Coincidence

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Paul Whybrow

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It's a common cliché in crime stories and thrillers, for the protagonist to say something like, "I don't believe in coincidences." At which point, our hero gamely goes his own way, and, after disproving synchronicity collars or kills the baddy.

But, in real life, coincidences do happen. In the mid-1980s, I worked as a milkman, and took a holiday in the Black Forest of Germany. I saw a few British registered cars, but didn't think anything of it, until I returned to work and one of my customers showed me a photograph she'd taken of my Mini sitting next to her vehicle in a car-park 600 miles from where we lived. She'd told me she was going on holiday, and to cancel her milk delivery, which I made a note of for the relief roundsman, but we had no idea we were going to the same place.

Even weirder, was a coincidence that I didn't discover for 35 years. I helped to run a community centre from 2005-2009, and one of my friends and colleagues was born within two days of me, in a neighbouring county. One day we were talking about the career choices we'd made as teenaged school pupils, and I happened to mention that I'd been unexpectedly interviewed, on my 18th birthday, by a mysterious and very tall gentleman from the Civil Service, who asked me searching questions, even though I'd never expressed an interest in working for this government administrative body.

My friend looked at me with a grin, saying, "Me, too...you know who he was, don't you?" I had no idea, and was stunned when he told me that this crusty British gent was one of the senior figures in MI5, who was looking for recruits! I somehow doubt that I'd have ended up as 007, but it proved what a small world it is, that we'd been interviewed by the same spook days apart in 1972.

The use of coincidence in famous literature is well-known. In Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games Katniss's sister Prim just happens to get drawn as a tribute in her first eligible year. D'Artagnan somehow chooses to insult Porthas, Athos and Aramis on his first day in town in Alexander Dumas's The Three Musketeers. Jane Eyre left Mr Rochester, fleeing into the night alone, and winds up exhausted and starving on the doorstep of a random house—that, amazingly enough, belongs to her long-lost relatives—Charlotte Brontë hardly hung her head in shame, for this coincidence was a plot device that gave Jane money and breathing space away from Mr Rochester.

In my WIP, which is told from a multiple POV, I have one main antagonist, a murderous art gallery owner, along with four other criminals—a cat burglar, a prostitute and twin brothers who've been stealing money from car-park ticket machines and ATMs. The action takes place in a small Cornish town of 6,000 residents, so it's quite possible that they'd interact. Indeed, 30,000 words into the story, some of them already have, for the cat burglar stole three forged paintings from an overflow store owned by the art gallery owner, and used them as payment for sexual services from the tart—who's also serviced the twins!

I'm casting around, in my addled brain, for one big coincidence that will draw two of the characters together in a fateful way; maybe the tart goes to have the paintings valued by the homicidal art gallery owner, who originally commissioned the forgeries; or, perhaps the cat burglar breaks into his gallery and they fight.

Any story requires a suspension of disbelief, for the reader to accept that it's within the realms of possibility, however unlikely. Villains in the underworld do business with one another, so I'll come up with something that's plausible.

Have any of you used coincidence in your plots?

What about strange coincidences in your own life?

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Coincidences which aren’t too convenient make sense in fiction because life is full of coincidences. I suppose, some of them aren’t very coincidental. I mean, it isn’t coincidence that Prim gets picked but chance. Someone has to win the lottery and also the word coincidence requires two things happening at the same time. That’s what the prefix co means. I’d say the real coincidence was that the baker’s son, someone she already had an interesting history with, was chosen. But I like that book and can’t fault her. Also, when else is someone going to insult a musketeer but on his first day in town? Before he knows who the important people are? There was no reason to think he saw the musketeers on facebook before he showed up in town. I found that perfectly plausible. And ... yeah ... in oldish English books all of the English people seemed to know one another or be related somehow ... as though it were a small town that took a long time to go from house to house. Charlotte Bronte wasn’t the only one .... I don’t know if this was the truth of the situation... but maybe. It’s certainly something we’ve become used to with Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte... and I suppose others. These aren’t all coincidences to me... the shared acquaintances I think are the most coincidental.

