Sunday December 17
Subscribe to RSS Feed

Coincidence Destroys the Suspension of Disbelief

January 20, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified January 20, 2012

A rather long title, isn’t it? And dogmatic of me to say as well, to say that coincidence destroys the suspension of disbelief. But haven’t you found that to be true?

We’ve all read stories where coincidence or fate (perhaps one of the literal Fates) saves the day or provides the missing clue or wraps up the loose ends for characters and readers.

And don’t you absolutely hate when that happens?

When coincidence rather than the inevitable (and no, they aren’t the same thing) shows up in fiction, the reader notices.

Coincidence is often employed when the writer fails to properly plan a way to pull his lead character’s butt out of the fire. Coincidence steps in boldly when the mystery writer can’t logically and creatively explain how the murderer got out of the locked room.

Coincidence is a glowing, flashing, sign that says look at me, I’m here to make this plot twist work or to explain what shouldn’t need explanation.

Coincidence is a sure sign of poor plotting.

Need a character who had to have known the protagonist as a teen but forgot to write him into the story? Add him in on page 245 of a 265-page book when he accidentally bumps into the protagonist outside a bank, thus reminding New Character that the protagonist stole money from New Character’s sister’s piggy bank when they were teens.

Aha! Piggy bank as a teen, standing outside a bank now. This, then, must be the answer to who done it. New Character has done his job. The fact that he’s in the scene is written off to coincidence.

But who believes in that kind of coincidence? Not modern readers. And is New Character ever seen again? Nope. He played his part and is quickly pushed out of the story, pushed out of a story he had no logical reason to be in.

Rather than making readers howl with anger or outrage about adding a character—and his vital plot connections—at the last minute, write the character into the story earlier.

Plan for the introduction of New Character before he’s even introduced.

The protagonist is dreading/anticipating a class reunion, looking through the yearbooks his wife dragged out. She may even point out New Character—didn’t he have that cute little sister who followed you guys around everywhere?

The protagonist can tell his wife about the piggy bank incident, how he accidentally knocked over New Character’s sister’s piggy bank the afternoon he and little sister were getting to know one another better in her bedroom when her parents—and for a while, her older brother—were out of the house.

Well, he may not tell his wife all the details, but he can think some of them, thus revealing them to the reader. New Character never knew what happened with his little sister, of course, but he did know about the piggy bank being broken, with his sister having explained that the protagonist had broken it to get some gas money.

In this way, the reader gets an intro to New Character without anyone yet spilling the beans. The protagonist could have another remembrance of something from high school, a bit later in the story, something that makes him think about his buddies, of how he’s ashamed of the way a few of them treated one of the other guys. He doesn’t even have to think of New Character by name in this remembrance. The idea of buddies at school combined with a negative behavior on top of the other mention of New Character is a sufficient setup. Thus the reader is brought up to speed on the school chums and their not always genteel behavior.

By the time the protagonist runs into New Character—New Character is in town for the reunion—outside their old burger hangout—now a Starbucks—next door to the oldest bank in town, the stage is set and coincidence is absent. Instead, the story lines have crossed and tightened enough to pull what were once disparate elements into a cohesive narration.

Of course, you’ll do this weaving and layering with dozens of story threads and often with stronger ties than I’ve laid out here, but this example is one to show you how to avoid coincidence.

What Coincidence Does

Coincidence messes with the suspension of disbelief because it so quickly and thoroughly reminds readers that they are reading fiction.

While coincidence can and does happen in real life, it’s not believed in fiction. And when the reader catches it, everything you’ve done before to create the illusion of a world where events happen just as you’ve laid them out is washed away as if it had never been.

Your clever plot twists, your stellar phrases, your characters who seem more real than the woman next to you in line, the tears you’ve made the reader shed and the laughter you’ve made her release—all these are nothing as soon as the suspension of belief is fractured.

