Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband, who is a law professor, and her West Highland terrier, who is a law unto herself. Her Boyfriend’s Bones, the fourth book in the series, is in bookstores now. You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at www.jeannematthews.com.
Ilsa Lund walks into Rick’s and as the saying goes, therein hangs a tale. They had been lovers in Paris, but the Germans rolled in, Rick’s train rolled out sans Ilsa, and a considerable amount of bitterness ensued. It’s not clear where Ilsa and her husband Victor went when they fled Paris, but Rick ended up in Casablanca. Time goes by and the next thing Rick knows, Sam’s playing “As Time Goes By” and throwing salt in the wound. Some coincidence, Ilsa showing up out of the blue like that, wearing a ravishing wide-brimmed hat dipped low over one eye and looking positively luminous. But if she’d walked into any other gin joint, in any other town, we’d have had a whole different story.
By definition, a coincidence is the simultaneous occurrence of events or circumstances without apparent cause or connection. It’s an accident. Fate. Destiny. Providence. Or as the critics say, it’s a damned connivance fobbed off on the audience by a lazy writer. Modern-day writers are admonished to steer clear of coincidences, although films and literature are riddled with them.
There’s the dude who meets a man on the road, gets into a beef, and kills him, not realizing that the man is his father. A coincidence, yes, but then he goes on to marry the dead guy’s wife, not realizing that she’s his mother. BIG coincidence. Of course, Oedipus’ bad luck had been prophesied so the audience pretty much expected the plot would work out that way. When the audience knows something that the characters don’t, that’s called “dramatic irony” – although irony is frequently confused with coincidence. Ever since that Alanis Morissette song that strung together a series of unfortunate coincidences, which she mistakenly termed “ironic,” there’s been an erosion in the meaning of “irony.”
But back to coincidence. Remember Dickens’ poor, orphaned Oliver Twist? He escapes the cruel workhouse, joins a gang of pickpockets in London, and his first victim turns out to be his father’s old friend who recognizes Oliver right off the bat and rescues him. But then Oliver is kidnapped by crooks and forced to commit a burglary. Amazingly, his first victim turns out to be his mother’s sister and he’s re-rescued. Coincidences like those make me want to rush out and mug somebody. He might turn out to be a long-lost relative who wants to leave me a million bucks, or a publisher who recognizes me from my Facebook picture and offers me six figures for my next novel.
Tarzan enjoyed a series of fortuitous coincidences. His best friend, his cousin, and his ex-girlfriend each start out from different locations on separate journeys to different destinations, and yet they all miraculously arrive in the African jungle, smack in Tarzan’s backyard. Small world.
In my own life, I’ve experienced that “small world” phenomenon once or twice. A few years ago I was snapping a photo of one of the gargoyles on top of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. When I turned around, I saw an old high school pal from my hometown in Georgia waiting to take a picture of the same gargoyle. And there was the time I traveled to Arizona to meet my publisher for the first time. She had arranged to phone me at the hotel the afternoon of my arrival. Who could have guessed there’d be two Jeanne (or Jean, or Gene) Matthews registered at the Biltmore on that particular day, and that this doppelganger would answer the phone with a rude remark?
Lord Peter Wimsey lamented the fact that coincidences seem contrived in fiction, whereas they happen all the time in real life. Of course, Dorothy Sayers was probably just “lampshade hanging” when she put those words into his mouth. Lampshade hanging is the trick of calling attention to an improbable or implausible situation. The idea behind lampshade hanging is that the reader won’t heave the book against the wall in disgust provided that the author acknowledges the improbability of the occurrence. Have a character remark, “Great Scott, now that was a coincidence!” and skedaddle along to the next chapter. If it’s a small coincidence, the reader probably won’t mind. But if it’s too convenient or too far-fetched, it shatters the “suspension of disbelief.”
Generally speaking, coincidences that launch the plot and plunge your characters into trouble are forgivable. Coincidences that bail them out and solve the plot are not. Good writers avoid happenstance when possible. Vladimer Nabokov summed up the matter this way: “A certain man once lost a diamond cuff-link in the wide blue sea, and twenty years later, on the exact day, a Friday apparently, he was eating a large fish – but there was no diamond inside. That’s what I like about coincidence.”