Do you know the rule about coincidences in fiction?
Use a coincidence to get your characters INTO trouble, but don’t use it to get them out.
This is one rule I don’t break, mostly because of suspension of disbelief. Coincidences are only credible in fiction when they arrive to screw with your characters lives, otherwise they feel like a cheat. Unless you’ve followed the chain of events (which becomes less of a coincidence and more like a lead-up) bringing two events together, it’ll look like you pulled a solution out of your backside.
I had a giant coincidence in Transition. It had been sitting there for years because it was always one of those things that ‘happened’ in the plot (this is during the years that we talked this story). I hadn’t properly addressed it until just recently, when my co-writer Linda came up for the weekend and we were discussing all the things that needed attention before we could finish writing the second book in the Wanderer series (for which we write chapters separately, so any plot-holes need to be firmed up and outlines need to be extra tight).
We knew that there was a big coincidence coming up, staring us in the face for book three. It occurs right at the beginning of the book and the wheels had already started turning in book one. It was supposed to be less of a coincidence and more of a lead-up… showing the readers how and why everything came to pass.
But! that’s what screwed us. Not just ‘how’ did this character reach a particular decision the exact moment it needed to happen (coincidence number one), but ‘why’ this character would make the decision in the first place (coincidence number two). We both knew the moment was pivotal and the events that came from it needed to happen. Since digging deeper, we realised that timing was the bitch. The timing was too perfect, coinciding too precisely to unrelated events. If they were connected somehow, then sure, we could fudge things, but they weren’t connected at all.
The ‘eureka’ moment happened after about thirty minutes of in-depth discussion, fumbling around the character’s motivation. We had many great ideas that fell over the instant the other person asked either ‘how’ or ‘why’. It seemed we were fantastic at answering one but not so great at both. Dilemma!
We ended up taking matters out of that character’s hands completely. Instead of allowing him to tie things up neatly, we ended up making everything more messy via somebody else. Fortunately, even though the path shot off in a different direction, it made sense to all the characters involved for the plot to arrive a point where we desperately needed it to go.
For years I’d always considered myself a ‘pantser’ writer, the kind that likes to see where a story can take me by just writing and rolling with it. I thought being a ‘plotter’ would remove a lot of the fun and creativity, but it’s just different. Plotting allows me to explore things in depth and to keep lots of wheels turning at once. There’s still fun and creativity because I get to change things up and make new connections but I can also put in so many hints, leave so many clues on the path for the reader to pick up on the way (or if they’re like me, ignore until they figure out the twist and then go back and catch them all later on the re-read).
So yeah, I’ve used quite a few coincidences on my characters, and they’ve led to nothing but trouble.
A perfect storm.