Monday, May 24, 2010

The Treacherous Tool: Coincidence in Fiction

Novice writers are invariably advised to steer away from building coincidence into their stories, for good reason. Unless it's handled deftly, coincidence can break the reader's belief in the sequence of events, or even in the writer's competence.

Conventional wisdom would have us believe that coincidence is permissible in only two circumstances: as the event which initiates the story, or to make the protagonist's situation worse. So in The Prisoner of Zenda, the reader is not alarmed by the resemblance between Rudolf Rassendyll and Prince Rudolf because it is a given at the start of the story; but if Rassendyll were to appear halfway through the novel and, oh, look! he's a dead ringer for the Prince, the reader might understandably strain at that. (In this case, the coincidence is explicable because the two Rudolfs are related, which also helps). Thomas Hardy built a career out of the kind of coincidence that makes the protagonist's task harder: in one of the many examples in Tess of the Durbervilles, Tess has split from the monstrous Alec, only to encounter him again in his new guise as hellfire preacher while she goes about her business. Their encounter drags her down to her ruin.

Yesterday I finished Iain Pears' recent novel Stone's Fall, a mystery of betrayal and identity mixed in with banking and espionage unfolding between the 1867 and 1909. Until the last 20 pages I would have recommended it unhesitatingly: it's immaculately plotted, beautifully written and highly atmospheric. The central character, John Stone, is a rapacious capitalist; the novel begins with his death and then spends the next 600 pages explaining it. Pears is an experienced writer of detective fiction, but in this case, the solution to the mystery is a coincidence of such crass implausibility as to wholly devalue what went before. It's a coincidence which makes things worse for the protagonist (it leads directly to Stone's death), so it fits the received wisdom of acceptable coincidence: but it is so overblown, so utterly improbable that the reader can do nothing but recoil. Clare Clark, reviewing Stone's Fall in The Guardian, was similarly dismayed:

It is regrettable, then, that the urge to contrive a final twist to the tale proves too great for Pears to resist. This sprawling, unconventional, occasionally dazzling novel ends with an unconvincing and unnecessary denouement which serves only to undermine the foundations of the elaborate edifice he has worked so painstakingly to create.

Pears is a talented writer; I greatly enjoyed An Instance of the Fingerpost and would read more of his fiction. If so accomplished a writer can be betrayed to his doom by the treacherous allure of coincidence, the rest of us should beware of the risk.
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David Isaak said...

Ack! Sorry to hear this--I, too, was a fan of Fingerpost.

I have to say I think "twists" have become too highly valued in the mystery/thriller field anyhow.

Tim Stretton said...

Unfortunately the twist was so pervasive as to undercut everything which had gone before. (It was also not particularly original - I'd considered and rejected it at an earlier point).

I agree with you on the overuse of twists. Sometimes they work wonderfully (most often in comedy) but as often they are ingenuity for its own sake (Jeffrey Deaver, I'm talking to you...). The natural home of the twist is the short story, I think.

David Isaak said...

Lawrence Block compared reading overly twisty stories to watching somebody do card tricks--and described some of William Goldman's stuff as being like watching somebody do card tricks in the dark.

On another tangent entirely, I just finished reading Swordspoint. My thanks to you for the recommendation; once she gets it rolling, it's thoroughly engrossing, and one of those world's you are reluctant to leave when the book ends.

Tim Stretton said...

Considering Swordspoint is only about 20 years old, it's sobering to think how rapidly it's vanished from sight.

I can see why it's not a huge seller--as you suggest, a measured opening doesn't help, and it's a quiet pleasure--but it deserves a cult following. Maybe the gay protagonist was ahead of his time (in Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains, only a couple of years old, the same trick is regarded as fresh and original).

It probably doesn't help that Kushner hasn't written much other novel-length fiction.

David Isaak said...

Actually, I purchased Swordspoint in a hardback reissue that includes the sequel (Privilege of the Sword) and a pair of short storeis featuring St Vier and Alec. So there's some evidence that the book is being rediscovered.

Tim Stretton said...

Let's hope so. The ready availability of used books on the internet gives older works a half-life which twenty years ago would not have happened.

Chuck said...

Whenever I think of coincidence in literature, I think of Bleak House, in which, in a London of hundreds of thousands if not millions of people, the same handful of characters keep running into each other over and over again for no apparent reason. It's so pervasive, I think it becomes something regarding which a reader must suspend disbelief, at which point it ceases to matter. One "character X meets character Y who just happens to be her long-lost mother" would be a bit much to take, but when every character is the long-lost something-or-other of some other character, it becomes part of the scenery.