Sunday, April 17, 2022

The Big Coincidence

Why it Doesn’t Really Work in Fiction

Zoë Sharp

Coincidences happen every day. They’re a fact of life. And while there are a few of us who still firmly believe that instances of déjà vu are nothing more than a glitch in the matrix, they happen, too, often in a way that’s really quite corny. I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that real life is far more badly written than the average novel.

Can you imagine sitting down with your agent or editor, and explaining to them the idea for your next book? A courtroom drama that unfolds after a beautiful eighteen-year-old model is found murdered just yards from her front door after a night out with friends. She’s been stabbed seven times and brutally raped. The police question her boyfriend, but his DNA doesn’t match that found on the body and the case goes cold. Then, nine months later, a man is arrested after a scuffle in a pub. His DNA is taken as a matter of routine and fed into the system. Shortly afterwards, the police arrest him for the young model’s murder and he goes to trial. In court, his defence is that he found the teenager lying on the ground and assumed she was passed out drunk so he, “took advantage of the situation”, not realising she was dead until afterwards. Yes, you say, this is going to be his defence, under oath, in a court of law.

Or, what about a serial killer? There are oodles of them in fiction – far more than in real life. So, you decide to write a serial killer book. Your killer is going to murder five prostitutes in a single mid-sized English town over a forty-day period. One other woman is going to have a lucky escape when the killer is interrupted. But rather than have him totally baffling police with his forensically aware approach and meticulous planning, the crime-scene techs are going to lift a full DNA profile from three of the bodies, which he’s carelessly dumped in a nice dry spot rather than in water. Not only that, but they’re also going to match 177 clothing or textile fibres from the killer’s home to his victims.

The killer’s car is going to be seen kerb crawling the local red-light districts, and blood is found in the back of it. Oh, and naturally the police will already have his DNA on file after a minor robbery he committed five years previously. His defence in court? Our old friend coincidence. Yes, he did indeed frequent the red-light districts, and by amazing chance did indeed have sex with all the women in question, on the very day they disappeared, but everything else was one big fat coincidence. Or fifty of them, I believe it was, during one period of cross-examination by the prosecution.

So, no criminal masterminds at work here, then.

Tragically, both these cases are taken from real life. In 2008, Mark Dixie was convicted of the rape and murder of Sally Anne Bowman in Croydon, South London. He was sentenced to a minimum term of thirty-four years’ imprisonment – at the time, among the longest minimum term sentences for a single murder in the UK.

The same year, Steve Wright had a similar sentence passed for the murders of Tania Nicol, Gemma Adams, Anneli Alderton, Annette Nicholls, and Paula Clennell, all working in Ipswich, Suffolk. Both these men may well be very sad, twisted – even downright evil – individuals, but what makes them all the more pathetic is that they couldn’t be bothered to put any effort into planning and carrying out their crimes.

In books, serial killers connect with their victims in some way – even if it’s only inside their sick little minds. They stalk them, photograph them, and create little shrines to them for the detective to uncover – usually illuminated by a single, swinging light bulb. As writers, we simply can’t rely on the same level of random chance, coincidence, and happenstance that seems to occur time and again in real life. We have to make our villains more – I hate to say it – larger than life.

More intelligent.

More human, even.

Some writers have said that whenever they’ve taken an aspect of real life and inserted it into a novel, that is always the part readers pick out as being the most unbelievable bit. I know if I presented either of the two scenarios above to my editor, she’d point out the plot holes and bat them right back at me. Must try harder.

So, my question is this. Are there times when you experience something, or see it on the news and say to yourself, “If I’d written that in a book, nobody would believe it…” And how much coincidence and happenstance will or won’t you accept – both as a reader and a writer – in fiction?

This week’s Word of the Week is Torschlusspanik. A German word that is really without a direct English equivalent. It means, quite literally, gate-closing panic. The feeling that life’s opportunities are diminishing, and that you have failed to grasp them; that you are getting too old.



  1. I think one of the reasons that coincidence is frowned upon in crime fiction is that the reader expects to be able to use logic and smarts to solve the puzzle. It's one of the 'rules', and a let down if the author relies on something else.

    1. Yes, the early members of the Detection Club frowned on 'unaccountable intuition', as well as twins, more than one secret passage, and hitherto undiscovered poisons.

  2. As to your question about true stories I've read that I'd dare not write as fiction, the one I blogged about yesterday certainly qualifies. On the subject of reader/reviewer reaction to real life references as unbelievable, I had that unpleasant experience with my third Kaldis novel, "Prey on Patmos." One reviewer praised the first half of the book as terrific and the second half as utterly unbelievable. Needless to say, the second half was based on real events.

    1. Always happens. The things I worry won't convince a reader are rarely brought up. The things I include without thinking twice always cause a furore.

  3. Coincidence, like drudgery, is not something most readers want to read about. Wildly generally, the best books are about people struggling to solve their problems, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, but in both cases resulting in a change in who they were/are/will-be. Coincidence (in a book) is like cheating: where was the work, where was the struggle?

    That's not to say that coincidence can't be part of what sets off a chain of events with which the protagonist then must cope, that's fair. Readers just don't want their protagonists to get "help from the finger of god" (unless, of course, it's Christian fiction...)

    1. And yet, so many of the breaks people get in life come about entirely by chance... Although, having said that, I recall somebody reflecting that they'd been very lucky in their life. 'But the harder I word, the luckier I am...'

    2. :-) Was than an intentional 'authorial' typo: the harder I worD? :-)

  4. Perhaps people turn to fiction to find a world easier to comprehend than the chaos (man-made and random) of everyday life. If they don’t like that way it turns out, they at least know who to blame. Us!

  5. Interesting question! Let me add a few comments from the perspective of a reader? I don't mind coincidence. But what I do mind in my crime fiction reading is if the coincidences more or less make up the entire "detection". I like that SOME work is actually being carried out by the detective. I love it when skill and little grey cells are used for something. Coincidence may help and sometimes they can also make things MORE difficult, by confusing etc, but not to the point where there is little left for the detectives than just - watch things unfold. Or if the coincidences are plain silly.
    My two cents ;-)