Sherry here in Northern Virginia where the weather can’t decide on a season
When I look back on my life I think of how much of it came down to chance meetings.
Meeting my husband is right up there. We both happened to be at the same place for a few hours. If not for that, we wouldn’t have met.
Many of my dear friends from our military days are friends because we chose and/or were assigned to live in unit A and not unit B on a different section of the base. One of my friends, Nancy, and I had a lot in common even though I was older and grew up in Iowa and she grew up in California and, yes, was younger. We both had worked for financial planning companies, Nancy in Colorado Springs and me just up the road in Cheyenne, Wyoming. We had almost identical Dansk dishes – white with blue rims. We both loved antiques and all things blue and white. We both loved yard sales and spent many a happy hour while we were stationed in Los Angeles heading out on Saturday mornings to hunt for treasures.
And then there is my chance meeting with Julie Hennrikus. We sat at the same table at the Malice Domestic banquet in 2005. I often think how different my life might have been if we’d been seated at different tables. My family was moving to the Boston area that summer. Julie, being Julie, told me I had to join the New England Chapter of Sisters in Crime (an organization I knew nothing about) and go to Crime Bake. That singular meeting opened up a whole new world to me and blossomed into so many friendships and opportunities. Maybe, eventually, I would have found Sisters in Crime on my own, but maybe not.
This made me think about chance meetings in fiction. Sarah met CJ by chance when she was defying her mother who told her to stay away from military men on the base near their house. Sarah met Seth when she went out for a drink alone, raw and lonely because of her recent divorce.
And that got me thinking about the difference between chance and coincidence.
One definition of chance in Merriam-Webster is: the assumed impersonal purposeless determiner of unaccountable happenings
Merriam-Webster defines coincidence as: the occurrence of events that happen at the same time by accident but seem to have some connection
Another dictionary said coincidence is: a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances
So chance is more haphazard and coincidence is a bigger event with some connectedness.
I’ve heard many writing instructors say that your book shouldn’t have more than one coincidence in it – if any. Do a search of “coincidence in writing” and hundreds of articles pop up. I often call Barb Goffman, my independent editor and friend, to ask if she thinks this or that is too big of a coincidence. Sometimes the answer is yes (then the rewriting begins) and sometimes the answer is, “yes but if you did this, is won’t be a coincidence.”
I find it interesting that we accept coincidences in life but not fiction. I find it fascinating that chance plays such a huge role in our lives.
Readers: What role has chance played in your life? How do you feel about it in fiction?
Great post, Sherry. Many years ago when I had first started to write a mystery novel, a friend of a neighbor heard I was and told me about a couple of women who attended a critique group every Wednesday night. I joined them and learned so much about writing fiction. That later led to joining Sisters in Crime and meeting you and the other Wickeds. Sisters in Crime led to the amazing chance of a New York agent contacting our SINC chapter president (accomplice Sheila Connolly at the time) and telling her he wanted to work with authors. And here I am!
I also thought of you asking if anyone wanted to carpool to Seascape and me saying yes. And the group that ended up there that year. So amazing.
Oh, boy. I don’t know where to begin here without revealing the craziness of how my mind works….. I find connections in everything. Chance, coincidence—definitions aside—so often strike me as just the universe telling you something. Most times I try to listen. (Sometimes not.)
I hear you about the craziness — I had to reign this blog piece back in as I started spinning connections and chance and coincidence and fate and karma. Whew.
Chance brought my husband and me together, so I’m all for chance. And I do believe in coincidences, but most of the time in fiction they are too contrived, and often too convenient and frequent. They should not be obvious. And then there is serendipity!
Oh, you had to throw serendipity in there didn’t you — lol!
Good post. Yes, coincidences are often not recommended in books but then some seem really contrived. I think it is the contrivance that is really the issue. Sometimes, contrivances are really heavy handed while some coincidences just flow beautifully. That’s probably what we should be thinking about when we write-how to make it not sound contrived. If all a writer’s scenes seem contrived, they probably aren’t worth the reader’s time.
I like that comparison. Ginny whose comment is just above yours said the same thing. It’s an excellent thing to keep in mind.
I’m always amazed by how many coincidences there are in real life. I love Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie mysteries (and her literary fiction) because I think she is always playing with the concept of coincidence–is it outlandish, or is it like the teeth of a zipper fitting together perfectly in the end? Author Ray Daniel once told me a quote about coincidence, that it only works when it makes things harder for the protagonist, not when it makes things easier–or something like that. I wonder if it is true?
I’m with you on Kate Atkinson. She pulls off the impossible in every single book.
