[This article originally appeared in Writer's Digest magazine. Subscribe today to get WD all year long.]
We've all read stories in which the cavalry arrives just in time to save the day, or the hero just happens to find the time machine/ray gun/escape hatch/shark repellent right when he needs it in order to survive the climax. Although coincidences may happen in real life, they can kill believability if they appear at the wrong time or aren't handled the right way in a story.
Coincidence is necessary to get a story started, but is often deadly at the end. However, too many authors use it backward: They work hard to get readers to buy into the plausibility of the beginning, but then bring in chance or convenience at the climax—when readers’ coincidence tolerance is at its lowest.
For handling coincidence deftly, follow these seven strategies to unlock its power.
7 Clever Strategies for Harnessing Coincidences in Fiction
Strategy 1: Capitalize on the coincidence that initiates your story
We don’t typically think of it this way, but really all stories start with a coincidence.
Stories begin when the author dips into the stream of cause and effect and pulls out a moment that initiates all that will follow. Readers accept this without consciously identifying the event as coincidental:
- The young couple serendipitously meets in a tiny Parisian cafe.
- The suicide bomber ends up killing the president’s niece in the airline attack.
- The woman’s fiancé is diagnosed with terminal cancer the day he proposes marriage.
Readers don’t say, “Yeah right. The detective who ends up being the protagonist just happens to be assigned to the case that this book is about. I don’t buy it.”
Of course not. Readers know that a story must start somewhere and, whether they realize it or not, an event that doesn’t require much in the way of explanation typically gets things rolling.
Use the story’s opening sequence to justify incidents that would otherwise seem too convenient. This is where coincidences will fly under your readers’ radar.
For example, a cryptic phone call can set up a number of storylines:
“So, is the meeting still on for 7?”
“No. We’ve had to move it back an hour so Fayed can make it.”
“And we’re still on target for tomorrow at the raceway for—”
“It’s all set. Everything is set. Now, no more questions.”
If this type of conversation occurs early on in the book, readers won’t much care why it was Fayed couldn’t come at the originally scheduled time, and you don’t have to explain. However, if the conversation were to happen later in the story, readers may very well be wondering why Fayed was going to be late—and they’ll be expecting a good reason.
If your story requires the inclusion of an unlikely event, move it closer to the start—or even use it as the inciting incident—to capitalize on your readers’ willingness to suspend disbelief.
Strategy 2: Avoid justifying what readers readily accept
In contrast to what we’ve just established—that the earlier a coincidence occurs in the story, the less it needs to be justified in the minds of readers—many authors spend excessive time trying to explain why the opening should make sense.
Often, they’ll include an exciting hook, then drop into backstory to explain what instances led up to the hook occurring. This not only hurts the flow of the narrative, but also decreases escalation and hampers your readers’ engagement with the story.
Can lightning strike the person standing beside your protagonist during the first scene of the story? Yes, of course. Is that a coincidence? Absolutely. Will readers accept it? Sure, because that’s how the story begins.
Can lightning strike the bad guy at the climax right when it looks like he’s about to kill the hero? Well, technically anything can happen, but if it does, it’s likely to solicit eye rolls and book throwing—unless the main character somehow causes that to happen through a conscious choice and in a way that readers will readily believe but not anticipate.
Does your hero need to know karate late in the story? Show him sparring early. You don’t need to explain why or when he started sparring; you don’t need to give a history of all the karate tournaments he’s been in since high school. All of that information is unnecessary. He’s a black belt. Got it. Now move on.
Strategy 3: Leverage genre conventions
Coincidences are more acceptable in some genres than in others. For instance, fate tends to play a bigger role in romance, fantasy, and horror: The lovers are destined to be together (regardless of when in the story that destiny is revealed), the prophecy about the young wizard must come true, and readers might anticipate that the demon will somehow survive at the end to wreak havoc again.
In those cases, or when the thematic nature of a story revolves around fate, destiny, prophecy, or divine intervention, coincidences play a bigger role in the story’s progression.
However, most people believe that free will plays a more significant role in our destiny than fate does, so even in genres that are friendly to coincidences, consider searching for a way to have a freely made choice rather than simply destiny or an act of God resolve things at the climax.
Strategy 4: Point out coincidences in the middle
Every coincidence except the opening one requires a leap of faith. So, the further you move into a story, the more coincidences will undermine believability.
