All the writing advice I’ve seen over the years warns against using coincidences in your stories. I’ve seen this recommendation over and over, both in the advice given, and stated by characters in novels and short stories (usually mysteries, usually police officers): “There is no such thing as a coincidence.”
Really? What kind of world are the people saying this living in? How about the time we ran into an old neighbor in a store when we were back visiting in a city? In a city of almost 400,000 people?
I’m sure everyone can remember one astonishing coincidence that happened in their lives.
So, we have established that coincidences do happen.
In writing, though, the thing is you don’t want a coincidence to occur that helps your characters. You want one to happen that causes them difficulty. That old neighbor we met in the store? We were delighted to see her. In a story, it should be a huge inconvenience, maybe even a dangerous one.
If you don’t believe me, read some old Agatha Christi novels. Almost every one of her books has a coincidence in it. And she’s the best-selling author on the planet. Even today.
Last night I was reading N OR M? by Dame Agatha. Put it down right after a big coincidence happened. It was set up properly ahead of time. Totally believable, although totally improbable. Then this morning I read that old advice about never, ever using a coincidence in a story.
If you’d prefer not to, that’s fine. But if your story leads you to a wonderful coincidence, take a chance and use it. After all, coincidences really do happen. There’s even a word for it.
(Aside—I wrote this post over a week ago—before the surprising coincidence of the Fed Ex package I wrote about on Wednesday occurred. Amazing coincidence, no?)
My advice—as always, take it or leave it. What’s your opinion about this? Have you seen coincidences done well, or badly in stories? What’s the one that happened to you that you remember best? I’d love to hear from you.
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