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View Full Version : Coincidence and the improbable; things that would never work in a novel


Mike Martyn
06-20-2007, 03:52 AM
We are cautioned that neither of these should be used in a novel despite the fact that they occur in real life all the time. Here are a couple of examples:

1. In my law practice I met with a couple of clients who couldn't speak English. They were Germans and fortunately my secretary's mother was visiting and she spoke German so she translated for me. Once we concluded the business at hand, theyexchanged pleasantries in German. I couldn't understand them but as they progressd they got more and more excited waving their hands about rather in the manner of the French. At long last my secretary's mother told me what they had been discussing.
The initial excitement was that they'd both lived in the same city in East Germany. The next level was that they both lived on the same street then the same house and as girls they both had thesame bedroom in that house. Germany is about eleven thousand miles from my office. True stroy but there is no way you could use it as a plot element;

2. One of my law partners recently resigned from the profession. He'd had it, the late nights, the rotten matrimonial clients who wouldn't pay his bills, the fact that he couldn't go into any of the local watering holes with out some drunken ex- husband threatening him. He is now employed as a grave digger. He says its outside work, he doesn't have to think any more and he can keep a bottle of rye behind the nearest tomb stone. Now that's a change of careers that simply would not fly in an novel IMHO.

Any thoughts?

ChaosTitan
06-20-2007, 03:54 AM
2. One of my law partners recently resigned from the profession. He'd had it, the late nights, the rotten matrimonial clients who wouldn't pay his bills, the fact that he couldn't go into any of the local watering holes with out some drunken ex- husband threatening him. He is now employed as a grave digger. He says its outside work, he doesn't have to think any more and he can keep a bottle of rye behind the nearest tomb stone. Now that's a change of careers that simply would not fly in an novel IMHO.

Any thoughts?

Actually, I could see this one as the set-up for a humorous urban fantasy, involving zombies lawyers and moonshine. :D

MelodyO
06-20-2007, 04:02 AM
Actually, I could see this one as the set-up for a humorous urban fantasy, involving zombies lawyers and moonshine. :D

This needs to be written. Somebody please to be doing it now. ::slips you a twenty::

As for coincidences, you're right. Real life is far too unlikely to use as a plot device. I suppose it's because we want the logic and structure that is so obviously missing from our own whacked out lives. :0)

My inevitable story: my sister and her husband stopped at a café in the middle of nowhere while they were on vacation and just happened to strike up a conversation with a man paying his bill at the same time as them. Yeah, he turned out to be our dad's best friend from childhood sixty years ago. Crazy!

Del
06-20-2007, 04:09 AM
I took a friend to my grandmother's. She lived in a nice country out of the way woodsy place. It was just a comfortable gettaway. It didn't take my grandmother 15 minutes to discover he and I were cousins. The rest of the visit they spent talking about common relatives and how everyone was doing...

Who'd a thunk it.

reenkam
06-20-2007, 04:12 AM
My aunt, uncle, and cousin took a train to disney world. On the way the train shut down at some station in georgia or something and they met an old coulple. 2 years later, the same exact thing happened. Same shut down. Same couple.

Gillhoughly
06-20-2007, 04:23 AM
Read the Fortean Times (http://www.forteantimes.com/). (Link is to the online archive of the print magazine. I never miss an issue!)


This kind of stuff happens more often than you'd think and has given rise to the phrase "Fortean coincidence (http://www.google.com/search?num=100&hl=en&safe=off&q=%22fortean+coincidence%22)."

Will Lavender
06-20-2007, 04:43 AM
1. In my law practice I met with a couple of clients who couldn't speak English. They were Germans and fortunately my secretary's mother was visiting and she spoke German so she translated for me. Once we concluded the business at hand, theyexchanged pleasantries in German. I couldn't understand them but as they progressd they got more and more excited waving their hands about rather in the manner of the French. At long last my secretary's mother told me what they had been discussing.
The initial excitement was that they'd both lived in the same city in East Germany. The next level was that they both lived on the same street then the same house and as girls they both had thesame bedroom in that house. Germany is about eleven thousand miles from my office. True stroy but there is no way you could use it as a plot element...

