Thursday, 22 November 2012

Coincidence: a Great Pitfall for Novelists

I speak here mainly as a reader - but to writers. 'Coincidence' should be avoided like the plague.

So what inspires me to write on this subject? What has riled me enough to warrant a new posting when all my attention is usually directed to my own writing or those few 140 characters required for tweets? It is my hatred of unbelievable coincidence as a prime mover in a novel. Coincidence is an error to avoid for would-be authors and a great pitfall for established authors. Let me give you an example from the book I am reading right now.

Firstly, I am not going to tell you the (well established) author or the book title. Why? I do not like to put another author down. I wish them all well. I seek only to make a point about style to help other writers avoid this pitfall. Here is what has happened in this book as an example of what I am talking about.

A married woman accidentally meets a recently separated guy she fancies in a supermarket, has a brief conversation with him, learns his name, and then they part. After that she longs to see him again. Fast forward. She accompanies her doctor husband for the first time ever when he makes a middle-of-the-night call to a patient and, from that incident, learns that hubby made his first ever house call to this same house, and also learns something about him she doesn't like very much. As a result she walks out of his house after a row, that night, still in night clothes, walks and walks, then, despite deserted dark streets, collides with her hunk putting his dog out for a wee. Yeah, right!

Get the picture? Coincidence 1: The first time she does a house call with her hubby it is to the house he made his first house call to (and that is significant, in itself). Coincidence 2: As a result she learns of his unfortunate previous disclosure - immediately in brief conversation. Coincidence 3: Having longed to meet her hunk again, she collides with him in the dark. Three coincidence in the middle of one night! How real is that?

Okay, coincidences happen, but in fiction, you cannot rely on that sort of thing - and fiction needs to be more real than real. In this case coincidence is responsible for inciting incidents upon which the story outcome hinges. As a reader, a coincidence as large as the last one - bumping into hunk on deserted streets in the middle of the night - is a warning. The author is lucky if I read on and, any more like this and I shall stop reading. My 'suspension of disbelief' has been broken.

The author might claim it was essential the heroine meets her hunk. But how long does it take to come up with a more believable solution? In two minutes I thought of two alternatives. Knowing his name (as she does), what if she just found him in the phone book and went round there desperate to talk because she thought he would be sympathetic? Or, given the guy seemed to fancy her, what if he had given her his card with an invitation to call him? You see, it is not too difficult to find more plausible ways of bringing boy and girl together. It is lazy not to look for the best - and most believable - way to do it. Professionalism demands it.

So I read on, with trepidation, awaiting the next coincidence - and it is unlikely I shall read another book by the same author. Authors have a responsibility to deal with their readers well, given they invest their time - and money - in the author's product.