In 1953, a man in Brooklyn bought a newspaper and paid for it with a nickel. Later that day, the newsboy happened to drop that nickel, and it split apart on the sidewalk, revealing a tiny frame of microfilm. And so began the tortuous path that led to the apprehension of Colonel Rudolf Abel, Soviet master spy. True story, but would your reader buy it in a work of fiction? Or would he or she go, “Yeah, right!” and turn the page?
The “yeah, right” reaction is easily evoked by such a too-obvious coincidence. More than one “yeah, right” in the same story, and the reader will probably put the book down and use his or her precious time for something else.
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We’re all entitled to one whizz-bang coincidence that either starts our story or turns it into a new and unexpected direction. Think Casablanca: “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.”
And if she hadn’t, we’d all be the poorer for it.
In A Study in Scarlet, Watson runs into Young Stamford, a medical colleague, who asks him what he’s up to.
“Looking for lodgings,” I answered. “Trying to solve the problem as to whether it is possible to get comfortable rooms at a reasonable price.”
“That’s a strange thing,” remarked my companion; “you are the second man today that has used that expression to me.”
And so Dr. John H. Watson meets Sherlock Holmes, and the most famous partnership in literature begins.
But put too many coincidences in a story, or make them too blatant, and you’re asking for that “yeah, right” response. Movie people tell the industry story of King Vidor, who directed the Kansas scenes of the Wizard of Oz (although some attribute this story to Victor Fleming) and decided that the dress suit Frank Morgan was wearing was too new and shiny for a traveling magician. After some frantic searching, they found a used suit in a thrift store and, as luck would have it, it fit Morgan perfectly. After the day’s shooting, the costume lady took the suit back to sponge it off and happened to notice the label. “Made by Hermann Bros,” it read, “expressly for L Frank Baum.” In awe at the coincidence, they told the publicity man. He shook his head. “Can’t use it,” he said. “They’ll think I made it up.”
And you don’t want the reader to think you made it up.
Coincidences always seem contrived, and more than one or two in a story will make the whole plot seem contrived. Now, the whole story is contrived – that’s what fiction is – but if your reader becomes aware of that as he or she is reading, you’ve got a “yeah, right” waiting to happen. The Willing Suspension of Disbelief is what we call the aura that’s cast around a story while the reader is immersed in it. It doesn’t merely seem to be true, it seems to be happening, right there, in front of his or her eyes. We break this aura at our peril.
Fictional coincidences are the result of sloppy writing and looking for an easy out. There was a French mystery movie – I have happily forgotten its name – in which after a certain point, wherever the hero went, the villains were waiting for him with a gun, or a bomb, or a speeding car, or another form of mayhem. How did they know where to find him? I don’t know, and neither did the director. They just did. Yeah, right.
Coincidences can usually be altered to tie them better into the fabric of the story. Let’s look at some possibilities. They may seem silly so baldly stated, but ones as obvious as this happen in the best-regulated story without constant vigilance.
– Ralph is sitting in a coffee shop he just happened to walk into. George, somehow knowing he’s there, enters looking to hire him or to shoot him, depending on the story. Yeah, right. But if he called his secretary after sitting down, then, “Your secretary told me where to find you.” Oh.
– Suzanne loses a beloved diamond ring. Two years later, she is slitting open a salmon, and the ring falls out. Yeah, right. It better be a practical joke by Susan’s best friend, or I for one will walk right out of that story and into another one.
According to the Greek myth, it had been prophesied that Oedipus King of Thebes would unknowingly kill his own father and marry his mother. And so he did, through a string of fantastical coincidences. But the Greek poets knew better than to allow mere coincidences to explain their myths: They made it clear that it was the scheming of the gods that made him do it.
So unless you count yourself among the gods, you should eschew such plot twists. Your fiction will be better for it.
Michael Kurland is the author of more than 30 novels, many of them mysteries, and has been nominated for two Edgars and the American Book Award. His latest novel is Who Thinks Evil.
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