Re: RARA-AVIS: coincidence

From: Bob Toomey (
Date: 18 Feb 2000

I see four types or orders of coincidence in fiction. There may be more. Some are more acceptable than others.

First Order Coincidence: The event that gets the story underway, usually called the premise. This is not only okay, it's necessary. Cary Grant is mistaken for a spy who doesn't actually exist and is chased all over the place by people who want him to reveal secrets he doesn't possess. That's fine.

Second Order Coincidence: An event that springs directly from the actions of the hero as he follows through on the premise. Cary Grant is in the lobby of the UN when a murdered man falls into his arms and Grant is photographed as he foolishly pulls the knife from the murdered man's back. This is also okay, as long as you don't do it too often, and as long as it makes things worse for the hero.

Third Order Coincidence: An event that comes out of a clear blue sky and saves the hero's ass. This is allowed only once per series, and only if the series is very long, and the coincidence is funny or ironic or spectacular, and it doesn't resolve the major problem of the story, and the author hasn't done it before and promises never to do it again.

Fourth Order Coincidence: An event that has nothing to do with anything that went before, and doesn't effect anything that comes later, and doesn't make sense, and isn't funny or ironic or spectacular. Even Cornell Woolrich can't get away with this, no matter how many of his apologists say that's what makes him special as a writer.


Dick Lochte wrote:

> All fiction is based on coincidence, especially crime fiction. A particular
> detective or cop hero getting involved in a particular murder case is a
> coincidence. The discovery of an important clue is a coincidence. In Michael
> Connelly's new "Void Moon," a thief who was arrested in the course of a
> Vegas casino-hotel room robbery, serves her prison term, gets out and winds
> up having to break into the same building. Couldn't be more of a
> coincidence, but Connelly bothers to lay the groundwork so that it's
> believable. It's the coincidences that come out of left field hat make you
> want to toss the book across the room. In one of Grisham's novels, a lawyer
> steals a document from his firm's top security area and makes a clean
> getaway . . . except that a drunk driver (whom we've never heard of before
> or will hear from again) hits his car. Huh? In "Absolute Power" a thief
> hides in a safe that just happens to have been built with a one-way mirror.
> Okay, the protagonist robs a house on precisely the night the president of
> the United States drops by to get involved in a murder. Maybe I can buy
> that. But a walk-in safe with a one-way mirror, presumably so that its owner
> can sit there and look out at his own bedroom? That's a tough one.
> Dick Lochte
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