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Kim Wilson
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Serendipity or Coincidence: An Author's Bane or Blessing
by John M. Prophet

"Eureka," said Archimedes on his discovery that led to his principles of specific gravity. And so it goes, that many, perhaps all, great discoveries are attributed to a strange thing called serendipity.

Serendipity, according to the dictionary, is an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident. Scientists may include insight and judgment in this definition. The dictionary credits Horace Walpole for having invented the word. It seems he read an old Sri Lankan fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip in which three princes, while traveling, made interesting discoveries by accident.

Used properly, the serendipitous and/or coincidental discovery, can enhance a writer's plot in a number of ways, but it is a two-edged sword. When a protagonist suddenly discovers something that leads to the solution of a mystery or meets someone who will change the course of his/her life, readers may identify with the experience, but writers must take care that an inappropriate serendipitous or coincidental discovery may cause a letdown as well if the reader is not prepared for it.

According to researchers, there are three features which characterize a serendipitous event:

Time-space in which one is at the right place at the right time. One may consider that some people escaped the World Trade Center disaster on 9/11 by missing one of the fateful flights through a serendipitous substitution, a twist of fate which made the difference between life and death. The options for a writer seem boundless, but to stay within the bounds of credibility, consider that certain behaviors are more likely to be aligned in certain places, like a bowling alley, a school, a Little League game, in street society, or in groups. In these cases, chance events or chance encounters have a high correlation with the time and place they occur.

Relationships, i.e. the unplanned building of social networks or personal relationships. Who we know is a matter of chance. Even though we may be somewhat selective, specific contacts cannot be predicted in advance. Relationships develop through happenstance, chance remarks, and unplanned actions. Blind dates, parties, writers groups, or any event which throws people together in different settings are examples. A handsome young prince may meet the love of his life in a bowling alley. It is possible, but how might this occur? Would the writer open the story with the prince saying to his father, I want to go bowling? Possibly. Then, is it probable that the true love will be at the alleys at the time the prince arrives? What preparation is needed for the reader? Is this the most common form of serendipity or coincidence used by writers? Is it always used plausibly? Can you think of stories in which you as reader were stopped in your tracks because of some implausible connection?

Analysis, i.e. the discovery of concepts or theories that produce additional compelling claims. Scientists may make numerous conclusions from data they initially collected for another reason. Linkages are made without any certainty as to why they make sense. Research conducted in the Headstart preschool program is an example. A number of claims have been made as to effects of parenting and parent involvement on the long-term effects of the preschool experience from studies aimed at reading readiness. The key point here is that researchers make their claims based on their knowledge in the field. They make their discoveries because they are well prepared. Have you read any stories in which a character makes a discovery which doesn't seem to fit his/her level of knowledge?

The clearest example of how the serendipitous or coincidental event is used questionably in fiction writing is in an episode of a well-known TV mystery show. The investigator wanders around a room roped off as a crime scene after a murder. He looks under a couch and discovers a matchbook. On the matchbook, he reads the name of a nightclub which by coincidence is in the neighborhood. He visits the nightclub. Lo and behold, the murderer is standing at the bar, and, of course, under the investigator's close scrutiny, he is brought to justice. I have labeled this bit of action, the matchbook ploy.

The chances of a matchbook with the name of a bar or nightclub on it which is directly related to the main plot may or may not be believable. More likely you'll find the name of Stop & Shop or an ad for hearing aids. But even if we accept the nightclub matchbook, the trail from under the couch to the nightclub to the murderer strains credibility. Perhaps the odds are too precise. We know that as a character the investigator is endowed with an uncanny ability to ferret out evidence and make astounding connections to dispatch antagonists, but this episode is of the moan and groan variety, despite the fact that the investigator's mind is prepared for anything. In tales of Sherlock Holmes the reader is well-informed about Holmes's abilities.

When a plot bogs down, when there is a need to add a new character, or change a setting, what better way is there than to engage serendipity? With the planting of a tiny nugget of information, a writer can transform any part of a story. Once planted, a whole series of events can follow.

For example, a man and woman are sitting at separate tables in a crowded restaurant. For some reason, their eyes meet. He goes to her table and introduces himself. Little does he know that she is a serial killer in the case he is working, and that she is setting him up for a killing. He recognizes a piece of jewelry she is wearing which connects her to the murders. From there, many things can happen, but it is that chance meeting that pits the antagonist and protagonist against each other.

Things need to happen to engage the reader, but they have to be believable. Not all events are serendipitously correct (to coin another phrase). One may wonder sometimes how a protagonist makes a leap from one tiny bit of information to another. To stay within the bounds of credibility, one might consider a quote from Louis Pasteur (1822-1895): "When it comes to observations, chance only favors the prepared minds." It should remain true for the characters in a story, and, most importantly, for the prepared mind of the reader.

One could argue that life itself is one serendipitous event after another, and that a writer, contriving to imitate life, may do whatever he/she pleases, that nothing is impossible. The injection of a serendipitous or coincidental event in a story lends color, humor, and/or tension to a plot, but, beware of the matchbook. It may cause a story to go down in flames.

Note: More information on this interesting topic is available at brynmawr.edu.

John Prophet, Author, Mystery at Salt Marsh Bridge, Body in the Salt Marsh, and now available at www.iuniverse.com , Mystery at the Salt Marsh Winery. Visit John at www.authorsden.com/johnprophet .









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