with, perhaps, a few casualties along the way.
You would not, on the other hand, think up a plot involving someone who walks up to the palace, scales the wall without difficulty, shimmies up a drainpipe and blunders into the Queen’s bedchambers while the guard who’s supposed to be stationed there is—by sheer happenstance—off walking the Queen’s dogs at that precise moment. This actually happened (the intruder’s name was Michael Fagan, the year 1982)—but if you put it in a novel, you’d be laughed off the shelves.
Truth really is stranger than fiction. Unlike truth, however, fiction has to make sense. So unless you’re doing something based on a true story, art should not (in cases like this, anyway) imitate life.
DEUS EX MACHINA
This particular type of coincidence has a literary history that stretches back to the Greeks—and a history of ridicule that began with Aristotle. Deus ex machina is Latin for “god from a machine.” Greek tragedies were rife with these, the works of Euripides being perhaps the most prominent offenders.
Basically, the playwright would write his hero or heroine (or both) into such a fine pickle that it seemed impossible for the character to get out of it. Which indeed it was. Then, when all seemed darkest and inevitable doom was fast approaching—lo and behold, a crane (the machine) would be used to lower another character (a god) into the scene. Using his (or her) divine powers, the god would intercede and rescue the hero/heroine from certain death or worse.
In some cases, the god would show up after the character had actually died. No problem—godly powers would be used to restore the dead to life. The term deus ex machina has since broadened to include any device which suddenly and improbably pops up to conveniently resolve plot issues at the last minute.
I come across this kind of ending every now and again. One example that comes to mind involved a story set in late August/early September, 2001. Terrorists appeared early on, but then vanished from the storyline. They were mentioned again a few hundred pages in, only to vanish once more. It was hinted that they were planning the WTC bombing on 9/11.
At the end of the tale (which had very little to do with terrorists; the villains here being a preacher and a deformed dwarf), the hero buys a plane ticket and hands it to the bad guy. The idea being that the Bad Guy—who also receives the priceless artifact he’s killed several people to get—will step on the plane and so give the Good Guy several hours to make his escape before Bad Guy and his secret-society minions can try to kill him in order to keep their secret safe.
By sheer coincidence, the plane Bad Guy steps onto just happens to be one of the only two airliners in the history of the world to be deliberately flown into a skyscraper. Poof! Bad Guy is vaporized by coincidence, and our hero is off the hook. The entire manuscript was set in the past—and the terrorists take up the first several chapters—simply to set up this deus ex machina ending.
Aristotle argued in his Poetics that deus ex machina is a cheat that gets the author out of thinking up a plausible solution. The plot’s eventual resolution, he felt, should arise naturally from elements already present in the story. This makes the author’s job harder, but the audience experience better.
Two thousand years later, this remains sage advice. Coincidence is almost always bad (whether bad form or bad for the characters), and is at its worst when used to resolve difficult issues at the end of your tale.
Reps and publishers view this as lazy writing, and that counts heavily against you. In the unlikely event that such an ending should somehow make it into print, readers are bound to be left disappointed, even angry. (“I spent my money and time on this?”) And disgruntled readers are unlikely to read your next work, or recommend you to others.
There are exceptions: Comedy, for instance, where you’re deliberately trying to make the tale or its ending ridiculous and unbelievable. Even here, consider other options carefully before going with a god from the machine. Another exception might be a work intended to depict life itself as random; such plots are generally the province of underfunded independent films made by people with no expectation of commercial success (which often explains their lack of funding).
I wracked my brain to come up with a good, non-comedic story that breaks this rule. Of the thousands of books, movies, and manuscripts I’ve encountered, only one came to mind: The Cooler. When I thought about it a little longer, though, I realized that this film is not an exception after all, because the resolution—which at first appears to be blind chance—really isn’t, owing to the unique nature of the lead character’s abilities, which form the basis of the whole story. So, in the strictest of all senses, even this apparent exception follows Aristotle’s rule.
As a general rule and excepting some comedies, you can use coincidence once—and then only to get your character into a jam, not out of one.
copyright © by John Robert Marlow
all rights reserved