What Are the Chances?

On 4 December 1956, an extraordinary coincidence happened. Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash all happened to drop by Sun Record Studios in Memphis, which resulted in an impromptu jam session. The engineer had the foresight to record the session, and it’s now a celebrated event among rock ‘n’ roll fans.

On Wednesday of last week, I experienced a similar such meeting. I arrived 15 minutes early for a particular class, but nobody else had arrived after a five-minute wait. I then doubted myself and thought I should perhaps be in another class on the other side of the campus. I immediately headed there.

I had to excuse myself through hundreds of other students, coming the other way, aware that time was ticking away rapidly. When I reached the entrance, I happened to meet Classmate A and explained the situation. As we made our way through the crowds, we met Classmate B by chance and brought him with us. As we approached our destination, we happened to see Classmate C, who joined our small group.

Had you written either of these situations into a novel, the reader might have some difficulty suspending their disbelief. In short, coincidences don’t work particularly well in fiction, even though they happen all the time in real life. It’s related to the broader deus ex machina, when a seemingly unsolvable problem is abruptly resolved by some unexpected intervention.

One way to help the reader maintain that disbelief is to set a few parameters. This could be as simple as dropping a few hints earlier in the story. To demonstrate this, let’s break down my classroom anecdote.

My three classmates and I knew we could only be in one of two particular classrooms, so Classmate D had gone to the second room first, since she was just as unsure as me. And although the rooms were at opposite sides of the campus, there is a main thoroughfare that most students would use to travel from one to the other. So the crowds were not a hindrance to the four of us meeting, rather they were subconsciously leading us to each other.

If I included this incident in a fictional story with that background detail worked into it – Show, don’t tell, said Elmore Leonard – it’s more likely that the reader would see the meeting as quite a reasonable coincidence. It might even be possible to deconstruct the Million Dollar Quartet in a similar fashion. For a start, the label’s owner had brought along Jerry Lee Lewis as an instrumentalist for Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash later wrote that he had already planned to see Perkins’ recording session that day.

Identify the parameters to help the reader believe those coincedences.

This blog has been available at http://www.gavincameron.me.uk since it began last year. But from today, if you type http://www.gavincameron.scot into your browser, it’s no coincidence you’ll also end up here.

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