Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Coincidence? Really?

By Jennifer Young

Picture the scene. My husband and I, on a rare Friday evening out, are in the bar of a hotel. We haven’t been here for years. “Ah,” he reflects over his glass of wine, “I used to come in here every Friday after work.” He names his colleagues – let’s call then Ben and Jerry. We enjoy our meal and as we go out through the bar, there are Ben and Jerry, sitting in the corner.

We’re still laughing about it in the morning when we’re out for a family breakfast at the local farm shop. One of us mentions my sister who, as far as I know, doesn’t even know this place exists: within minutes, in she walks. And so we joke about who we’re going to meet next that day and of course, as we stop off for weekend treats at the local shopping centre, who should we bump into but another family who live a good fifty miles away, buried in the depths of rural Perthshire.

I wonder just how much of that you believe. Have I strained your credibility? Can you believe one of these meetings, or two, or three? Can you believe them over the space of a week but not a day, or do you struggle with the fact that only one of these meetings took place where we might reasonably have expected? Are you shaking your head thinking: oh, come on…you surely don’t expect me to believe that?

Did you believe A Tale of Two Cities?
Personally I’m highly critical of coincidence within a framework of fiction. I regularly shake my head over it. But I do believe in it. In real life it’s serendipitous, comes out of nowhere and when we met Ben and Jerry in that same place after all those years I didn’t shake my head and think it too much of a coincidence. (I never quite believed A Tale of Two Cities, for example.)

In fiction it’s different. I find myself irritated by too big a coincidence, especially when it’s so clearly a mighty contrivance, a crank of the handle that seems the only way to shift a creaking plot. I can think of very many. And yet I’m sure other people’s lives are full of coincidences of the highest drama.

TV presenter Richard Madeley, for example, described an incident in his family history when his grandfather, travelling to the First World War, met a group of Canadians in the same direction – and they included his two older brothers, with whom he’d lost touch after they emigrated. If I’d read that in a novel I wouldn’t have believed it. So perhaps being true isn’t enough – whatever you write has to be credible.

Back to Ben and Jerry, my sister and brother-in-law, our friends from Perthshire. I’ll tell you now that the tale as I told it wasn’t a hundred per cent true. But I’m interested to know which element, if any, stretched your credibility too far and what might have made you nod and find it satisfying. Tell me – and then I’ll let you know the whole truth.


  1. Fascinating post, Jennifer. I believed all your meetings, but I know how much synchronisity and such like can work. Also believe in coincidence to some extent, or Divine/Universe intervention even at times. So now you can call me gullible!

  2. Well, Rosemary, because you believed me I'll tell you what was true. It all was, except the fact that it was just one of my husband's colleagues we met, not two!

    I do think, however, it's not the coincidences themselves that matter but whether they do something preposterous to the plot....

  3. I believed them all, Jennifer, but I agree in a work of fiction coincidences are much less satisfying and intriguing than they are in real life.

  4. Oh yes, I believed them. I can think of many instances of coincidence that have happened to me. One night. for example, I dreamed about the CEO of a mid-sized Scottish company we used to work with. I hadn't seen him for three or more years. The next day he called me. And today I was having coffee with my next door neighbour and telling her we were having a couple of nights at a lovely hotel in the West Highlands shortly. She couldn't believe it - they're going to be there at the same time!

    But I totally agree that coincidences in novels can be very irritating. They often simply don't sound believable. However, Veronica Henry told me last year that you can use coincidence to get into a plot, but never to get out of it.

    What do you think?

    1. Jenny, what Veronica Henry says is really interesting. I had never thought about it in that way before. We comment and are irritated when coincidence is used to solve a plot problem but do we notice if it's used to set up the plot? I must pay more attention to how writers get into the plot.

  5. Now the coincidence of this is that it is exactly what I was going to talk about in my next blog....yes, really! Because ..... the short stories I've written where the coincidences were totally true were the ones rejected immediately....:) Thanks for passing Veronica Henry's comment on, Jenny.....very interesting.

  6. I believed it all Jennifer. Because it happens! More or less. The difficutly is, how to use it believabley.