I don't know why not. That, to me, sounds like a terrific short story.

It's like everything else, I guess: if you incorporate coincidence well, it'll work.

JoNightshade
06-20-2007, 05:21 AM
I think coincidences like this are okay if used in moderation. And in fiction that takes place on earth. What really drives me nuts is having a universe with umpteen planets and the two characters who just happen to need to meet just HAPPEN to wind up in the same bar (or whatever place). I'm sorry, but... okay, Earth? "It's a small world." Galaxy? That's darn near impossible.

job
06-20-2007, 05:37 AM
Somebody's going to say this. Might as well be me.

The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense.
Tom Clancy

Dancre
06-20-2007, 05:38 AM
We are cautioned that neither of these should be used in a novel despite the fact that they occur in real life all the time. Here are a couple of examples:

1. In my law practice I met with a couple of clients who couldn't speak English. They were Germans and fortunately my secretary's mother was visiting and she spoke German so she translated for me. Once we concluded the business at hand, theyexchanged pleasantries in German. I couldn't understand them but as they progressd they got more and more excited waving their hands about rather in the manner of the French. At long last my secretary's mother told me what they had been discussing.
The initial excitement was that they'd both lived in the same city in East Germany. The next level was that they both lived on the same street then the same house and as girls they both had thesame bedroom in that house. Germany is about eleven thousand miles from my office. True stroy but there is no way you could use it as a plot element;

2. One of my law partners recently resigned from the profession. He'd had it, the late nights, the rotten matrimonial clients who wouldn't pay his bills, the fact that he couldn't go into any of the local watering holes with out some drunken ex- husband threatening him. He is now employed as a grave digger. He says its outside work, he doesn't have to think any more and he can keep a bottle of rye behind the nearest tomb stone. Now that's a change of careers that simply would not fly in an novel IMHO.

Any thoughts?
I would suggest instead of writing coincidence into your story, you keep a log of these interesting instances and write about them. You have 2 interesting stories here. I suggest you use these two things in stories and not worry so much about coincidences.

kim

Ken Schneider
06-20-2007, 06:24 AM
We are cautioned that neither of these should be used in a novel despite the fact that they occur in real life all the time. Here are a couple of examples:

2. One of my law partners recently resigned from the profession. He'd had it, the late nights, the rotten matrimonial clients who wouldn't pay his bills, the fact that he couldn't go into any of the local watering holes with out some drunken ex- husband threatening him. He is now employed as a grave digger. He says its outside work, he doesn't have to think any more and he can keep a bottle of rye behind the nearest tomb stone. Now that's a change of careers that simply would not fly in an novel IMHO.

Any thoughts?

Why not. Think about it.

How could this guy use his new job.

The first thought that came to mind, since he's digging graves all day anyway, he could kill all those bastards that bugged the shit out of him and didn't pay him when he was a lawyer, and bury them in his own graveyard for sweet redemption.

The first senario, which I cut out above.

Same town, same street, same room. Someone has a secret in that group.

The Dad was a Nazi, and the interpreter knows it, and knows he killed bunches of Jews. Now all she has to do is make friends with the people that came to the office and find him and turn him in. Of course this means a harrowing trip to some exotic place on an adventure to track him down with her detective boyfriend or some such .

There's a fictional story in anything.

nevada
06-20-2007, 06:28 AM
Coincidence can start a novel or a story, it cannot solve the conflict or end it. It's as simple as that.

Stijn Hommes
06-20-2007, 04:34 PM
Use coincidences in moderation and preferably not as an easy out for a tight spot. Ken was right though. Such conincidences can spark very interesting stories.

jerrymouse
06-20-2007, 05:22 PM
i was friends with a guy in my late teens-lost touch now- we had the same christian name and the same birthday, same year. it turned out we were born in the same hospital-caerffili miners hospital.
such a coincidence would never work in a book.

incidentaly; we had to find out who was the oldest, it was me by 5 hours. i was then know as old jerrymouse and he young jerrymouse.

jerrymouse is not my real name.

aruna
06-20-2007, 05:33 PM
Coincidence can start a novel or a story, it cannot solve the conflict or end it. It's as simple as that.

