Quite a while ago, a reviewer of Aristocrats and Assassins (in the seven-book “Detectives Chen and Castilblanco Series”) was generally positive about the book but didn’t like the coincidences. I’ve even had Detective Chen or Castilblanco say, “I don’t believe in coincidences”—this is a common statement from a cop in crime stories.

But coincidences are important in real life, so they’re important in fiction too. You wouldn’t have met your significant other but for coincidence, although I suppose a few people still sometimes marry their main squeeze from high school. Where we end up working is often determined by coincidence. Generally speaking, your world-line through the four dimensions of space and time is often determined by a series of coincidences.

In that reviewer’s defense, it seemed like quite a coincidence that Castilblanco just happened to be near terrorist attacks in Europe while on vacation. At the end of the book, though, that “coincidence” is explained away. Of course, it’s still a coincidence that the terrorist-mastermind of the royal kidnappings decided to also get even with Mr. C, but he was also an old nemesis from a past SEAL op.

Life is often full of coincidences.  Considering Clancy’s maxim that fiction has to seem real, there is no harm in including them in your fiction. Can a story start with a coincidence? My book mentioned above does, but because you might not have read it (shame on you!), Clancy’s Patriot Games offers a similar example (that novel convinced me that including European royalty in my book was OK as long as their roles are positive—the afore-mentioned reviewer seemed surprised that I made them so, but why not?). Jack Ryan was coincidentally in London to receive an award when he offs an Irish terrorist’s brother.  Every Jack Reacher book is an example too. Reacher is basically traveling around with just his toothbrush, but trouble always manages to find him.  Coincidences are essential to fictional storytelling.

Authors have to be careful, though. Coincidences have to seem real. If the story’s coincidences seem too improbable—Deus Ex Machina is an extreme case—the reader won’t swallow the storyline. If the majority of readers stop and say “Huh?” the author is in big trouble, especially at the beginning of the novel. Clancy’s coincidence defines the storyline and isn’t improbable. One can argue that the beginnings of most Reacher novels are also in that category.

But the mystery/thriller author, or even a sci-fi writer, must get his characters involved in the action. In the case of crime fiction, that’s generally more coincidental than if the main character is called upon to solve the crime. Most of the time, that’s Chen and Castilblanco’s fate—Aristocrats and Assassins is an exception. But even Inspectors Dalgliesch, Gamache, and Rebus get involved in some cases because of coincidences.

Bottom line for authors: manage your coincidences, but you don’t have to avoid them!


Rembrandt’s Angel (a mystery/thriller from Penmore Press). To what lengths would you go to recover a stolen masterpiece? Scotland Yard’s Art and Antiques Inspector Esther Brookstone goes the extra mile. She and paramour/sidekick Bastiann van Coevorden, an Interpol agent, set out to outwit the dealers of stolen art and recover “An Angel with Titus’ Features,” a Rembrandt painting stolen by Nazis in World War Two. Their efforts lead to much more as they uncover an international conspiracy that threatens Europe. During their dangerous adventures, their relationship solidifies and becomes a full-blown romance. This book is available in ebook format, including a .mobi (Kindle) version, at Smashwords and the latter’s affiliate retailers (Apple, B&N, Kobo). It’s also available as a print version at Amazon, B&N, or your favorite bookstore (if not there, ask for it).

In libris libertas….

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