When I was a kid, it was a real treat to go to Coles in Yorkdale Shopping Centre in Toronto and scour the shelves for Edgar Rice Burroughs. I devoured his books. The Barsoom series, the Venus series, Tarzan, of course, and all those thin, miscellaneous adventures stories. Back in those days, books didn’t tend to be as thick as they are today, and you could find books that were on the order of 120 pages. I prefer smaller books, stories distilled to their essence.
Much has been written about Edgar Rice Burroughs. Most acknowledge his gift for creating characters and situations that appealed to the inner Indiana Jones in every boy. One thing he’s criticized for, though, is his over-reliance on coincidence as a plot device. Fair enough. There’s a reason stories of that ilk from Borrough’s era are referred to as ‘pulps’.
Imagine my surprise, then, on re-reading Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, to discover that coincidence is used as a major plot device. A MAJOR plot device. As I read the book, I attempted to keep track of the number of significant coincidences. I lost count.
Let’s just step back for a moment. Dickens is considered in some circles to be the finest writer of English language novels. He’s certainly my favourite. Not only did he create classic characters, he was a champion for social justice. For example, his portrayal of the abusive Yorkshire schoolmaster, Wackford Squeers, was sufficiently spot-on that multiple lawsuits ensued from schoolmasters claiming they were the inspiration for the character. Odd, when you think about it, that people would actually step forward and claim that they were the basis for one of the most despised characters in fiction. At any rate, by coincidence or not, that breed of abusive boarding school soon began to disappear.
In other books, Dickens weaves a huge web of plot and character and theme that somehow all come together into a unified whole. I suppose plot wasn’t something he had a knack for in his first handful of books. Here is Nicholas Nickleby, our favourite protagonist, wandering aimlessly about London, only to walk into the very coffee room in the very hotel where his nemesis is speaking of Nicholas’ sister in an untoward manner. Here is poor Smike, the ill begotten friend of Nicholas, walking home, when who should see him on a street corner but Wackford Squeers. Smike is taken. Nicholas rings Squeers on his mobile and says, “I will track you down. And I will kill you.” Wait, sorry, I’m getting my stories mixed up. But you get the idea.
Does it make it better to admit your use of coincidence with a wink?
‘That Mr Frank and Mr Nickleby should have met last night,’ said Tim Linkinwater, getting slowly off his stool, and looking around the counting-house with his back planted against the desk, as was his custom when he had anything very particular to say: ‘that those two young men should have met last night in that manner is, I say, a coincidence, a remarkable coincidence. Why, I don’t believe now,’ added Tim, taking off his spectacles and smiling as with gentle pride, ‘that there’s such a place in all the world for coincidences as London is!’
I don’t think so.
All of this isn’t to say that coincidence has no place in plotting. One of my favourite movies uses a big, whopping coincidence to set up the key conflict, and it works beautifully:
“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
How you use coincidence to advance your plot is ultimately a matter of taste and style. My suggestion is that coincidence is a spice best used sparingly.