You cannot use co-incidence in a novel.
Every writer is taught that, from Story Structure 101.
Even back in Ancient Greece, when Horace was in short pants, the deus ex machina was the mark of the amateur.
Yes, but …
what if you write about a co-incidence before the co-incidence has happened?
Does that count???
Take Edgar Allan Poe for example.
In 1838 he published his only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. A whaling ship is lost at sea and four crewmen survive. The men draw lots to see who will be eaten, and the cabin boy, Richard Parker, gets the short straw.
The book bombed.
Critics hated it, they said it was too gruesome and too derivative. Poe himself later called it “a very silly book,” but no so silly that Herman Melville and Jules Verne didn’t draw inspiration from it later.
In fact Poe stole the idea from real life; it’s just that real life didn’t happen until 46 years later.
The ship’s name was the Mignonette, and the four survivors actually did eat the cabin boy.
Whose name happened to be Richard Parker.
Sailing for Sydney from Southampton in 1884 she sank in a gale 1,600 miles northwest of the Cape of Good Hope. The crew of four abandoned ship and climbed in the lifeboat with just two tins of turnips. And a very tasty looking Parker, as it would turn out.
When they were finally rescued two of the survivors – Tom Dudley, the captain and Edwin Stephens – were brought to trial in a landmark case that shocked Britain. The third crew member, Edmund Brooks, turned state witness – which some people found hard to swallow.
They were found guilty of murder but sentenced to just six months in prison.
Poe’s story had bombed so badly no one recognized the extraordinary co-incidence until over a century later.
Yann Martel has since included a shipwrecked tiger called Richard Parker in his Booker Prize winning novel, The Life of Pi.
Parker the Tiger is shipwrecked on a lifeboat with a sixteen year old boy – but in a refreshing irony, he doesn’t eat him.
The Richard Parker case also inspired the infamous Monty Python sketch about four sailors in a lifeboat arguing about which one of them looks more appetizing.
(They finally decide to have the best bits of each other and call a waitress over to take their orders.)
Poe was not the only writer to have presaged real life with fiction.
In 1898 Morgan Robertson published a book called ‘Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan.’
But sink it does, after hitting an iceberg in the North Atlantic in April – 400 nautical miles from Newfoundland.
And guess what?
It doesn’t have enough lifeboats to save everyone.
No coincidence at all then.
The rest of the book follows the hero, John Rowland, as he saves the heroine by fighting off a polar bear and locating a spare lifeboat; as Jack should have done, instead of wimping out on the floating door.
Imagination or prophecy?
I have no idea. Poe was a very strange man indeed, so I wouldn’t like to guess what brought him to anticipate the consumption of a cabin boy called Richard Parker after a shipwreck.
But Robertson? In 1914 he also published a short story called “Beyond the Spectrum”, about a conflict between the US and Japan, in which Japan does not declare war but instead launches a surprise attack on the US fleet.
Was he a novelist – or some kind of a spooky guy who could see the future?
Who knows. But two Titanics?
I think poor Rose did well to survive just one.
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