Do you understand why readers would be so disappointed for the suspension of disbelief to be broken? They’ve accepted what you told them, so much so that they were moved emotionally, and then you show that you were only fooling them. What you’d gotten them to believe was just a lie.

Readers take this as a betrayal. You, the writer, didn’t hold up your end of the reader/writer contract. You tricked them. You reminded them that you got them believing your lies.

No one likes being tricked so thoroughly. No one likes being betrayed, especially when their emotions are invested.

The suspension of disbelief is both strong and fragile. It’s strong enough to withstand the passage of time between moments when the reader puts down a book and picks it back up again. It’s strong enough to hold the reader’s attention when children and jobs and household chores and illness and bad weather and good weather can’t entice the reader away from the make-believe of your story. (You know readers are truly into a story when the beach and all its beauty loses its allure in favor of words on a page.)

But it’s fragile, oh so fragile. So delicate that a single word can cause it to crack, a phrase of two or three words can rattle its foundations, a sentence can shatter it beyond repair.

What happens when coincidence shows itself?

It’s noticed.

It turns on the reader’s analytic side, makes him wonder what’s going on.

Tension is immediately reduced—look, the savior is here bringing the necessary knowledge or answer and it costs the characters nothing. Guess we can all go home happy now.

Coincidence, especially at the end of a story or as a means of solving the mystery or resolving plot issues, robs the story of inevitability. The reader won’t have, can’t have, seen that coming.  The reader will feel cheated. Hoodwinked. Taken advantage of.

Places Coincidence Might Sneak In

Seeming coincidences can happen when you don’t fully prepare for an outcome, when you don’t give the reader enough information to have guessed what would happen or which character would make something happen.

Coincidence in fiction can be a character in a place he has no reason to be simply in order for him to hear or see something that will prove key to the story.

Coincidence can come from a character’s prior knowledge released at just the right time. The coincidence is not necessarily that a character had the knowledge, but that he had no logical reason to possess that knowledge or that he just happened to be at the right place and the right time to offer it.

When a reader says he doesn’t buy your story, coincidence may be what has made him doubt.

Avoid coincidence and keep the reader believing in your fiction by prepping for revelations ahead of time. Put the characters and their knowledge into the story before that knowledge is needed. Write earlier scenes so it’s inevitable for a character to be present at a later scene.

Don’t merely let things happen; make them happen. Make your story unfold with purpose rather than allowing it to go just anywhere.

Give the reader no reason to doubt your story events. Do your part to maintain the suspension of disbelief.

Keep the reader involved in the story events and willing to ignore their fictional nature.

Write inevitable moments.

Write convincing fiction.



Tags: , ,     Posted in: Craft & Style

9 Responses to “Coincidence Destroys the Suspension of Disbelief”

  1. Molly Spring says:

    Great post. I think part of why we read fiction is because we want to make sense of the seemingly randomness of real life, which is why coincidences that would naturally occur are jarring when reading a story.

  2. Molly, that may well be the reason. Isn’t it funny that we’ll believe them when they’re real and nearly unbeliveable but don’t believe them, when we believe everything else, in a story that’s not real. Maybe we want so much to believe that fiction is real that any little discrepancy tips the whole thing over.

    Don’t you love the power of fiction?

  3. Looloo says:

    This absolutely true! As a reader I’m using all that I know about the characters and the scenes to try and figure out who the murderer (for example) is and near the end comes this new guy who is central to the plot. Honestly I feel tricked and a little betrayed. I trusted an author only to be left with another unrealistic fairy tale. Over all I am left unsatisfied, like the author cheated or something. I would not buy another book by this writer that’s for sure!

  4. Coincidence and poor planning on the author’s part can turn the reader away, that’s for sure. We want to be able to guess without actually knowing. Fiction that satisfies the reader at a number of levels is tricky to write—writers that manage to write satisfying fiction deserve credit for every success.

  5. Looloo says:

    I totally agree and I am truly thankful for every author who has accomplished just that!