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In Writing a Novel: One Coincidence Only Is Permitted

I read a comment by Buckley long ago, regarding advice he had gotten from John Braine (author of How to Write a Novel): that in writing a novel, “the reading public expects one coincidence and is cheated if it isn’t given one, but scorns two.” I’ve always thought that was brilliant. And it’s right: I can tolerate one coincidence in a novel; more than that is annoying. It becomes like John Carter in the boring, serial Mars books. Not sure if you have to have one coincidence, but probably so–otherwise, it’s more like a real-life story, which usually have no designed, plot-like arc. (This is probably one reason I have always tended to dislike movies based on real events such as someone’s life–if they are true to real life, then they will usually have no cinematic story-like arc, no “plot”–just a series of events that tell facts that actually happened in reality; if they are interesting, they probably fiddled with the truth to make it more movie-like, which also bugs me. I’d rather see a documentary or read a biography or history book.)

Here’s an excerpt of an interview with Buckley containing this comment:

INTERVIEWER

Did you say once that when you decided to write a novel John Braine sent you a book on how to write one?

BUCKLEY

We were friends. … So he used to write me regularly, and I had lunch with him once or twice in London; he was on my television program, along with Kingsley Amis. … when I sent him a letter saying that I was going to write a novel, he said, Well, I wrote a book on how to write a novel, and here it is. So I read it.

INTERVIEWER

Was it helpful?

BUCKLEY

I remember only one thing—which doesn’t mean that I wasn’t influenced by a hundred things in it—but he said that the reading public expects one coincidence and is cheated if it isn’t given one, but scorns two.

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{ 3 comments… add one }

  • David Friedman March 31, 2012, 8:23 pm

    One problem is defining what counts as a coincidence. Does it have to be more unlikely than things that actually happen? After all, every deal at bridge is astronomically unlikely, yet if you deal out the cards one of those unlikely events happens.

    Real story … . When my wife and I were living in New Orleans, we attended a public lecture at which a woman asked a question that was both interesting and cleverly put. We got into conversation with her, invited her home, talked past midnight … at which point I discovered that she was Terry Nutter, daughter of G. Warren Nutter, a prominent economist and the first person to get a PhD with my father on his committee.

    Thinking about my two novels, the closest thing that occurs to me to meeting the “one coincidence” requirement is in _Salamander_, where Prince Kieron, looking for a student at the college of magery who may have information he wants to keep from getting out, has her friend and fellow student brought to him, only to discover that she is a woman he has known since she was a child, her father being an important noble. It matters to the plot–by the end of the book the two are engaged to be married–but it strikes me as no more unlikely than the real world story I just recounted.

    On the other hand, the partly written sequel to _Salamander_ does have, at the beginning, a pretty unlikely coincidence–two boys meeting at random, becoming friends, and turning out to be fairly close relatives (one of them has been concealing his identity).

  • terrymac May 6, 2012, 8:37 am

    Odd coincidences do happen in real life. In California, I met somebody from my hometown Pittsburgh. We got to talking, and discovered that he and I had grown up just a few blocks from each other, and he went to school with my sister. Furthermore, his partner (who came from another state) actually had worked with my sister.

  • LS May 19, 2012, 6:28 am

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