Is Coincidence a Literary Sin?

I’ve been promising to publish my third novel, working title ‘Life Like Lavender’, for a couple of years now. My transatlantic relocation and that small matter of a global pandemic got in the way of my timetable. (Hopefully I can use those excuses for a while longer.) The positive side of the delay is my creative juices have enjoyed a nice rest and I’m excited to get back to editing the manuscript. My travel fiction seems relevant once again after lockdown had me wondering if any tale about jumping on trains, planes, and automobiles would henceforth be categorized as sci-fi. Thankfully not, it seems.

Back to the manuscript. I’ve received a developmental edit on ‘Life Like Lavender’. Set in London and Provence, I succeeded in making my editor crave a life as a lavender farmer, if not the domestic drama that accompanies that move. Score one for me. The brilliance of, and problem with, editors is that along with the praise and wonderful suggestions for even better plot lines comes the ‘you-have-got-to-fix-this-bit-or-everything-falls-apart’ admonishment. Ugh. And you thought you were so close to publishing. Once again, the manuscript goes back in the drawer so that all those ideas and admonishments can percolate and mature. Like wine, or cheese, or a good garden design, stories need to put down roots and get comfy before springing fully to life. Most of the changes I need to make will improve the flow and credibility of the tale. However, there is one event in the list of things to rewrite that I’ve been struggling to get my head around. It involves coincidence.

Let me set the stage: the protagonist has been in Provence for a few months but returns to England to support her adult children during a crisis. She bumps into her ex-husband in a London park. My editor, and one beta reader, didn’t like this. ‘Coincidence!’, they yelled. ‘You can’t do that.’ It’s not authentic, is the rationale. It’s the author needing to have them both in the park rather than the story leading them both there. But … but, I say, the park is close to where they once lived together and somewhere they had both visited many times over the years. Why wouldn’t they bump into each other there? Does my whole lavender-filled world collapse because of this meeting? This got me thinking. Isn’t life and literature full of coincidences? Why is this meeting by chance in a park an unforgivable literary sin?

I’ve just finished reading Iris Murdoch’s The Sea The Sea. In my humble opinion, this tale doesn’t age well. The protagonist’s preoccupation with a woman he hasn’t seen in forty years, resulting in, by today’s standards, kidnapping, imprisonment, and harassment, leaves the reader wondering how Iris could do this to another woman. But that’s a different blog. My point is, after forty years of not knowing where the young love of his life disappeared to, he just happens to retire to a small seaside village and low and behold, his former love lives there too. He bumps into her in the street. Coincidence. In a more recent novel, limited funds are a factor throughout the entire tale. However, when needed, a whole load of cash drops from heaven somehow, with no mention of where it came from or how the protagonist couldn’t have known it was there. Coincidence. (Or more like a huge deus ex machina.) In my current read, a cosy murder mystery, the protagonist just happens to drive down a track in a forest she’s never been in before and there are the crooks she’s after. A few chapters later, she’s sitting in a coffee shop, miles from her home. In walks the other villain she’s after. I could go on with examples galore, but you get the point.

Maybe my life has been so full of coincidences, I don’t find them shocking. Once, lost somewhere in Virginia a few months after first arriving in the USA, I stopped at a bar to ask directions and pick up lunch. Over the door was a sign that said, ‘Where you will always meet someone you know’. I turned to the Finnish lady who was with me and muttered something like, ‘If that happens, I’ll eat my hat’. As we were waiting for our sandwiches, I heard a British accent behind me at another table. I turned and, low and behold, there was someone who lived in Somerset, my home county. I helped sell her horse several years before. We marvelled at how this could possibly happen in a tiny town in a rural area of Virginia – or anywhere? But it happened. Coincidence. Hubby and I bought each other the same Valentine’s Day cards a few years ago. Coincidence. I bumped into a cousin I hadn’t seen in years on a hike far from her home once. The list goes on and on and I’m sure it does in your lives too. Coincidences happen all the time in life and in the stories I read.

My question is, in your literary travels, what constitutes crossing the line with regards to coincidence? What moves the event from perfectly feasible to so outlandish the reader yells, ‘Yeah, right! Like that would ever happen!’ I feel so many outcomes in life depend on coincidence, I’m reticent to remove the scene. I need the shock of the two characters seeing each other. I need the tension of the, ‘Oh, crap! Not him. Not now. Not here.’ Is it really so fantastical that an ex-husband and wife would choose to go separately to a place they’d been many times before?

Writing is a constant battle between writing the story you see in your head and writing the story others will accept. The goal posts move every time you read a book or try to write or have someone else critique your writing. What do you change and what do you fight to keep?

I’m not sure I can answer the question as to how much coincidence is too much coincidence. Can you? I’d love to hear your real-life and literary coincidence stories. Now, back to my manuscript. Today, that scene stays in. Tomorrow? Who knows?

Image: Pixaby