How much coincidence is acceptable?

I rewatched the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie for the first time recently, and it really struck me just how much coincidence was needed to get the plot going.


Jack just so happened to come to Port Royale, where the son of his dead best friend just so happened to live, on the day the girl Will just so happened to be in love with just so happened to be wearing his pirate medallion, when Norrington would just so happen to take her to a cliff she could fall off of, where Jack would just so happen to be the only one to see her, just so happen to see the medallion after he just so happened to be telling stories about the Black Pearl, which would just so happen to show up in that same town on that same day.


I know some coincidence is almost unavoidable in any story, but too much can strain your suspension of disbelief so much that you can't enjoy it any more. Where do you think that line is?


I mean, in some ways, Graven feels like a whole series of coincidences, and nobody's called me out on it out yet.


I dunno, genre fiction especially, I feel gets a bit of leeway for certain coincidences that help move the plot a long. There's no exact number. The better and more engaging the rest of the story is, the more egregious the coincidences can be that let slide, but if literally every plot point hinges on them, at some point its going to get silly. I would say, as a default rule, try not to use it unless you have to, or if it's a fairly innocuous thing that could seem pretty reasonable.


You use the Pirates movie as an example, also note that movies may especially make use of this for narrative expedience; they only have so many minutes to tell their story, so you sometimes just have to throw some in there, or the movie would meander too much and be ten hours long. With writing, especially long form serials, there is less of a need for this.


Superheroes have gotten saved or helped by other heroes who happen to be nearby plenty. In a city like Marvel Manhattan, where every big name hero we know of lives in or near New York City, that's not that unusual. Hell, it's even more of a coincidence that they aren't tripping over one another as much as they probably would be, being so clustered.


So, I guess the other advice is, the more specific the coincidence, the more breaking of belief it will be. Broader coincidences, like the aforementioned hero locations, are reasonable, but if your coincidence is so contrived as to be a Rube Goldberg machine of layered events converging, that's when the coincidence itself ought to probably be a plot point.


Out of curiosity, how would you rate the events in my current project on the coincidence-o-meter?





The attack happens just like it was predicted, Falquin uses the Magnus to fight back just in time for Tenlash to see him and decide to take him on as an apprentice. Thus, the rest of the story happens.


Eh, honestly, seems perfectly fine to me. Probably something most people won't even really notice; there's plenty of stories that start off with that sort of "the stars aligned that day" meetings.


You have mistaken the word coincidence for the word contrivance. All stories depend on coincidence. Stories can begin with coincidence but should not be resolved by them.


The phrase 'just so happens' indicates what amounts to a bad faith argument. Observe:


Darth Vader just so happens to capture Princess Leia above Tatooine. The two droids just so happen to reach an escape pod which the Empire just so happens to not fire upon. They just so happen to end up with a young boy named Luke who just so happens to know a strange hermit who just so happens to tell him he's the heir to a phenomenal power...


See where I'm going with this?


It's perfectly fine for stories to have coincidences proving they are not contrived. Coincidences are more acceptable when they are setting up or complicating the story than when they are resolving it.


Things just so happen in stories. Things just so happen in history, too. Gavrilo Princep just so happened to lose his cool to assassinate Franz Ferdinand, but there just so happened to be a detour that just so happened to take the Archduke past where Princep just so happened to be having coffee and he just so happened to seize his opportunity...


But the First World War was not resolved just so.


@Rhodeworks, I agree, but I still think theres a line between good and bad coincidences. Going by your Star Wars example, I can accept that Vader catches Leiah right above the planet Obi Wan and Luke live on. Expecting me to believe that, of all the people living on that planet, R2 and 3PO get purchased by Vader's lost son is a harder pill to swallow.


Why? There is no difference beyond the one you've imagined in your head. Luke Skywalker is not Vader's son in A New Hope.


I don't understand. He was his son in Empire, and they never trade him for a different Luke, so yes, he was Vader's son in New Hope.


You have confused the fifth film for the fourth film.


No, I'm pretty sure that your parentage doesn't change as soon as somebody new declares themselves your parent. If he was Vader's son in Empire, he was his son in New Hope.


When A New Hope was written, Vader and Skywalker (Anakin) were different characters. Empire Strikes Back was a retcon. If you cannot comprehend how to think about texts without relying on franchise canon, then it is no wonder you fail to understand coincidences and their role in storytelling. Luke Skywalker was not Vader's son in A New Hope.


