I once attended a conference where a very well-known and well-respected literary agent told us that you were only allowed one big coincidence in a novel. But is that really true? Let’s break it down.
There are different levels to coincidences. Having your heroine run into both her love interest and the man she’s engaged to marry in the same marketplace at the same time is what I would consider a smaller coincidence because they’re in a very well-traveled public place where it’s feasible any of those characters might be found at any given point. Place that scene in the woods, and it feels a little more forced, a little less believable- a little bit too much like a coincidence. And that’s where your problem arises. Anytime something feels too much like a major coincidence, your readers are going to pick up on that.
That’s why that well-respected literary agent suggested you use only one big coincidence because as soon as someone thinks about something being a coincidence, they’re going to be primed to be on the lookout for others. And should they find another coincidence (no matter how big or how small), especially if it’s close to the first, your writing will seem weak and contrived. So you have to use coincidences sparingly and thoughtfully.
Another great rule to follow is to use a coincidence when characters are getting into trouble vs. getting out of trouble. Running into the soldiers hunting for your main character in the marketplace or the woods is going to feel a lot less like a coincidence than a secondary character showing up and quickly pulling your character into a safe hiding spot just as the soldiers are about to stumble upon your main character.
To put it plainly, coincidences are better if they happen in order to get your characters into trouble instead of saving them from that trouble. If Cinderella’s fairy godmother had showed up and let her out of the attic so she could try on the shoe at the end of the original Disney movie, it wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying. Let your characters get themselves out of trouble because it will go a long way in showing who they are and how resourceful/clever/smart/driven they are. Let us see your character and not another plot device.
With all that in mind, sticking to one coincidence is pretty good advice because you’re forced to then let your plot do the work of adding tension instead of giving characters easy ways out of complicated and drama-filled situations. This in turn helps with characterization because we get to see the main character in action.
Is there a coincidence in a book that you find just too hard to believe? Discuss it in the comments.