Luck And Coincidence

So, just how much luck can a story take?

Lucky Fish

Perhaps because of the events of last week’s baseball game (see “Retro Isotopes,” 7-27-11), I’ve been thinking a lot about luck – especially as luck is related to stories.

We all accept a certain amount of luck – or luck’s close cousin “coincidence” – in our daily lives. Indeed, I think we enjoy sharing stories of when our luck worked out – especially for the good, but even when the outcome was bad. Perhaps we like these tales because luck (or coincidence) seems to hint at a larger pattern of purpose in a universe that has come to seem increasingly purposeless.

Ah… But I become too philosophical.

In the not so distant past, an author could get away with using coincidence to move along the plot. The protagonist might overhear a conversation which warned him or her of a sinister plot or revealed that someone whom he (or she) had thought was a friend was actually not as favorably disposed as the protagonist had believed.

Sometimes, this overheard information might prove to be flawed. Especially in romance novels, the heroine frequently seems to be in a position to see her beloved embracing a beautiful woman before glancing up and down the street and slipping into a nearby house. Of course, later you learn this woman was his sister or cousin or whatever, but the plot has been jiggered along with a new complication.

There’s a lovely bit in C.S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader where, via the agency of a magical book, Lucy overhears a girl she thought was her friend saying unkind things about her to another girl. Lucy is – quite understandably – shocked and hurt. Later, however, she learns that the friend had only spoken as she had because she feared the other girl. This scene provides not only a nice reminder about the dangers of eavesdropping, but also a hint that events are often more complex than we imagine.

As time progressed and writing overall became more sophisticated, situations such as the villain neatly outlining his entire plan to conquer the world when the protagonist is in position to hear the details and so foil the villain’s nefarious schemes became regarded as so contrived and unlikely as to become a matter of humor.

Towards the end of Roger Zelazny’s Prince of Chaos, Merlin (not the Merlin of Arthurian legend, just someone with the same name), waits in a room off a long corridor to avoid an approaching group of people. Merlin thinks, “In a badly plotted story they’d have paused outside the doorway, and I would have overheard a conversation telling me everything I needed to know about anything.” They don’t, of course. In fact, what Merlin overhears is so banal as to be less than useless.

I recently read – and enjoyed – Jacqueline Winspear’s post-WWI historical novel Maisie Dobbs. However, there was a sequence early in the novel that nearly kept me from reading further. Maisie has newly set herself up in business as a private investigator. In a tremendous bit of luck, she meets up with a war veteran who had his life and his leg saved by the surgeon Maisie was assisting. (She’d been a nurse during the war.)

Not only does Billy remember Maisie, but he is also so intensely grateful that he offers to assist with little jobs about her office. Moreover, he turns out to have the exact combination of skills and traits necessary to help Maisie solve her first important solo case. Had the book not been recommended by someone whose taste I trust, as soon as I saw how large a role coincidence was going to play, I might not have finished reading.

And yet… Would I have been right to do so?

Is the ruling out of coincidence as an element in a story’s plot entirely fair? Plans do get overheard – especially if the protagonist is already suspicious and therefore searching for opportunities to learn more. I believe that there is documentation that even more unlikely occurrences – such as a pocket Bible or lucky silver coin stopping a bullet – have happened.

So how much luck or coincidence can you accept in a story before you begin to feel cheated? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts and feelings on this tricky aspect of the storyteller’s art.

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12 Responses to “Luck And Coincidence”

  1. Alan Robson Says:

    And then you recommended “Maisie Dobbs” to me. So I read it…

    I did notice the coincidence that you mentioned in the article, but I was quite happy to accept it for the sake of the story (I do remember thinking, “Gosh! What a coincidence.” But that’s as far as it went).

    I think I’m very tolerant indeed about these things – probably far too tolerant, if the truth be told. I’m really quite happy to have the villain curl his moustache and say, “Har, har me proud beauty!” as he ties the heroine to the railway tracks and explains all the details of his nefarious plan to anyone who will listen.

    I just like stories.

    And anyway, what’s wrong with coincidences? They happen all the time. When I told my friends in England that I was emigrating to New Zealand, a close friend gave me the name and address of her ex-son-in law who’d moved there when the marriage broke up. When I arrived in NZ, I was met at the airport by my new boss. He introduced himself. He was my friend’s ex-son-in-law…

    You probably couldn’t make that work in a story. Or could you?


    -Alan

  2. heteromeles Says:

    I’m with Alan. Most real people have stories about strange coincidences, but then again, fiction is simpler and neater than reality.

    I think the problem is biological. On the one hand, humans are wired to see patterns, even where there aren’t any. That’s why coincidence stories are fun. On the other hand, fiction editors (and to a lesser extent, readers) have conditioned themselves to assert that stories have to make sense. Because of that, they insist that there’s a cause behind every pattern in the story. Reality doesn’t work that way, but as I noted above, fiction is simpler and neater than reality, at least in its current incarnation.

    If it’s a good story, I’ll tolerate a whopping coincidence. The mere fact that the protagonist is involved in the plot is typically the biggest, most unexplained coincidence in the story.

