416. About Storytelling: Coincidences Are Cheap

Coincidences are a terrible storytelling device.

Seriously. In storytelling, coincidences are nearly always lazy, cheap, and frustrating. A storyteller’s job is to tell a believable story, and few things are less believable than convenient twists of fate.

Coincidences are an easy way to keep a story moving or set up exciting events, but not a compelling one. A character stumbles upon an important path, clue, or MacGuffin by accident. Complete strangers end up sharing some implausible connection. By blind luck, a character overhears a conversation relevant to the plot. These plot devices are all pretty common in fiction, and also pretty lame.

Whether from desperation, inexperience, or laziness, storytellers resort to all kinds of cheap ploys. I’m as guilty as anyone. I’ve used more lousy coincidences in my stories than I care to admit.

What exactly are the problems with using coincidences in storytelling?

Well, since I asked….

Coincidences are cheap.

The major events in a story should be earned. They should be built up carefully; foreshadowing beforehand, or explanations afterward, can be helpful. Coincidences are an easy shortcut, and a cheap way to keep the story moving.

Coincidences damage the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

Suspension of disbelief is a fancy term for the acceptance of fictional events. If I suspend my disbelief in, say, talking animals, I can watch The Lion King without constantly saying, “Hey, that lion is talking. That isn’t realistic! Lions don’t talk. This is stupid.” Some degree of suspension of disbelief is necessary for nearly any kind of story.

Coincidences make it seriously hard to believe a story; they damage the suspension of disbelief. An audience might be able to swallow a fantastical tale of magic or spaceships, but a story with too many unexplained or convenient coincidences is too contrived to accept.

Coincidences are clichéd.

I already mentioned a few common categories of coincidences in fiction: the overheard conversation, the important thing discovered by accident, and the hidden connection between unrelated characters. You have probably seen some of these before. I know I have.

Coincidences should be avoided whenever possible, if only because they have already been done to death.

Sometimes coincidences are unavoidable, or the only alternative is something even more implausible. That’s fine. Minor or infrequent coincidences may stretch plausibility, but not destroy it. A story may even offer an explanation for apparent coincidences, such as a guiding hand behind the scenes. At the very least, lampshading (i.e. acknowledging) a coincidence can make it a little easier to swallow. Coincidences do happen, after all!

In conclusion, though a good story may include coincidences, it should never depend on them.

2 thoughts on “416. About Storytelling: Coincidences Are Cheap

  1. I always love the posts about storytelling! Super helpful.

    So let me ask, what’s the way around a coincidence? Example, my NaNoWriMo first draft from last year sucks, because I wrote it in 30 days, but ignoring that, it has several large coincidences. One is that two of the main characters (on separate storylines) meet up at the end and it turns out they are old friends who haven’t seen each other in a long time. Then they team up to work towards the end-game of the book. To me, that seems to fit the “hidden connection between unrelated character” yeah? So what would one do instead? What’s the alternative to coincidence-inclusion?

    • Sadly, there is no universal solution to avoiding cheap coincidences in storytelling. They must be approached, considered, and corrected on a case-by-case basis.

      In my (admittedly limited) experience as a writer of fiction, it’s extremely helpful to consider all possible alternatives to achieve the same effect as the coincidence. If no alternative is possible, the coincidence should be foreshadowed somehow, or at least acknowledged.

      An example might be helpful.

      Probably the cheapest coincidence in any story I’ve written is the chapter in The Trials of Lance Eliot in which Lance meets Regis. Somehow, incredibly, Regis—who, coincidentally, turns out to the son of a character whom Lance met earlier in the story—was traveling across roughly the same part of the kingdom as Lance at roughly the same time, and got captured by the same band of Nomen, and was imprisoned (instead of killed) for reasons never made clear. The odds against such an event are astronomical. This coincidence is excruciatingly contrived, and I kinda hate it.

      If I wrote the story again, I would try to devise an explanation for Regis’s capture by the same Nomen who abduct Lance. Maybe the Nomen intentionally seek out Regis because they know of his importance to the kingdom. Maybe, after their escape, Regis suggests that his meeting with Lance wasn’t coincidence, but divine providence. Maybe, at the very least, Lance marvels at the odds against meeting Regis, but admits that coincidences do happen.

      In one way or another, I would try to soften the coincidence, or at least to acknowledge it.

      Even if a coincidence can’t be avoided, if the audience knows the storyteller is aware of it, they are generally more forgiving.

      I hope this helps. 😛

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