The Problem With Writing Coincidences
I’ll be writing about the video Coincidence in Storytelling – Writing better stories advice and tips, from the writing advice series I’m doing on YouTube with Jonathan McKinney.
A coincidence in a story is an event that happens that has no foreshadowing and no intent, it wasn’t something the character looked for or is a consequence of previous action, it just happens to them and impacts them and they react to it. Coincidences can trigger an interesting story, or progress an existing story, but they have to be handled with care. Having too many coincidences in your story can make it weak, and it shows a lack of planning and intent. I’ll be writing about why coincidences are a problem, and how to avoid writing them.
When you’re telling your story, you’re trying to emulate life to a certain extent, and because coincidences do happen in life, you can usually get away with using one coincidence in your story. If something strikingly coincidental and unusual happens in your story, say a character wins the lottery, you’ll find that your audience can go with you. But if you start layering these coincidences then they won’t. It becomes unbelievable and, somewhat, pointless. That’s not a story, that’s just a series of chance events that a character is reacting to. Even if TECHNICALLY you could have a long series of life changing coincidences happening, because life is random and coincidences are a possibility, it doesn’t make for a good story.
If you choose to have a coincidence in your story, shouldn’t be they key to solving the entire story. It is better suited to launching your story than solving it, and if it is too big and significant an event being done by coincidence, it becomes boring and unbelievable. Significant information and key events need to be written with intent, and a coincidence feels lazy and inept.
If you want to tell a story where a series of striking events happen, and in theory they could be coincidences, then you need to pick one to be a coincidence that launches a series of events that include the others. For instance, if you want to have your character win the lottery, discover a long lost sibling, and their husband leaves them. Yes, all those things could happen to a single character, but it’s better and more interesting if the lottery win changes who the character is and what they want in life, so the become active in pursuit of events that include a marital breakdown and questing for a long lost sibling. All these events are significant and unlikely to happen all to one person, especially in a short space of time, but if you make them part of chosen action by your character rather than coincidence, your audience will accept them.
If you want to write an event into your story that is tempting to write as a coincidence because of how simple it is, such as two characters bump into each other in the supermarket, then you can still avoid making it feel like a coincidence to your audience by using foreshadowing. If earlier in the story you mention that one character is going to a party and needs to buy supplies, and the other character is going to make dinner and needs ingredients, you have then reason for them to be in the same place at once in a way that feels natural and real, without needing to shine a light on it. And foreshadowing is how you can build to any event without having to use a coincidence.
If you read my post on Narrative Triplets, using one of those would be a perfect way of turning a coincidence into a planned and intended event. Sew into your story two previous mentions or incidences of your later coincidence, and by the time that third time comes around your audience will feel like it was intended from the start, and that is much more satisfying. It can still be a surprise, with subtle foreshadowing, but it won’t feel like an unbelievable coincidence.
If when you get to the end of your story, and there’s a final obstacle your character has to overcome, it might be tempting to let that be easy for them by way of a coincidence because of how much they’ve already been through. It’s often referred to as “deus ex machina” which means that a problem is suddenly fixed by work of God. A simple coincidence that ties a final bow on your story for your character. But resist that, make it a challenge, make that final obstacle something your character has to work for and overcome at cost and pain to themselves. A coincidence at the end of your story feels too easy and your audience will feel deflated and unsatisfied.
Coincidences imply you can’t be bothered, or you’re not capable, of writing a complete and well constructed story. Put the time and effort in, because your story and your audience are worth it.
You can find more writing advice on our YouTube channel where we’ll help you become a better and more confident writer. If you have any writing questions, comment below and we will try to do a video for every question we get!