The Art of the Unlikely Coincidence: Serendipity & Synchronicity in Writing

One of the biggest challenges of writing novels well is tying everything together in a believable way. Part of the difficulty comes from how heavily plots rely on coincidences: little details that seem insignificant at first glance but somehow tie into the resolution. Like life, some coincidence is necessary; however, finding the right amount can be problematic. Too much reliance, and it becomes unbelievable. Too little, and it’s disconnected.

Two terms related to this challenge are “serendipity” and “synchronicity.”

           serendipity – n. a stroke of luck; a fortunate chance or happenstance
           synchronicity – n. the condition of two events occuring at the same time
           that seem related even though they are coincidences

When it comes to serendipity, be wary of using too many strokes of luck or having them resolve major conflicts. For example, if you resolve the climax through serendipity, the story begins to smell of deus ex machina. Even for minor issues, relying on good luck too often can seem contrived – unless, it’s somehow tied to characterization or plot and causes alternate problems (a character blessed with luck, a crafty villain lulling them into complacency, the genie in the lamp issue, etc.). The same is true for misfortune – there’s only so much that we’re willing to believe is coincidental.

And that’s kind of what synchronicity is about. It’s our minds’ abilities to see meaning or links between coincidences.

Originally coined and defined by Carl Jung, a discussion of synchronicity can easily devolve into very deep philosophy or psychiatry (too deep for me). For the sake of writing, I simplify it to coincidences that are related by meaning – AKA, events that get labeled as fate. A character wishing with all his might that he could get off-planet and then suddenly getting a job offer on Mars. Getting a call from someone when you were thinking of calling him/her. A downpour right after you say, “I hope it doesn’t rain today!” These are all examples of synchronicity.

Our brains are ready, even eager, to link any and all of these little details together and use them as clues for what’s going to happen in the story. Or read some deeper meaning in them. And that’s good. Having clues like that is integral to an interesting read. The only problem is having the right balance so that the story is still believable and natural.

I think one of the best possible serendipitous events for a writer would be to wonder aloud if we got the balance right and immediately get an ad or something for a program that could tell us exactly where we were and what percentage we were off (one that works). Synchronicity or fate, I’d take it.


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