How to Write Coincidence the Right Way
From E.M. Forster to Flannery O'Connor, how writers manipulate all of us
One way to use coincidence and make it work is to have nothing turn on it. Coincidences feel illegitimate when they solve problems. If the story doesn’t benefit from the coincidence, it’s simply pretty and suggestive. Another way to make a coincidence work is to begin a story with it. Make it the reason there’s a story to tell in the first place. A third is to establish that the community in which your story takes place is one in which coincidence is part of the landscape. People in my town, New Haven, Connecticut, revel in coincidence, and we claim it happens here all the time: you know everyone in more than one way. Maybe this is true in all cities of a certain size—small enough that the barista will turn out to be your office mate’s daughter; large enough that you’ll be surprised.
It also helps to make coincidence unobtrusive. There’s a wild coincidence in E. M. Forster’s 1910 novel Howards End that doesn’t seem to bother most readers. Helen Schlegel, one of the two sisters who are the book’s main characters, for complicated reasons brings a working-class couple she has befriended to a wedding reception—and it turns out that the woman she brings was once the mistress of the bride’s father, Henry Wilcox, whom Helen’s sister, Margaret, is engaged to marry.
Margaret is the character through whom we experience all this. The former mistress, Jacky, is drunk, Henry comes forward to try to get rid of her, and Jacky greets him, “If it isn’t Hen!” Margaret, who has no idea what Jacky means, apologizes for the awkward interruption. Henry, recognizing Jacky, imagines that Margaret and Helen have devised a plot to expose him. He says, “Are you now satisfied?”— which baffles Margaret even more. Finally, after a painful page, Henry says, “I have the honor to release you from your engagement,” and Forster says of Margaret, “Still she could not understand. She knew of life’s seamy side as a theory; she could not grasp it as a fact. More words from Jacky were necessary—words unequivocal, undenied.” At that point Margaret begins to speak, stops herself, and then finally says to Henry, “So that woman has been your mistress?”
None of the characters know what’s going on, and in the confusion, it’s unlikely that anybody notices that the author is manipulating all of us, characters and readers. He’s distracted us by concentrating on Margaret’s psychology. She can’t grasp what has happened, not because it’s unlikely that the single lower-class person her sister has befriended should be her fiancé’s former mistress, but because she doesn’t understand life and sex. The coincidence isn’t important to Margaret.
Another way to make coincidence work is to put the story into a slightly unfamiliar universe, as in farce—a universe where coincidence is part of the joke. Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is not farce, but the blatant (though useful to the story) coincidence in it doesn’t bother readers; I’ve never heard anyone mention it.
A grandmother scares her family with tales of an escaped convict, The Misfit. She, her son, and his wife and children set out on a trip through Georgia, where The Misfit is thought to be hiding. The family has a car accident, and the person who comes along is The Misfit, who kills them all. The grandmother is whiny, sneaky, and selfish, and every bad thing that happens to the family until The Misfit arrives is her fault. When she breaks out with her son’s name, “Bailey Boy, Bailey Boy,” at the end, we feel love in the story for the first time.
Why does the coincidence work? You might think its success had to do with Flannery O’Connor’s religious universe. Just before The Misfit shoots the grandmother, she looks at him closely and says, “Why you’re one of my babies.” The grandmother has led this family into evil, evil that is her opportunity. In a universe with God in charge of it, even the difficult, opaque God of Flannery O’Connor, a family can be led, for a reason, down the only dirt road in Georgia where an escaped convict lurks. But nothing in the story suggests that the coincidence is connected to its religious message.
One way to make a coincidence feel less clumsy is to have the author acknowledge that what she is describing is improbable. But O’Connor doesn’t. There’s no disclaimer, no apology, no paragraph saying that sometimes the strangest things happen.
Not only does the coincidence work, but it gives me the same sort of pleasure as coincidences in my life. It delights me. I think the coincidence is O’Connor’s way of letting us know we’re in a slightly skewed place in which what happens does not exactly follow the rules we’re used to.
But the main reason the coincidence works may be that the characters are so stupid that they don’t know coincidence is surprising. The grandmother predicts that they will meet The Misfit, and they do, like people hearing a weather forecast and encountering rain. The narrative voice is almost always as stupid as they are. Here is the grandmother in the car.
She said she thought it was going to be a good day for driving, neither too hot nor too cold, and she cautioned Bailey that the speed limit was fifty-five miles an hour and that the patrolmen hid themselves behind billboards and small clumps of trees and sped out after you before you had a chance to slow down. She pointed out interesting details of the scenery.
Only later comes a different kind of sentence:
There was a pistol shot from the woods, followed closely by another. Then silence. The old lady’s head jerked around. She could hear the wind move through the tree tops like a long satisfied insuck of breath. “Bailey Boy!” she called.
This narrator would be more than smart enough to point out that running into The Misfit was highly unlikely, but this narrator isn’t in evidence at that point in the story. So O’Connor’s coincidence is something like Forster’s. The characters aren’t aware of it, or wouldn’t call it a coincidence. There’s so much that the characters don’t get, in this story, that the unlikeliness of the coincidence is just something else that’s beyond them. Like Aunt Sarah, who didn’t know that finding a five-dollar bill was remarkable, they don’t know enough about art to notice the coincidence; they think they’re just in life. Coincidences happen in life; they are suspect only in art.