How could there be a retcon for something that was never brought up? All Obi Wan said was that Anakin was a great pilot (true) a great friend (also true) and that Vader killed him (true again, in a metaphorical way). For something to be retconned, it has to be explicitly stated one way and then canonically changed. A plot twist that you didn't see coming is not a retcon.


A story is a thread of causality from a problem to its solution. There is no story without some impetus, and that impetus is almost always going to be a coincidence on some level. This impetus creates some problem for the hero, and they act against it somehow, and the world reacts to their action, and so on and so forth until the problem is resolved in some fashion.


All but the simplest stories aren't just one story, but many substories, so chances are you're going to have coincidences in the thick of things which are really the impetus for some subplot.


As Rhodeworks said, you can use coincidence to get the hero into trouble (i.e., to start a story), but you cannot use it to get out (i.e., to resolve a story). It's a broken link on the action/reaction chain.


Readers have to accept the premise to be invested in the story, and oft times some coincidence is going to be a part of that premise.




This is the start of a story, and fine.




This is a hm coincidence, but if both these scenes happen near the very start of the story, I could buy it. Again, it's the premise of a story, which gives you some leeway.


and her path to the castle takes her straight past it (not a coincidence, but it looks that way at first)



This could look bit dubious. If you aren't already, I'd advise perhaps foreshadowing that it isn't a coincidence. Or give T'vaskli some reason to take this path.


(It's not clear whether "it" is the attack, the castle, or what.)




Again, the start of a story, and mostly fine. His learning of the crime lord's plan could be iffy depending on execution. The part that provokes a question from me is why T'vaskli? Are there not other pyromancers? How did he find her specifically?


The attack happens just like it was predicted, Falquin uses the Magnus to fight back just in time for Tenlash to see him and decide to take him on as an apprentice. Thus, the rest of the story happens.



Could be a coincidence, could not be. It seems clear to me that Tenlash could easily be in the town, since he already knows of the attack, and if there's a dude fighting in a giant robot, who isn't going to see that?


1. The invading ship arriving on the day of the pilgrimage IS a coincidence, but it's one that the main cast refuses to accept for a long time because they think the invaders were trying to attack the new pyromancers. The Magnuses are powered by pyromancy, so if you take out the pyromancers you cripple the Magnus Knights.


2. T'vaskli gets caught because she was sent ahead of the other pilgrims. Long chapter short, it's politics. She has to go but nobody wants her to, so the chief sends her early so that nobody can stop her. Falquin kidnaps her because he rushed ahead of the crime lord's men, and she was literally the only pyromancer there.


3. She was near Falquin's town, and the invasion started there, because that town is the one closest to the mountain the pyromancers live on. There's something on the mountain the invaders want, so they landed as close to it as they could. T'vaskli was just following the quickest route to get to the castle.


4. Falquin learns about their plan to get the Magnus because he's been reduced to begging for his drug. The crime lord is trying his best to throw him out, and Falquin notices that the man who was "next in line" is too well dressed to be one of his normal thugs. He sneaks around to listen from the window, finds out what they're doing, and takes off before anyone can catch him. This also happens just a couple of hours before the invading ship lands.


I don't like coincidences in plot DEVELOPMENTS, but in plot PREMISES they're just fine. Like, in Star Wars, a bunch of coincidences come together to start the plot off, but pretty much everything afterwards is a result of characters intentionally doing things. But it's stuff like, where a character just happens to find a plot-important piece of information accidentally, or two enemies happen to run into each other for no reason and that causes the final battle of the series, that gets real annoying after a while.


It depends on what you're writing and how you write it.


Screwball comedies, for example, can depend very heavily on an unending string of coincidences that make the story continuously more ridiculous and complicated. If you prep the audience right for that, you can have them giggling in anticipation of the next stupid coincidence that makes everything worse.


In a more serious and complex story -- like Game of Thrones, for example -- coincidences can be a lot more dangerous, because they look like shortcuts, but they don't have to be. A coincidence that a character then devotes a lot of time and energy trying to capitalize on can show that the character is cunning and adaptable and can turn situations over to his or her benefit. But you need to be careful about using that, because it can make it harder for the audience to buy in.