Coincidences happen. In real life they can be a wonderful thing. Against all odds, something happens that is the product of utter chance.
In novels, they are not so wonderful.
You are reading a story. You have become enamoured with the characters. You are invested in their plight. They are in mortal danger. How are they going to escape? How will they survive when about to be set upon by numbers that will surely see their demise? Their friends stumble on them by absolute chance and save the day. Wait……WHAT???
This is an example that I encountered in a series of fantasy novels I read recently. Three books in and this absolute travesty of Deus Ex Machina occurred. I was dumbfounded. Characters separated by hundreds, if not thousands, of miles, somehow come across each other at exactly the right moment to save one of the main protagonists. That is NOT how it works. I found myself completed disjointed from the story, abashed by the sheer scope of this monumental coincidence. The author had placed his character in to a situation, but had not planned exactly how to get him out of it. So, he relied on coincidence. And that coincidence destroyed the bonds between reader and story. A coincidence on such magnitude, especially if preceded by other, smaller, instances of coincidence, exemplifies poor planning in a story.
Good fiction, especially fantasy, creates a complex world of believability, no matter how unbelievable the world. There should be a reason for every action; an explanation of how every character found themselves in a certain situation. Everything has purpose. You take that away and you take away the trust of the reader. If you treat your audience as idiots, then that audience will lose faith in you. If an author relies on coincidence to bring characters together, or to resolve a major plot point, then they are doing nothing but demonstrating they are too lazy to build a foundation for that coincidence.
A story is all about cause and effect. Coincidences are, by their nature, a violation of this cause and effect. You have the effect, but there is no logical or explained cause for why it happened. What makes this worse is that these coincidences are often something beneficial to the character. In these circumstances, the reward for both protagonist and author is undeserved and destroys the readers trust. In his book ‘Secrets of Story: Well Told’, William C. Martell breaks down this point in a metaphorical game of tennis:
“Here’s where plotting often breaks down in bad scripts–after the initial “serve” the protagonist or antagonist quit playing for a while, and the ball bounces back and forth on its own. That’s impossible, and we know it. Or, the ball is hit to some other player on some other court; and even if the ball is hit back to our court and our protagonist, it isn’t really part of the game, is it? When something (good or bad) happens without reason, it seems impossible. It’s that ball bouncing back on its own. Or, the protagonist swings his racquet and misses, but the ball hits a bird flying over the court and goes back to the antagonist’s side of the net. That just doesn’t seem within the rules! We want the ball to bounce back and forth between the antagonist and protagonist–the Hero and Villain–each reacting to what the other has done.”
This cause and effect should be prevalent throughout the whole story. If something happens, there should be an explanation for why. A person, or an event, should have explicitly and obviously directed the action to happen. That basis for the event removes the unfathomable coincidence and retains the faith and the loyalty of the reader.
Are all coincidences bad though? One of the quotes that has always stuck in my mind is from Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling – “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating”. I agree with this…to an extent. In some of the most famous works of fiction coincidences have been used as a springboard; a means to get the story started with interesting and, sometimes, hilarious purpose. Often these work as they are disadvantageous to the main character(s) and are the only main coincidences in the story. This rule will not work if the detrimental coincidence happens halfway through a story, just as an excuse to cause drama out of nowhere, or if they happen on numerous occasions. Bad things happening constantly with no real cause is still an example of poor planning.
A coincidence can also work if it is minor, having no real impact on the framework of the major plot. Life isn’t always scripted, so adding small, inconsequential coincidences in to the story can actually make it more believable. They would need to be used sparingly, but doing so with a deft hand can add some subtle depth to the story. These types of coincidences should be handled with the expected disbelief by the characters. They should not act like they are anticipated and should address their own shock that something so random has occurred. If the reader can see that the characters themselves are shocked by these coincidences, then that to will reinforce the belief that the coincidence is genuinely realistic.
There is a stigma regarding coincidences in storytelling, and rightly so. Nothing can turn a reader off like a major plot point being resolved out of sheer coincidence. Without the cause we are left with an empty effect that can derail any story. The best way to avoid this is to plan your story. For every major event, make sure there is a cause for how it happened. Put the ideas down on paper, and then thread the whole line of events to make sure they are believable. If your story is planned properly, you will maintain the respect of the reader. This does not mean that they should be ignored entirely. Used in the right way, a coincidence can springboard the major thread of the novel, or can add depth and realism to the story. Interwoven sparingly throughout the narrative in subtle means, a coincidence can be a great thing. Just be sure that if you use them, you do so delicately and intentionally.