Coincidence in Fiction

I don’t like coincidence in fiction.

Not long ago I read a book that was full of coincidences. Big ones. Little ones. The book was a gift, so I kept reading with hopes the story would improve. It didn’t. The heroine got what she wanted through a coincidence–which made the outcome less believable and me less interested in reading more from the author. Coincidence in fiction can make us feel cheated when characters get out of trouble through serendipity instead of logic.

Intersecting Events
Intersecting Events

As we know, a coincidence is defined as the unplanned intersection of two or more related events. In real life, it grabs our attention.

My daughter called me recently and described her trip to the Catskills. The Hudson River Valley was so beautiful, she said, that an art movement had grown up around it. Right after her phone call, I watched Jeopardy!, which happened to have a question on the Hudson River School, and I was able to answer it correctly only because of what I’d learned a few minutes earlier from my daughter. What I know about art wouldn’t fill a thimble, and my daughter doesn’t watch Jeopardy!–neither of us planned the intersection.

Not long ago I came across a book about four great hymn writers, Well With My Soul, by Rachael Phillips. One section was on Philip P. Bliss, who wrote the music to Spafford’s poem, It Is Well With My Soul, and the music and lyrics to Jesus Loves Even Me. On the following Sunday at church we sang those two hymns.

During the next week, I read about Frances Ridley Havergal, who wrote the lyrics to Take My Life and Let It Be. On the next Sunday we sang that hymn.

Isn’t that something? Singing those old songs right after I read about them made me sit up and pay attention. (Some would call the timing providential rather than coincidence.)

Although coincidences happen to me several times a year, I can’t depend on them to solve my problems. They can’t solve problems satisfactorily for fictional characters, either. Unless the author is Charles Dickens.

September 9, 2014

4 thoughts on “Coincidence in Fiction

  1. Good post, Norma! LOL at the last line. I think you’re right–coincidence doesn’t usually work in fiction, although it can play a pretty big part in real life. It especially doesn’t work if it solves the protag’s problems. Readers seem to accept it if it’s a negative coincidence, though! (Just like life, we think–Murphy’s law.). Btw, a useful word for meaningful coincidence is synchronicity (à la Carl Jung).

    1. The last line came about because Lee always mentions Dickens when I complain about coincidence in fiction. Thanks, Judy!

  2. Hey, the coincidence continued… After talking with you about the Hudson River Valley artists, I went to the post office for stamps and they had just come out with a series of stamps with paintings from the Hudson River School. Of course I chose those!

    Do you think that all these coincidences (or providences) are really that unusual? I’m wondering if it’s just that we notice threads of similarity once we’re tuned in – kind of like when I was first pregnant and I suddenly saw pregnant women all over the place.

    1. That’s so funny, Laurie. Yes, I think coincidences are unusual, else they wouldn’t stand out. But I also think they happen most to people who, as you said, are tuned in to what’s going on around them. Thanks for commenting!

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