Kath here. Editor and friend of WU Dave King (co-author of the must-have book for writers, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How to Edit Yourself Into Print) emailed:
Recently, Ruth (Julian) and I have been seeing coincidence crop up a lot in our personal reading. We talked about it, and soon we had an article – 375 words on how skilled writers handle coincidence in their plots.
Luckily, he passed along their article for our readers. Thanks, Dave!
What a Coincidence
Coincidence is the Get Out of Jail Free card of story creation. The small, artificial worlds in which most stories take place often make coincidence not only plausible, but unavoidable. Because your cast can only be so big, some characters have to tie together in more ways than you’d expect in the real world. So, when you’ve plotted yourself into a corner or want to spring a surprise on your readers, just have a character run into an old acquaintance with key information or stumble across a random fact that changes everything.
But push coincidence too far, and readers start to see the machinery of your plot creaking along. Unless you find some plausible reason to account for it.
You could, for instance, make the coincidence part of your protagonist’s character. When Reginald Hill’s detective Joe Sixsmith stumbles across two people connected to the same crime, someone is bound to mention that Sixsmith’s has a gift for attracting that sort of thing. Carola Dunn simply gives her Daisy Dalrymple an Indian friend who thinks it’s her karma to have a friend who is always finding bodies.
Another way to explain the prevalence of corpses in all those amateur sleuth series is to ground the coincidence so firmly in the details of the unfolding story that readers will ignore the body count of the series as a whole. It’s an open secret that this genre’s main attraction is its heroine/hero, not its plausibility, so readers are willing suspend a heaping helping of disbelief for the sake of a favorite character’s latest adventure.
Or coincidence could be part of your setting, as in Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie books. As Isabel often says, Edinburgh (real-life population, about a half million) is really a small town. So it’s no wonder she keeps running into total strangers who are connected to one another and to whatever thread she’s following at the moment.
It’s no accident that all these examples confront the issue openly. Unacknowledged coincidence can easily sabotage a plot, a criticism Agatha Christie often faced. But she was relying on the dying convention that fueled so many Dickensian confections of coincidence. The more innocent readers of Victorian times swallowed it whole.
Nowadays it would stand out like a bustle. And be rejected just as fast.