Do You Believe in Coincidence?
My boyfriend at high school summer camp in Massachusetts turned out to have played with my brother when they were five-year-old neighbors in Kansas. Some years later, as I stood forlorn in Honolulu after my husband boarded his flight for Vietnam, a young man in Air Force uniform called my name; our families were shirttail relatives who visited in Pittsburgh when he and I were kids. In real life, coincidences happen.
Why not in fiction, then? Because fiction isn’t like life. Stories demand a logical progression of cause and effect, leading to climax and resolution. Real life is less shapely. A lot of life just happens, including the occasional odd happenstance we wouldn’t tolerate from an author.
This guideline comes from Emma Coates in Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling: “Coincidences that get characters into trouble are great. Coincidences that get them out of it are cheating.”
3/18/2019 10:33:56 am
Reading this piece reminded me of a John Lennon line " life is what happens while you are making plans"
3/18/2019 10:57:44 am
Great post, Sarah!
Thanks, Connie. I'd be interested to know your experience with coincidence, or lack thereof, in your historical fiction. Outlander has a bunch (though, happily, not to get anyone out of trouble that I recall) and perhaps it's because so much disbelief is already willingly suspended that it doesn't particularly bother me.
3/18/2019 12:07:41 pm
Another almost unbelievable coincidence. Sarah Gibbard Cook wins a national contest for Labanotation. Many many years later, when I married her brother, I found out that my friend and colleague Ann Hutchinson Guest -- the great labanotator -- had helped to give her the award -- and actually had a copy of Sara's winning entry. I'm a dance historian ( a fairly rare breed) and so this family connection was thrilling.
3/18/2019 01:48:04 pm
I believe it happens more than we know. Often we do not connect with a person long enough to discover the link.
Corrine, I totally agree. Such connections aren't distributed evenly over the billions of people on Earth but are concentrated mostly within a country, a culture, a sub-culture. Then consider how many people each of us interacts with over a lifetime, and it might be even more amazing if some of those connections didn't resurface one way or another.
3/18/2019 04:09:42 pm
Thanks for the personal history tidbits. What funny coincidences! As for the Pixar storytelling rules, I'm intrigued. I'm going to check that out. : ) Rebecca
Thanks, Rebecca. One implication of storytelling rule #19 is that the best place in a story to put coincidence is at the beginning, to set the ball rolling. Something out of the ordinary has to happen for there to be a story. In the movie Casablanca, the coincidence of Ilsa walking into Rick's bar happens well into the story but that's what sets up Rick's moral quandary and the tension from which the story unfolds.
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I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.