I need to read Kath Atkinson — you’ve mentioned her before. I like Ray’s thought too — thank you for sharing it!
Such an interesting topic! I even wrote a blog post on it once. We do certainly have unlikely, even ridiculous, coincidences/chance meetings in real life that would be hard to accept in fiction. Perhaps because fiction has to make sense, even if life does not? Could we make these real life moments work in a book? 1. in a city of around 8 million people, two who should not be together are holding hands in a public place not near home – and they spot the parents of a child’s best friend walking toward them? (someone I know) 2. half way across the world from home, the people seated behind us in a restaurant are my parents neighbors from my home town? 3. the opening scenery in a musical delivers a direct message about what to write next? Can we use them to justify an unlikely coincidence or chance meeting in a book? 🙂
That second one has happened to me so many times (or something very like it). Once on an MWA tour of the New York Public Library, I got into an elevator and my best friend from childhood was standing there. So crazy!
That is wild, Barb!
Getting caught — another great topic for a post.
There are many things that happen by chance in our lives and make them so much better. You don’t see it at the time, but looking back you do.
Not to say that you might not have found friends just as good if you’d lived in Unit B or sat in a difference seat in school, but I don’t worry about that. I accept the joys God orchestrated through the chance meetings of my life.
The difference between real life and fiction comes down to the quote (was it Mark Twain) about the difference between real life and fiction – fiction has to make sense. I think the reason we don’t like coincidence in fiction is because it feels like lazy writing. We expect things to flow in a logical manner and be well orchestrated, while coincidence feels like the author didn’t know how to weave something in there so they just had it happen. This is especially true in a mystery where we expect the main character to figure things out, not just stumble on the solution.
The difference between coincidence and change in the instances you talked about with Sarah meeting the two men in her life is that meeting someone can happen by chance, and I still think that’s okay. We recognize that in our lives. But that isn’t driving the main mystery of the book. If it were, then there would be a problem with it.
Am I making any sense?
You are making sense and good points. You are right that if a protagonist keeps just stumbling across clues or solutions it wouldn’t be believable.
Neat topic! I agree that we look at “coincidences” in fiction and real life differently, and I like that you’ve pointed it out! I tend to look at things spiritually (and scientifically, too). That leads to some interesting thoughts about what is chance…or something else! It brings to mind a memorable line from a daily devotion book I read Sunday. That day’s topic was angels. “We can see their hand in daily life, though we may dismiss their deeds as coincidence.” (From Betty Eadie’s “Embraced by the Light” devotion book.)
I love that quote, Susan! Thank you!
I met my husband because of a giant cockroach. We were both students at the University of Cincinnati. He had leased and moved into an apartment across town from me, but when he saw a giant cockroach there, he broke the lease and moved in right next door to me instead. I still don’t have a warm place in my heart for cockroaches, though.
That is a great story, Barb!
I’m so glad you and Julie had that chance meeting! xoxo
Talking to an attractive brunette reading an environmental book back in 2008. We’d both been recently sick so we could easily have missed meeting, or I could have walked by when she wasn’t there. And now we’re married.
22 years ago I wandered into an independent book store. At that time I wasn’t reading much as my job & life left little time for it. I spotted an interesting book cover on an end cap and picked it up, read a few pages and was hooked. The title was With Nails: The Film Diaries of Richard E. Grant. After reading I was intrigued to learn more about this man and during a web search I found a yahoo group of people who followed his work so I joined the group. Over the course of 2 years virtual friendships formed through our admiration for the actor/author and through other interests we shared. Most of the group were from the UK. We wondered why Mr. Grant didn’t have a website. The Australian in the group had her husband design and upload an unofficial site. She contacted his artist management rep to make him aware of it and seek his approval of it. He was thrilled with its content and graphic appeal. In 2000 he wanted to have a charity event to raise funds for a school. He requested our assistance for ideas. We happily made some suggestions. In return he set aside tickets for purchase and a window of time prior to the on sale time. I had been to London about 4 or 5 times before. I had never mentioned the yahoo group to my husband and I wanted to go the event! I love England! After I told my husband about the group and the event I asked him “Do you think I’m crazy to go across the pond to meet strangers?” “Yes” he responded. I replied “Well I think I’m pretty normal and I’ve been conversing virtually with this group for two years so I have to think they’re okay too. I’m going to go.” I went! We had a fabulous time! We met Richard. We have continued to see each other these past 20 years (including Richard). I had already felt lucky in my longstanding friendships prior to meeting this group. I couldn’t have anticipated the impact they would have on my life and it all started with a book!
That is an amazing story, Sue!
I suspect the only difference between chance and coincidence is the ability to see the connected dots.
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