Some of the books I have loved most, ones that have taught me what writing is, are elaborate cages of artifice that rely very heavily on coincidence. Take, for example, Nancy Drew. Her mysteries and the solutions to them are airily constructed on sandcastles of coincidence—for example, before she takes off for Scotland, her boyfriend chances to read a newspaper article about sheep thieves in the Highlands, and her aunt teaches her to play a musical phrase on a bagpipe that just happens to be the signal used by the sheep thieves (who harass Nancy from the moment she arrives) as they stand ready to spray their victims with knockout gas and load them into trucks.
But who cares? All the girls I knew were ready to follow along, watching Nancy string coincidences together into an attractive bracelet. If we balked at anything, it was at how many mysteries Nancy managed to solve in a year—53 at the time I stopped reading them: more than a mystery a week, impossible even by Nancian standards, since some of the early ones took a few weeks to solve. When we debated how many mysteries might come into a girl’s life in a year (one or two, we usually decided, but not one or two a week), what we were really discussing was our desperate wish to take such random events and fit them into a tidy pattern that brought order to the universe.
Same Place, Same Time:
On Coincidence and What Was Meant to Be
from Writers Ask, number 54, 2011
There was a night in 1991 when my sister, the über party girl, tried to get me to attend a concert at a cool-kids’ club in San Diego. The band on schedule had had some alternative hits and built a cult following. But I chose to stay in my grim little apartment and read.
Over a decade and a half later, after I’d moved back and forth across the country a couple of times and landed in Richmond, Virginia, I sat at lunch with a colleague, eating fried chicken and telling anecdotes about my flamboyant, daring, crazy sister, Krishna, who—
“Wait,” he said. “You have a sister named Krishna?”
I said yes, but that was not the point.
“And she lives in San Diego? A blonde?”
I complained that he wasn’t even listening to my story; he’d been distracted.
He pushed back his plate and declared, “I’ve met her!”
It turned out he had been the drummer in the band that night. He remembered my sister introducing herself and inviting the guys to a party at her place (a party I also did not attend; I was probably in bed by then).
We were fascinated by the coincidence. Beguiled. We’d already known each other for over a year, in vastly different lives, and here it turned out we were connected long before that in what seemed a deeply significant way. Some great power wanted us to meet, even if we’d missed it that first time. We were, in short, living in a novel.
Fiction is a series of such coincidences. What would ordinarily happen in between events falls away, so what we are left with is the well-organized form of a plot. Coincidences point to the overall patterning and structuring in fiction. Every story is constructed; every event is planned and selected from the infinite possibilities rippling through your brain. You choose the ones that will make a statement when they’re put together—that have enough in common to coincide. A coincidence becomes important because of what follows it. If it’s just a passing incident, it might feel forced, but if it becomes a key part of the story’s plot, it will become inevitable.
Coincidence creates order within the chaos of our cluttered world and unpredictable lives; it establishes a sense of importance, that some things are Meant To Be.
But coincidences require some finessing. The storyteller’s art lies in casting shadow and light over them so the plot doesn’t feel contrived.
Lately, I’ve worked on naturalizing a coincidence in a new novel, The Kingdom of Little Wounds (now available in hardcover and paperback around the world!--2015). In a sort of dark Renaissancey fairy tale, a seamstress, an enslaved nurse, and a historian must cross paths in the palace courtyard a little after midnight. They all have reasons for being there, of course, but I have to make those reasons work together.
So here are a few strategies I’ve been reminding myself about:
First, there’s the shadow of distraction. To talk about plot in my classes, I usually assign Agatha Christie’s Murder of Roger Ackroyd—a clever and tricky mystery that gives just enough concrete detail to make a wild set of coincidences work. In a genre that’s all about turning the chaos of crime into the order of its solution, Christie offers the description of a wooded lane near the village, Hercule Poirot’s frustrated attempt to grow vegetable marrows, and charts of the house and room where the rich man is found murdered—all bits that chime with a real world recognizable to the reader or are so quirky and unpredictable that they distract us from how tidily everything is falling into place. It’s possible to get so swept up into this world of tangible detail and tantalizing clues that you don’t notice how extraordinary it is to find, all in one night, a mother reunited with her illegitimate son; a wastrel stepchild having a passionate argument with his secretly beloved parlormaid; a skulking butler bent on blackmail, and, oh yes, the murder of that rich man himself. By some sleight of hand, Christie earns her coincidences.
Second, there’s the light of open acknowledgment. Some of the cleverest authors don’t strain to hide the fact that there’s an odd chord striking in the music of the spheres; they point out the crazy ways our lives are connected. Having a character remark on the unbelievability actually makes it more plausible, as when E. M. Forster explains (in A Room with a View) that it’s both strange and natural for a group of middle-class English people to cross paths first in Italy and then in an English village—it’s because they all love Italian art. The acknowledgment of implausibility breaks that sense of too much order and lets chaotic “real” life creep back into the story, even if the coincidence is easily explained away.
In Lolita, the great Vladimir Nabokov plants a name that points to the great patterning in our lives: Aubrey McFate. McFate first appears in a list of Lolita’s classmates, later to become a part of the plot. When the infamous Humbert Humbert’s hapless wife discovers a diary that reveals his forbidden passion for her daughter, she runs out to mail a letter that will ruin everything for him—and is hit by a neighbor’s car before she reaches the mailbox. “Precise fate, that synchronizing phantom,” has struck. Isn’t this just another one of those strange things, Nabokov seems to say, the way it all happens to fall into place here? And isn’t it just like life?
Speaking of falling into place, back to my colleague and me: Enchanted by the idea of the night on which we should have met, and the delightful coincidence of finding each other on the other side of the continent, we fell in love. And in 2014, at a farmhouse over a century old, we got married.
Some things really are Meant To Be.
"Precise Fate, that synchronizing phantom."
By commenting on the coincidence, Nabokov redeems what could seem like a too-convenient plot contrivance and moves it back into part of life.