Often when reading stories, I come across what can only be described as a million-to-one shot coincidence. You know the type I mean – a character in the book just happens to come across the secret letter that reveals who the villain is. The person the detective met in a random encounter at the café just happened to be the murderer they were looking for. The magic spell needed to unlock the hidden room was the one the hero accidentally stumbled across in the wizard’s book the day before. And it’s a million to one shot. Of course, there’s no alternative for the poor writer: if those coincidences weren’t there the story wouldn’t happen.
But actually, coincidence happens every single day. To every single person on the planet.
Look more closely at that million-to-one shot. I live in Brisbane, Australia. Population: 2.2 million. For the sake of argument, let’s round that down to 2 million. What are the chances that a million-to-one shot happens on any given day in the balmy, sunny (but cyclone-and-flood-prone) metropolis I love? You guessed it: about 2:1. So each day in Brisbane 2 million-to-one shots happen. Each day.
What about the planet as whole? Earth’s current population is 7.3 billion. Now that means that 7,300 million-to-one coincidences happen each day. Read that again: every day 7,300 people shout, ‘What just happened?’ as they face-palm themselves in disbelief.
So what about coincidences in stories? To what extent does the reader accept that the hero just happens to come across the key that unlocks the safe containing the documents everyone is after? How is it that the detective just happens to see the murderer talking to another witness, which forms the ultimate clue that solves the crime? What, he walked into the restaurant, out of all the restaurants in the city, at that exact convenient moment?
The bounds of credulity are often stretched (or ignored) for the sake of the story. In The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, Bilbo Baggins is lost in caverns under the Misty Mountains. Blindly groping through the tunnels, his hand just happens to touch the One Ring – the ownership of which will determine the fate of the world for years to come, cause wars and lead to the deaths of thousands – and he picks it and puts it in his pocket. Had this blindingly unlikely chance not happened, none of the ensuing story would have taken place. Tolkien tries to explain away the Ring’s million-to-one shot discovery in The Lord of the Rings:
‘Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker.’
(The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien: Book One, Chapter 2)
But is it enough just to put it down to fate? Of course, the heavily veiled Christianity in Tolkien’s works, which is in no way intrusive, could satisfy the reader, perhaps, that some ‘higher power’ is working through its mortal agents to defeat evil. But let’s face it, in the end it’s just a coincidence that Bilbo finds the One Ring.
And, in the milieu of that story, the coincidence can be ignored. The reader takes it for granted. We turn the page on Gandalf’s dismissive statement above and just accept that now the Ring has been found, all we have to do is worry about what’s going to happen to it.
The film Slumdog Millionaire is based on the premise that the events that occur during the childhood of a competitor in a game show just happen to provide him with the knowledge he needs to answer questions in a TV quiz. Somehow, the questions just happen to relate to events in his life which, by the sheerest good luck, give him the precise bit of knowledge he needs to answer. Coincidence? You bet. Big, fat coincidence stuffing its face with unlikelihood. But it’s a great movie, and we accept its excesses of credulity.
Real life is full of coincidences too. Millions of times a day. But here we are.
So what does the writer do? How far can he or she take that lucky shot?
I’m guilty of it myself in my writing. I would venture to say all writers are faced with this dilemma. Will the reader believe this? I lie in bed at night, tossing and turning as I try to work how such an unlikely chance as I plan to put in my book can actually be believed. Will the supposed ‘suspension of disbelief’ the writer aims for actually carry it off this time? It’s a tough call.
In the end, I think it comes down to careful writing. Surprising the reader at the climax of the story that the hero just happens to be an electronics engineer and can open the locked security door by tinkering with the circuits using the handy tool-kit he just happened to have in his pocket won’t fool anyone. The reader will curse the writer and toss the book away with a vow to never again read anything written by that particular pathetic hack. But, if the writer were to foreshadow somewhere near the start of the book that the hero has a degree in electronics and always carries tools around in order to tinker with various bits and pieces as he goes about his other adventures (in other words, giving him business to flesh out his character) then the fact that he has the appropriate knowledge and equipment at the necessary time is more acceptable.
So there’s two rules I guess that can help sell coincidence to some degree at least:
1) Don’t underestimate your reader. Readers are smart people, otherwise they wouldn’t be readers. And writers are smart, too, otherwise they wouldn’t be…no, hang on, that doesn’t work. But anyway, don’t stretch things beyond what you, the writer, would accept yourself if you were reading someone else’s story.
2) Use foreshadowing to ‘set up’ the coincidence long before it appears. If the reader can think at the appropriate moment, ‘Of course! The railway station porter saw the villain hiding the diamond in the safe-deposit locker on page 45! That’s how the hero knew where to look! Man, this guy’s a good writer!’ then you have done well.
Coincidence has its place, but it’s a dangerous toy to play with. However, it shouldn’t be something to fear. Just tell a good story and the reader will play the game.
I keep telling myself that, anyway.
Russell Proctor http://www.russellproctor.com