How to Use Coincidence in Stories

Two butterflies

Coincidence?

Can a story contain a convenient coincidence without being deemed lazy and weak? After all, Charles Dickens’s work abounds with such narrative devices. I believe the answer is yes, but only if it is limited to one per story and is carefully woven into the tale.

Although life is riddled with what appears to be magnificent coincidences—the meeting of one’s future spouse by chance, the winning of a grand prize, the procurement of a lucrative job based on an impromptu internet search, stories are a different kettle of fish. Here, the reader or audience expects the material to be adroitly planned and crafted. A series of coincidences is viewed for what it is: laziness on the part of the writer.

In Screenwriting, Professor Richard Walter, too, is of the opinion that coincidence can work if the writer makes it important enough, and has it launch or end the story as part of a main structural event, such as the inciting incident or turning point.

In Preston Sturges’s Christmas in July, for example, well-intentioned pals fool a friend into believing that he has won a contest. In the end, it turns out that he actually has won the contest. Why does such a coincidence work? Partly because it is the only one in the film, and partly because it spins on a deliciously crafted irony.

In The China Syndrome, Jane Fonda and cameraman Michael Douglas, happen to be filming a story at a nuclear station. Something malfunctions at the plant and they record the incident. Here the coincidence is not offensive.

Imagine, however, if, in seeking to add twists and turns to the tale, the writer had introduced a scene in which the footage was lost or destroyed. The crew then returned to shoot more material, when, lo and behold, another nuclear mishap occurred! Audiences would be outraged. What worked the first time around would not work again because such a coincidence would be unimaginative and repetitive.

Summary

A single coincidence works best early or late in a story, spins on irony or surprise, and forms part of a major structural event such as the inciting incident or the first or second turning point.

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2 thoughts on “How to Use Coincidence in Stories

  1. Christina Carson (@CarsonCanada)

    There is nothing more amateurish in writing than the lazy use of coincidence, but as you say, the beauties of irony can spring so well from the perfect coincidence. It is a skill I need more facility with, for it is something a writer must have in their kit bag. What has held me up, ironically, is my distaste for irony in my own life. Funny, eh.

    Reply
    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      I hear you. But yes, quite ironic don’t you think? Life experiences are precisely what are needed to make our writing more authentic!

      Reply

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