Certain forces press in upon a story to help shape it—believability, tension, escalation, characterization, and so on. Sometimes authors overlook the importance of causality, or the fact that each subsequent event in a story is causally linked. In other words, every event is caused by the one that precedes it.
At times, the flow of a story might require a break-in causality, a jump in logic, or the necessity for something inexplicable to happen. If that’s the case in your story, readers will often sense a gap in believability—unless you point it out to them.
You can do this by having a character note that what’s happening seems unbelievable:
“It just doesn’t seem like Judy to lose her patience like that.”
“I can’t believe he would say that.”
“I could tell something was up. She just wasn’t acting like herself.”
Readers will think, “Aha! Yes! I thought something weird was going on, too!” And, rather than be turned off by what seems too unbelievable or too convenient, they’ll be drawn deeper into the story. They’ll trust that there’s more going on than meets the eye and that, in the broader context of where the story is heading, this event will retrospectively make sense.
Strategy 5: Anticipate readers’ reactions
Be your own worst critic of seemingly arbitrary events in your story. Think through the reactions that readers will have to the events as they occur:
Oh, that’s convenient.
I don’t buy it.
This doesn’t make sense.
Why doesn’t he just …?
We often talk about silencing our inner critics when we write, but this is one time when you should listen to that voice. When it pipes up, find a way in your story to answer it.
Strategy 6: Look for what’s missing
Avoiding coincidence isn’t just about spotting what does occur that’s not the logical result of the preceding events, it’s also about recognizing what doesn’t occur that should, given the current circumstances.
For example, the woman is being chased by the knife-wielding killer. She runs out of the house and tries to fire up the car—it won’t start. (Oh, that’s convenient.)
So, she gets out of the car and runs to the cellar instead of toward the highway. (I don’t buy it.)
Where she rallies her strength and punches the killer in the face, knocking him out. (Yeah, right.)
In those three cases, the coincidence comes from the actions she takes. But such contrivances are equally ineffective when they come from what should happen but too conveniently does not:
She carefully and quietly steps over his unconscious body to get to the staircase again. (This doesn’t make sense. Why doesn’t she tie him up, finish him off, use that knife of his against him?)
Any time your readers would have one of those reactions, you’ve identified a coincidence that needs to be addressed in the service of the story’s believability.
Strategy 7: Foreshadow to remove coincidence from the climax
Of all the scenes in your story, the climax should contain the least amount of coincidence. Foreshadowing is a powerful tool that can serve to remove coincidence, and thus the climax should be foreshadowed more than any other scene.
I’ve already pointed out that in far too many stories, things are reversed. Why do so many authors use coincidence to resolve the climax? Well, because they’re trying to come up with an ending that readers won’t guess. As the author brainstorms ways to surprise them, he also runs out of believable ways for the protagonist to solve his own problem, or to make the defining choice of the story in a way that will satisfy readers. It’s much easier To just put the protagonist in a terrible fix, stick her in
a situation that looks impossible to escape from, and then have someone else show up in the nick of time to save her.
But that’s lazy writing, and it’s not giving readers what they want.
Conclusions depend on choices, not on chance, coincidence, or rescue. By definition the hero should do the rescuing rather than needing to be rescued. He makes a choice that depends not on coincidence but instead on causality, and that choice determines the ending of the story.
Think back to Strategy 2: If your character needs that Swiss Army Knife at the climax, foreshadow earlier that she has it with her. If he needs to be a rock climber, show him on the crag with his buddies in a previous scene. If she needs to be able to solve complex mathematic equations in her head, foreshadow that she’s a human calculator.
The location, the character, the asset (or liability) that comes into play at the climax—anything that ends up being significant to the outcome of the struggle—should have been introduced long ago, or it’ll seem too convenient that it arrives when the protagonist needs it most.
At its best, foreshadowing should make so much sense in that earlier scene that readers don’t notice that the scene is foreshadowing anything at all. Only later, when that special skill, ability, or asset shows up again, will readers think, Oh yeah! That’s right. He knows how to fly a helicopter. Excellent. I forgot about that.
Readers should never think that the story’s conclusion “came out of nowhere,” but rather that it logically followed all that preceded it, even if the story ends with a twist.