I once wrote a novel inspired by coincidences. It was great fun–though hardly original. Metafiction, fantasy, fairy tales, and any number of other genres often require coincidence. Some even delight in riffing on it.
Often, though, we have to limit coincidence in fiction, particularly realistic fiction. Inexplicable interconnections and concurrences may seem contrived. Genre novelists—and Charles Dickens, for that matter—are routinely pecked apart for stories that are too perfect too be true, filled with dei ex machina and separated-at-birth twins reuniting on the altar or mothers rediscovering offspring on the other side of the world.
Even so, fiction often aims to tell the story of real life. And, real life is filled with coincidence, or at least what seems to be coincidence to unbelievers.
Coincidence in Real Life
About ten years ago I was touring Columbia University with my daughter Sage. We had lunch at La Monde, a French restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue. We had picked up a copy of the humor mag, The Onion, and, after perusing it, tossed it into a recycling bin. My eye caught a word on a card lying face up at the bin’s top: “Severna.”
Not only Severna, but “Severna Park.” At first I didn’t think twice and started turning away. After all, we lived in Severna Park, Maryland. I saw the name all the time. Before pivoting, however, I realized that I was in New York City. “Severna Park” was not the most talked about city on the planet. It was not a term I could generally expect to see.
I looked down at the card more closely and saw it was a discarded information card (the same card Sage had filled out earlier) for the Columbia Visitors Office. It had been filled out by a girl from Sage’s school. She apparently had been visiting Columbia but, for whatever reason, had decided not to submit her card.
In certain circumstances this coincidence may not have been all that unexpected. It would have been unsurprising if the girls had come from larger towns. It would have been unsurprising if they were from towns closer to NY, or schools where many students considered Ivy League colleges.
But none of those circumstances pertained. Visiting Columbia was itself fairly rare for a student from Severna Park. But discarding a card outside of the University, having it lying face up on the top of the bin just when I tossed in a paper? And then having me even notice anything in the bin? I couldn’t help but feel I was in a spy movie.
Coincidence Strikes Again
Not long afterwards, Sage was interviewed by USA Today for a story on eliminating valedictorian status at high schools. We naturally bought the paper when the story appeared. It featured Sage along with a student from Burlington High School, in Burlington, VT, a school she would have attended if we hadn’t moved from that city when she was 4.
There was more: the story cited not just Burlington High School. It also quoted the principal , a woman with whom my husband served on the Burlington School Board over 15 years earlier. Sage was quoted in this story not because she had gone to preschool in Burlington but because she had been quoted in a similar story in the Baltimore Sun several weeks earlier.
There was no logical explanation putting Sage in a story with Burlington High or people we knew from years ago. This story could have involved any of millions of students or schools all over the country. Yet there they were, people who once knew each other, randomly “meeting up” again.
The Prepared Mind
Such real-life coincidences are of course, in some ways, products of what Pasteur called “the prepared mind.” I never notice the many random events that besiege me every day. My eye picks up the things that relate to me and focuses on them more than the hundreds and thousands and millions of random, unrelated, irrelevant events.
So some coincidence is clearly an illusion.
And some coincidences do not belong in fiction. No one really wants to read a story about coincidences that only resonate with me, and maybe my family. My mind was prepared, but to most people these uncanny-to-me incidents would be “no big whoop,” as my seventh grade classmates used to say.
The Illusion of Randomness
Still, the experience of coincidence is a part of life. And it also has a critical place in any good story. Indeed, whether subtly or overtly, any coherent story is packed with coincidence–events that overlap and interconnect for no clear reason.
Even the most naturalistic of novels, the most realistic of realistic fiction, requires the seemingly unexplained concurrence of events. Of course, events and circumstances in a novel do have a clear cause: the author. Usually, though, reader and writer agree to share the mutual delusion that the events are author-less, unfolding naturally and randomly.
This randomness is not pure, however. It is organized and intentional. Pure randomness does not add up to a coherent story, To hang together, every event and detail is inherently coincidental. This is because the author believes it coheres in some cosmic, inexorable way to every other event or detail.
All fiction is contrived, by definition. But for made-up stories to be credible, we often want that contrivance to be invisible. That means muting the coincidences in many case to create the illusion of randomness. But the coincidences are inherent, and essential.
I am not talking about certain genres here, of course. Genres such as magical realism or melodrama often require overt coincidence. Being larger than life, accepting and even featuring the supernatural and the absurd, is part of the plan.
Telling a more traditional story requires greater nuance. Because truth is indeed stranger than fiction, making a story seem more real may paradoxically require taking some actual reality out of that story. Unless you downplay coincidence, however real it may be, the story will seem unreal and unbelievable.