    I’m more annoyed by a story where it’s obvious that the writer doesn’t know what he or she is talking about. With Wikipedia at everyone’s fingertips, getting the details wrong is less forgivable than it used to be.

    That’s why I see far fewer movies than I used to. My favorite example of this was seeing the second Jurassic Park movie with a bunch of other biologists. How did it go: they sail to an island allegedly off the coast of Costa Rica. From there they head into the forest and–whoops–they’re confronting a stegosaur under the redwoods in Redwood National Park. A few minutes later, they’re watching dinosaurs stampede across Patrick’s Point State Park, fifty miles south. A few minutes later and they’re on Hawaii, doing drama at the edge of a cliff. Then it was back to the redwoods again.

    We all got the giggles.

    I’m frequently told by Hollywood types that I’m stupid, because most people can’t tell the difference between a redwood forest and an island jungle. They may be right., but with that attitude, I see no reason to give them my money. Arrogant ignorance is unappealing.

  3. Barbara Joan Says:

    Maybe it was reading Maisie Dobbs or maybe it was something else but I have been thinking a lot about the part that coincidence, luck or God has played in my life.

    Things that at the time they happened seemed to have been terrible but looking back over my life turned out to be as the saying goes in my best interest. And by that I don’t mean just that I won the lottery

  4. Barbara Joan Says:

    Didn’t finish my thought but I think because there has been so much coincidence in my life that I can take a good bit of it in fiction.

  5. Eric Says:

    For the most part, I don’t mind coincidences and luck in stories, especially if those are spread out between the protagonist(s) and villain(s). I rather enjoyed the twist when one such coincidence worked out for Death in the Seventh Seal.

    The only time such coincidences bother me is when the author/storyteller uses them as a quick fix to an impossible situation, usually at the end of a story. Deus ex machina endings are usually disappointing, unless they’re done very carefully.

  6. Emily Says:

    I’m actually very tolerant (rather like Mr. Robson) of coincedences in stories. I suppose if it were just a ridiculous thing like the villain telling the hero every detail of their nerfarious scheme, I do get annoyed. At the same time I can see why writers have to do it. Sometimes it’s hard to move the plot forward. The protagontist has to know certain information, but it would be hard to cram that all in the story thus we have the conviently overheard conversation and lucky encounters. Also readers have to know the details behind the plot,for closure I guess.
    I will have to look up this Maisie Dobbs book. It sounds interesting.

  7. Peter Says:

    A lot of it, for me, comes down to the genre and the role coincidence plays. A lot of genre plots (you already mentioned romance, and it holds true for a lot of mystery too) centre around “How do the characters get out of this mess they author has dumped them in.” Given that, a screamingly-improbable coincidence that drops the characters *into* the mess tends to be a lot more palatable than a coincidence that gets them *out* of it; the former is a fun setup while you watch to see how the problem is resolved, while the latter feels like a cheat.

  8. Nicholas Wells Says:

    Depends on the specific happening. In not quite the same thing, I get tired of all the no-names dying while the main characters come out without a scratch. I call this the guardian angel complex.

    I can take a fair amount of luck and coincidence. I’ve seen some wacky things fall into place in the real world, so I’m willing to believe it happening in a fake one. In my own writing, I try to keep it to a minimum, but sometime there’s just no other way for something to happen. As long as it’s not completely out there improbable, I’m willing to tolerate quite a bit. It’s when the character can walk through a fierce fire-fight without so much as a single bullet pinging on his armor, or an enemy trying to stop him, that I start crying foul.

  9. Max Kaehn Says:

    Depends on the type of story. If it’s a fairy tale, of course there are amazingly helpful coincidences. It helps to be ready to spot that a story is actually a fairy tale, even if it has more science-fictional trappings, like The Fifth Element or the Liaden books.

  10. Tori Says:

    Too many coincidences or too much Deus ex machina does tend to annoy me in stories, but a well-placed one can make it that much more flavorful. I think that a story is worth telling because amazing things happen in it – and sometimes those amazing things are coincidences. I don’t think every coincidence in my daily life is the hand of fate or whatever either.

  11. Paul Says:

    I can’t count the number of times I’ve experienced a coincidence and thought or said, Gosh, they wouldn’t let me use that in fiction. Sometimes, in fiction, I kind of like a coincidence at the start of the story which sets off the chain of events. That’s acceptable, to me. Movies, and especially movie serials which I often enjoy, thrive on coincidence, but somehow you have to be more prudent using it in the written word. (Why is that? Readers are more thoughtful than viewers, maybe?)

  12. janelindskold Says:

    I really enjoyed the discussion (and it doesn’t need to end here). You’ve made me a lot more comfortable with the concept and how it can fit into a story.

    Mind… I’m never going to be happy with the “quick fix” coincidence.

    Oh! I wanted to note: Deus ex machina wasn’t always a bad thing, y’know.

    It comes from ancient Greek theater and that, in turn, evolved from religious ceremonies. So “deus” (god) ex machina (from or via the machine) simply meant: God arrives via special effects.

    Given that the gods and goddess had a legitimate role to play in the plot, this was not a coincidence or cheap fix, anymore than the use of magic is in a well-designed fantasy.

    Sort of sad that the term evolved over time to men “quick fix in a bad plot.”

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