I’ve been arguing for giving your characters actions to perform, insisting that if fiction only explains how people feel—what is going on for them inwardly—it doesn’t fully use its capacity to keep a reader engaged. Making interior experience clear, on the other hand, by finding equivalents for it in external events, or finding external events that resonate with feeling, is endlessly interesting, because we can think up endless numbers of situations that embody the struggles of the inner life, and many events feel like embodiments of inner dramas. Even in ordinary life, you know that the day you receive an impossible assignment at work will be the day you come home to discover that the dishwasher has flooded the kitchen floor. Isn’t resonance what makes one event worthy of going into a story and another not worthy? Stories that don’t work sometimes include long, boring scenes in which people do something like clean a car window. The trouble is not that nothing is happening but that what happens has no connection to strong feeling, to the inner life. Unless, of course, it’s a story like Andre Dubus’s “The Winter Father,” in which a man who doesn’t live with his children takes them to dinner, then has a conversation with them in his car, outside his ex‑wife’s house.
Next morning when he got into his car, the inside of the windshield was iced. He used the small plastic scraper from his glove compartment. As he scraped the middle and right side, he realized the grey ice curling and falling from the glass was the frozen breath of his children.
Consider the morality play, in which abstract qualities like good and evil take form as characters. In the fifteenth-century English play Everyman, a man is told by a character named Death that he must undertake a journey from which he won’t return. All his ordinary friends (Fellowship, Kindred, and so on) refuse to go with him, but he is finally accompanied by Knowledge and Good Dedes. We still write books about journeys because we are interested in inner journeys; we still write books about conflict because we have taken notice of some inner conflict. Once we consider action not as the sign of cheap fiction, but as the way any fiction embodies the life within us, then it’s clear that no single kind of action is superior to any other kind. Anger and conflict can be expressed by means of a novel about a war, but also by a novel about a conflict in the workplace or in a family. There is such a thing as the story or novel in which nothing happens, but that’s not the same as the story or novel that makes us care intently whether or not a flower will be picked and then shows us a character surreptitiously picking the flower.
But what makes us care whether the flower is picked or not? A beautiful description of the flower won’t do it, and a pathetic description of the person who doesn’t want it picked won’t do it. What will make us care is some other action or conflict that is going on at the same time and coincides with the picking of the flower: that is, some action that belongs by coincidence. Coincidence, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary says, means “the concurrence of events or circumstances appropriate to one another or having significance in relation to one another but between which there is no apparent causal connection.” That could mean my roommate meeting the man from the gas company under the crepe paper streamers, but it could also mean Stephen Dedalus, in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, breaking his glasses when he is small and defenseless in a harsh place. Appropriateness, that is, can be the damnedest thing ever, or it can simply be suggestive and interesting. Coincidence could mean the concurrence of somebody’s inner sorrow with the privations of the Great Depression or with the anxiety and frustration of the war in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. It could mean The Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s story meeting the grandmother, a different kind of misfit. Essentially, coincidence is the coming together of two events. Of course, these coincidences can be clumsy and manipulative as well: you’ll need to figure out a way to make your ordinary eighteenth-century Bostonian part of history without having Paul Revere’s horse step on his foot.
If, as we make up any story, we start with one event and ask ourselves what else might be happening, we risk obvious coincidences and correspondences, but we give ourselves an exciting opportunity: the chance to bring into our stories events that will make them not merely plausible but arresting. “What else might be going on in the life of this character?” is a question that is not hard to answer, and if we are open, as we write, to the strong feeling in our work, the possibilities that come to mind will often turn out to enliven our stories and tell us more than we knew about what’s going on in them.
Coincidence is often what gives fiction its chance to mean something. When two things come together, improbably or not, a spark is struck. Making those things happen simultaneously suggests that meaning is just beyond the surface. Many of us are in rebellion against meaningfulness. Randomness is cool and anything else is slightly nauseating, the sort of profound philosophy that can be inscribed on mugs printed with little rainbows, or posted on Facebook. The risk is that the author is seen scrambling around making it happen, caring too much about meaning. Coincidence is risky.
Coincidence is risky, but risk is good, we all know that. When one of my sons was in a writing program in high school, he was graded on risk-taking. “Jacob got an A-minus in risk,” I told anyone who’d listen. Aren’t we looking for guidance in writing that, unlike the directions provided by rules and formulas, will be unsafe? Of course, it’s risky—and often admirable—to write openly about true personal hardship and pain. It’s also risky to make up story. If the dictates of craft are safe and limiting, the suggestion that we make an event happen, and try to sense what other event might be going on at the same time, is not just risky; it’s stimulating. The kite soars; ideas come.
Using coincidence is part of our opportunity to focus on story, on the way story offers meaning and solace and delight. There is loveliness in things happening and then happening some more—and happening simultaneously—whether on a small or a grand scale. Anything we describe—art or music or sex or a heavy rainstorm—is in the story by report, but the story, its coinciding strands, is there itself, something beautiful no matter what’s in it. Writing must always be linear, since we read one word at a time, but nothing in life happens all by itself. Coincidence brings simultaneity into your story. Used thoughtfully, it makes the narrative richer and deeper. Look to the right and left of your characters; see what more they can do, what they must do, to articulate in action that inner life we love so much. Like dreams, stories make feeling tangible.
From The Kite and the String by Alice Mattison. Used with permission of Viking. Copyright 2016 by Alice Mattison.