Special Guest Post: Chérie l'Ecrivain On Coincidences

Chérie looks for meaning everywhere. I am a lapsed Catholic, and a childhood spent in catechism being told that a bearded man in the sky was monitoring my thoughts has turned me into an irrationally superstitious adult who has spent the last decade or so trying to shake the feeling that the universe is maybe a little cognizant. The other day I ran into my best friend and her husband on the subway platform one stop away from Coney Island--we had independently undertaken spontaneous trips to the beach, I got off the train early because a virulent shouting match had erupted in my subway car, and my friends did the same because they wanted to take a stroll down the boardwalk before laying out their blankets. It was hard not to think that cosmic orchestration played a part in what turned out to be the single best day of my summer, which I spent eating hot dogs, swimming in the Atlantic, and riding the Wonder Wheel with literally my two favorite people [ in addition to the Rejectionist --ed.] in the world.

Later that week, the Times ran a blog explaining that coincidences like this are actually very common. In simple terms: every day, the sheer number of possible events that COULD occur and be perceived by us as an extraordinary "coincidence" is so enormous that these moments of "holy shit, what are the chances" are bound to happen sooner or later, or perhaps even on a semi-regular basis. Pradeep Mutalik explains this much better than I can, but on a base level it makes a certain amount of sense. If you're in the car wishing you had a plate of shrimp on which to snack and at that moment you pass a forty foot billboard depicting this desired crustacean, or if you have a dream about an ex you haven't spoken to in seven years, and he Facebook-friend-requests you the next day, it seems like pure prophecy. But when you think about all the billboards you'll pass and all the dreams you'll have over the course of your entire life, the odds that at least one will seem eerily prophetic are actually pretty good. Still, whether these wondrous occurrences are mathematical certainties or proof of a greater synchronicity, it's hard not to assign them with a literal or metaphorical meaning.

Which, my fellow Author-Friends, saddles us with the question of how we can best wield the mighty power of the coincidence in our fiction. Unbelievably unlikely things happen all the time, but how you dispatch them as plot points can make the difference between having a reader rapidly turning your pages or throwing your book against a wall in frustration. We all know that it should be our characters driving our stories. If Gatsby had just happened to move into the house across the water from Daisy's, Fitzgerald would have been writing quite a different book. I recently read a novel in which not one but two incredible chance events transpired in the first fifty pages and set the stage for the entire narrative, and immediately I heard my beloved agent's voice in my head whispering "Strains credibility." The very premise of a story can be rooted in a chance encounter--in Stephen King's Misery, the writer Paul Sheldon just happens to be rescued from a car wreck by a seriously demented woman who is obsessed with his books, what are the odds INDEED--but the unlikely set-up sets the stage for a completely character-driven story. King gets the hardest to believe part out of the way first, and whether you "buy it" or not quickly becomes irrelevant when Annie is sharpening her axe in the other room.

Sometimes these fortuitous moments are slipped in towards the end, perhaps when the author is at a loss for how to bring about a satisfying conclusion. Certainly it's easier to sneak shaky plotting past a reader after he or she has become thoroughly invested in your characters and outcome, but oh man can this shit backfire. The denouement of Richard Russo's Bridge of Sighs comes about only because one of the characters gets on a train and happens to sit next to a magazine that is open to a particular page revealing that the lost love of her youth will be at a nearby gallery opening THAT VERY NIGHT. Did Chérie want to put her wee fist through a wall when she read that OH YES SHE DID. Good sir, I realize that composing a six-hundred-page novel is likely exhausting, but please try to not so obviously run out of steam twelve pages before the end. Francesca Lia Block's novels are brimming over with such instances but she's a magical realist, and there's no pretense that it's "just a coincidence": synchronicity is her plot device, not chance. On the other hand, is it still something I can more or less imagine happening in this peculiar and complicated world of ours? Absolutely. And at the end of Arthur Nersesian's masterpiece The Fuck-Up, when the protagonist has hit bottom and runs into his nemesis from the beginning of the story, who will turn out to be his savior, instead of feeling contrived it all just fits. Nersesian is bringing his story full circle, with his protagonist living out one of the most organic instances of "eternal return" I've probably ever read on the page.

To quote the opening of Magnolia, "There are stories of coincidence and chance, of intersections and strange things told, and which is which and who only knows? And we generally say, 'Well, if that was in a movie, I wouldn't believe it.'" It is the humble opinion of this guest blogger that strange things happen all the time, but when we put them into our stories, we should do our best to remember the reader on the receiving end of our efforts, and do everything in our power to make them believe it.