05 July 2022

The Problem with Coincidences

Today I'm going to talk about one of the no-nos in mysteries. The C word. 

No, not that C word. Get your mind out of the gutter. I'm talking about the other C word of mysteries: coincidence.

How many times have you heard that you can't have coincidences in your mysteries? Coincidences might occur in real life, the reasoning goes, but readers plunking down cold hard cash for good stories deserve ones created by authors who don't lazily rely on coincidence for their stories to work.  

I agreeto an extent.

A coincidence that occurs later in a book or short story, enabling the sleuth to figure out whodunit ... don't do it! Your sleuth should be smart enough to figure things out through investigation, without relying upon, essentially, divine providence. That's the kind of thing that makes readers roll their eyes and mutter, "Oh come on!" 

But a coincidence that occurs early in the book or storythat, as they say, is a horse of a different color. (Yeah, yeah, I know. That was another C word. A cliche. Those are no-nos too. But we're talking about coincidences today, not cliches, so lay off.)

A coincidence that happens early in a book or story is okay because usually it is the inciting incident that kicks things off. Take the movie My Cousin Vinny. Billy Gambini and Stanley Rothenstein were driving a 1964 metallic-mint-green Buick Skylark convertible from NY to Southern California by way of the back roads of Alabama. (I'd like to talk to whoever planned that direct route.) They stopped at a convenience store. A few minutes after they left the store, it was robbed and its clerk was murdered by two yoots ... excuse me, two youths ... who not only resembled Billy and Stanley but who were driving a similar-looking metallic-mint-green convertible. Coincidence? Big. Huge. (Sorry, that was a Pretty Woman reference. I'll try to focus.) Because of the similarities, Billy and Stanley found themselves pulled over and ultimately arrested for murder. But the coincidences not only weren't a problem, they were vital to the plot. Without them, Billy and Stanley wouldn't have been pulled over and there would have been no story, not involving them anyway. Mr. Tipton wouldn't have embarrassed himself claiming the laws of physics didn't apply in his kitchen. Vinny may never have won his first case. And Mona Lisa Vito's biological clock would still be tick tick ticking away. (I'm assuming they got married and had little Gambinis who like to argue over everything. I'm a sucker for a happy ending.)

So, you're reading this and thinking, That Barb makes a lot of sense. But crud, crap, criminy, I have a big freaking coincidence in my book and it's not the spark that incites the story. What do I do?

Here's what you do: you take your coincidence and make it purposeful. Instead of Suzie Sleuth coincidentally ending up sitting in a diner booth adjacent to that of the two killers, where she overhears them talking about how they killed Mr. He Deserved It, change things so Suzie realized Killer One seemed shady so she was investigating him. In the course of her sleuthing, she followed him, purposely getting seated in the next booth. That way, when she eavesdrops and hears all the juicy details, she's done it because she figured things out, not because she stumbled upon the solution thanks to an unbelievable coincidence.

(Disclaimer: That was an example. It was only an example. If it this were a real story and you had killers admit their plans in a restaurant where they could be overheard, readers would be wishing they'd had an actual emergency alert in advance, warning them off such a contrived event.)

Contrivances. That's another C word. A blog for another day.


  1. Cleverly Concise, Clear and Cogent Considerations, Barb. John Brunner, one of my favorite authors, invented and used The HipCrime Dictionary in a few of his novels. His definition of coincidence went something like: You weren't watching what the other hand was doing.

    1. Thanks, Leigh. And I love the HipCrime Dictionary! That's fun.

  2. Good post, Barb, and great quote, Leigh! Meanwhile, you can still use luck in stories - the detective survives being shot, or was born wealthy (Inspector Lynley, Lord Peter Wimsey), or ... They all work.

    1. Thanks, Eve. And yes, luck is a bit different from coincidence--or it can be. (I'm reminded of the wonderful scene in Legally Blonde where Elle's friend Margo gives Elle her lucky scrunchy so Elle will do well on the LSAT. The scrunchy helped Margo pass Spanish. Then jaded Serena points out that Margo passed Spanish because she gave the professor a lap dance, and Margo rolls her eyes and said, "Yeah. Luckily.")

  3. Interesting as usual! Inciting incidences do it for me too.


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