Can’t you have your characters all run into one another at the pub. According to Midsomer Murders, everyone goes to the pub. Or, maybe have an art festival.

To me the coincidence is that they know one another but ... not all that conicedental either is it? There’s a reason for it. The dictionary defines coincidences as things which happen for no apparent reason.... no causal connection. Well, there’s a cause. It’s a small town.

I think I try not to use coincidences... by definition they have no meaning or reason.

I keep thinking of Deus Ex Machina when ... coincidence becomes oh so convenient.

And when detectives or anyone say, “There are no coincidences” aren’t they saying everything has a reason... everything is connected.... which acts as impetus for them to explain the seemingly random occurrences and explain their connection? Solve the mystery...Because they aren’t actually coincidences... things which seem like coincidences would be clues for a detective.
 
@Amber said, 'I keep thinking of Deus Ex Machina when ... coincidence becomes oh so convenient. '

Yes, that's such a cop-out. Stories must illustrate causality or they aren't stories. They're knickers with no elastic. There's room for co-incidences, but not at the expense of causality.
 
Can’t you have your characters all run into one another at the pub. According to Midsomer Murders, everyone goes to the pub. Or, maybe have an art festival.

To me the coincidence is that they know one another but ... not all that conicedental either is it? There’s a reason for it. The dictionary defines coincidences as things which happen for no apparent reason.... no causal connection. Well, there’s a cause. It’s a small town.

When you want to hide from someone in a town of 6,000 people, you have no chance. Once I went into a library in a village of 16,000 people, 18 miles from where I lived, with the intention of having a bit of writing time while waiting for my dad to come out of his appointment. Long story cut short, but I had parked myself unwittingly by the meeting room. When the name of my employer came up, I found myself tuning into the conversation. It was about me! Seriously, on a Saturday morning in a town I rarely visited one person was relaying a 'run-in' they'd had a few days previously with an employee at this company (me). I rushed into the room, told them I was shutting the door, they asked why, I told them why and left them to a stunned silence.

The problem with fiction is that it can't be as coincidental as real life or it wouldn't be believable.

But in a town of 6,000 people you would expect the inhabitants to meet in a pub or a shop and definitely the post office queue, as everyone in a town seems to join the post office queue at the same time.
 
But in a town of 6,000 people you would expect the inhabitants to meet in a pub or a shop and definitely the post office queue, as everyone in a town seems to join the post office queue at the same time.

People wait in line to take care of snail mail?

It’s hard for me to know exactly what it’s like living in a small town. I hope there are better things about it than people gossiping about you within earshot.

I’d believe your story in fiction. It always depends on the rest of the story though. But I can see it in a humorous cozy mystery. I think that’s why cozy mysteries often take place in small communities. Everyone is in everyone else’s pocket.
 
The entire country of New Zealand is like a small town. They say you're only two degrees of separation from anyone else in the country, and I've come to believe that number is overinflated. I can't go anywhere without either seeing someone I know, or someone who knows one of my friends or neighbours...and I've only lived here for a dozen years. It's to the point that, when I get on a plane, I scan the people already seated, assuming I'll recognise a few. Coincidences happen as a matter of course here. Not at all far-fetched for them to show up in fiction, really.
 
The use of coincidence in famous literature is well-known. In Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games Katniss's sister Prim just happens to get drawn as a tribute in her first eligible year.

I don't think that's a coincidence. It may be a statistically unlikely inciting event, but it can't be a coincidence because it's a single event, coincidental with nothing.
 
I suppose you could say that the whole plot of my story Lost Time revolves around a single coincidence. A man is hypnotised and suddenly decides to get off a train just before it crashes. You could call it coincidence, I call it premonition.
 
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