12 April, 2012

Coincidence?

I've been thinking about coincidences. In literature, I don't like them. In true life they rock. What is it about coincidences in novels that leave us feeling cheated and deflated, while in the real world we are fascinated and spooked by them?

Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle are both considered to be giants of literature - and I love their work - and yet, if they were writing now, I'm pretty sure their editors would tell them off for their uses of coincidences to solve a plot. I wouldn't dare to accuse these literary heroes of cheating, but coincidences can seem like cheating can't they? It's another one of those things that writers do to rescue a plot - like untraceable poisons, identical twins, shots ringing out suddenly - that just seem unsatisfactory to the reader.

Have you ever been cheated in a book by the author relying on coincidences, or other cheap tricks ("and it was all a dream...")? Ever been tempted to use one yourself to get through a sticky patch in your writing?

I have recently experienced my own coincidence. The novel I am currently writing, uses The Scream - the famous painting by Edvard Munch - as the starting point of the whole thing. I came to write the book this way after a convoluted research process and many false starts. A couple of months after I first decided to use The Scream as my muse, the owners of the only privately-owned copy of the painting decided, for the first time ever, to sell it. When this news broke there followed a string of feature articles on the BBC and in newpapers about the painting itself. It has just been put on display and will be sold next month for some ridiculous price. Suddenly my novel is topical - maybe it's a sign!

Have you ever been involved in an interesting coincidence? Do you think they ever have a place in good literature? (If you can think of an example of a brilliant use of coincidence, do share!)

PS: Couldn't think of a suitable image for this post, so as Spring has sprung up here on the moor, here is a picture of one of the locals. Everyone loves ponies, right?

7 comments:

  1. I once read Celestine Prophecy and vaguely recall a scene ending where the protagonist was trapped and there was no way out. The scene started 'having escaped...' (or words to that effect) and I felt cheated. I also accidentally dropped the book in the bath, but that was unrelated.

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    1. That really sucks. You can just picture the writer at his desk in a panic because he's stuck! No excuse though. If you can't find a way out of your plot, go back and re-write it!

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  2. As one writer said, 'The only difference between fiction and reality, is that fiction has to make sense'.

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    1. And has to be believable? I love that quote - I'm going to use it at every appropriate, and many inappropriate, occasions from now on!

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  3. How interesting. I think most of what has changed my life has been the result of coincidence. As a reader, I think that they are acceptable in literature so long as the plot doesn't depend upon them. Cue Agatha Christie: all of her sleuths stumble upon clues by coincidence, but it's because they use their minds and initiative that they come to the answers.

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    1. I guess that might just be the difference between accident and coincidence? Though now I think of it I can't quite think how to separate those two! I suppose you don't coincidentally stumble across your car keys when you're looking for them (or clues when you're looking for them too), though you may stumble across them accidentally when looking elsewhere.

      I love dear old Sir Arthur for creating a detective that tells off his side-kick when he ignores something for being coincidence when it's a vital clue, but who also uses them to solve plots!

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  4. Martin and Auralia - you're both right on the money there!

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