Monday Motivation: Admire my coincidences…

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Benyon's blog

I am a collector of coincidences. The more bizarre and unlikely they are, the more I savour and treasure them. When I was younger, I read a number of books about coincidence in search of what was called, by enthusiasts, an “acausal reality” – a universe in which the effect could precede the cause.

I kept a rigorous record of my dreams (I was and remain a prolific dreamer) in order to find correlations between those dreams, and events that only occurred later.

Imagine if I’d dreamt of some catastrophe – the sinking of an ocean liner, the crash of a jetliner, an earthquake, a flood – weeks before it actually happened. Imagine, moreover, if the dream was not just a generalized vision of a sinking or a crashing or a quaking or a flooding – but had contained some very specific details. Imagine if I had dreamed that Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 with 269 people on board had crashed somewhere in the Indian Ocean just weeks before that actually happened. That would have said something seriously important about the universe. It would have challenged modern physics, it would have left Einstein gasping in his grave.

Of course, all my investigations came to naught. Coincidence is just that… a meaningless intersection of events.

And they happen all the time. As I said, I’m an avid collector, and can tell half a dozen coincidence stories that have audiences spell-bound – and not a little skeptical.

But what about coincidence in your writing? Dickens was notorious for using coincidence. In Edwin Drood, his last, unfinished, novel (and which, coincidentally was a setwork in my final year at school), he praises “the mighty store of wonderful chains that are forever forging, day and night, in the vast ironworks of time and circumstance”.

The problem is, coincidence in real life doesn’t really mean anything. It’s simply the way in which the law of large numbers plays out before us. But coincidence in a story is deliberate: the writer has devised it. And so it is meaningful.

And therefore not really believable.

Now, over the last few weeks I have stumbled across a number of stories-in-the-making that depended to an extraordinary degree on coincidence. A man who badly needs a new kidney discovers that the dead donor was his childhood sweetheart… A man seeking his missing lover goes straight to the town to which she has fled, books into a hotel, and discovers that this is precisely where she has come home to roost.

Not good. Not credible. Need to rethink the plot.

Sometimes though, we can get away with coincidence. How do we do that? Not by burying it, or ignoring it – but by drawing attention to it.

A man falls in love with a woman. They discover (too late) that they are siblings. She was adopted at birth. Coincidence? Well, of course. But there’s some very interesting research to justify it. Siblings separated at birth and who grow up with different families, have been shown to be sexually attracted to each other if they then, unaware of their relationship, meet. Strange but true. So by highlighting this well-researched fact, we draw the sting of the coincidence.

But what if science can’t come to the rescue? Must we then abandon the coincidence and go back to the drawing board? Well, not always. By having a character marvel at the coincidence of booking into the hotel in which his beloved has taken refuge, we articulate the reader’s skepticism, and kind of get away with it.

“What are the odds?” asks the man. “This is unbelievable. There must be an explanation.” And she says: “Perhaps you once heard me mention the Grand Hotel…” And he says, “Yes, it must be that.”

And while the coincidence has not gone away, its incredibility has.

The same is true of any improbable fact or event. Suppose a character does something that is really… out of character? She’s a shy and reticent woman who blushes when the least attention is paid her. You want her to dance on a station platform. Your stern internal editor says, This character would never do that! But, having read this blog, you know what the answer is: her aunt, observing her eccentric behavior, says to her companion, “Look at Eulalia! She’s the shyest creature on earth, and yet there she is dancing, in public, on the platform. How extraordinary.”

And because a character in the fiction has raised an eyebrow of disbelief before we’ve had a chance to raise ours, we feel that our obligation to be skeptical has, somehow, been satisfied.

Happy writing,

Richard

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