That's the crux. If coincidence sets the story going it's fine.

We had a thread on coincidence not too long ago. Anyone intersted can google it.

Coincidences happen to me al the time. I just remembered another one: I was trying to contact a young friend, Josh, in London but his phone number seemed to have changed and I couldn't get hold of him. I went to Paris for a book affair. I flew to Charkles de Gaulle then took a bus into Paris. Guess who was on the bus? Josh!

In fiction, such a meeting could start a novel off. But if I had needed info from Josh to solve the main problem of the story it;s a no-no.

seun
06-20-2007, 05:42 PM
The first example wouldn't work for me in fiction, but the second would make a great start to a story.

Sassee
06-20-2007, 07:47 PM
If you use the coincidence as part of a plot-mover (gets it started, ends it, or gives the plot a significant turnaround) either of those scenarios could work.

For your first example, maybe this meeting is crucial to the plot. These people are in town for a reason, and maybe your secretary helps you reveal that reason.

For your second example, that bit of career change could go anywhere. Like ChaosTitan said, maybe you could use that as a means to get that character jump started in a particular direction... maybe he was meant to be in that graveyard. Maybe someone's going to stir up trouble there, and he's the only one that can stop it, and good thing he was there, right? Right.

But also, like job said, if you're going to use it, it has to make sense. Putting it in there for the sake of having something weird happen that doesn't move the plot won't work.

NeuroFizz
06-20-2007, 10:08 PM
Coincidence can start a novel or a story, it cannot solve the conflict or end it. It's as simple as that.
I would add that in between the two (beginning and end), a coincidental event could be a very useful tool for a writer in any number of ways.

Roger J Carlson
06-20-2007, 10:17 PM
I don't know, coincidences are used all the time in mysteries to advance the plot. How often have you read a mystery where one of the characters makes an off-hand remark which sparks an Ah-ha! moment in another character and the puzzle is solved?

nevada
06-20-2007, 10:49 PM
An offhand remark is not a coincidence. A coincidence is if you're stuck in a room with several people and you need a locksmith to get out, and it's halfway through the book and oh look, by coincidence one of the people in the room is a locksmith. Or at the end of the novel, the final clue to the location of the treasure is written in ancient transkrit and lo and behold, the guy driving the taxy just happens to be an expert in ancient transkrit. That's a total no-no.

janetbellinger
06-20-2007, 10:54 PM
Coincidence is definitely a good way to start a novel, in my opinion. For example, in Joan Barfoot's "Critical Injuries," the novel starts with a series of coincidences which result in the main female character becoming paralysed.

Spiny Norman
06-20-2007, 10:58 PM
Amelie worked pretty well as a movie and it was basically a series of coincidences.

Between the Bridge and the Water and a whole lot of Vonnegut, not to mention Dickens worked on coincidence.

I think bizarre, improbable things happening can work so long as the message in the book you're giving is at least partially "boy, life is crazy, ain't it?" and the characters react with either wonder or confusion.

If the characters and plot just mosey on along as though nothing's happened, well... That's probably a little bit different.

dahosek
06-20-2007, 11:01 PM
There's a fine line between coincidence (which is good) and deus ex machina (which is bad). nevada's examples fall on the deus ex side of the line.

Off the top of my head, if I were to attempt to articulate a general principle (which could easily be countered in any direction), it would be that using coincidence to spark a crisis is fine, using it to solve a crisis, not so much.

Dave.C.Robinson
06-20-2007, 11:07 PM
I've seen this discussed before, and what always seems to come out of this is that it's fine to use coincidence to set up the problem. It's only when you're using it to resolve the problem that people scream.

Bad coincidence good
Good coincidence bad.

Spiny Norman
06-20-2007, 11:15 PM
What if the theme of the book is order vs. chaos? Coincidence versus holistic intent? Such as in The Hitchiker's Guide series or, again, Amelie? Both of those are not traditional plot lines, and both of them depend heavily upon coincidence to make their theme.

In a regular plot, sure, you can't have a Deus Ex. But when, say, the story is about a main character struggling to decide whether or not the world is inherently random or inherently ordered, doesn't that take the "resolve/cause" rule out of the equation?