There Are No Coincidences

Writing tips for busy people

Stephen Hawking died on Pi day. 3.14. Couldn’t be more perfect. As though he planned it. Why shouldn’t a physicist who did equations in his head about black holes, why shouldn’t he die on a date that is a mathematical expression? It’s like the people who died on their birthday — did they plan that? Ingrid Bergman, William Shakespeare, Betty Friedan, and Kamehameha V, King of Hawaii to name a few. What is the significance of the date and the way it closes a loop?

There are no coincidences, especially in fiction.

We are always looking to close the loop, and nowhere more powerfully than in storytelling. We expect fiction and nonfiction to make sense of the world even when we can’t. There was a producer on a television news show that I worked on. He always said, “But could it have happened this way? Could that have happened first? Could this person have known something about it?” The answer was always no. The facts as I knew them would never support his way of closing the loop. He hated that.

It’s disappointing, but in writing, you can’t always tell the truth. Fiction is a falsehood by definition. Nonfiction aims for the truth of the moment, which is not the same as the real truth. Dialogue in books is not transcribed conversation. It’s an impression. If your storyline calls for the movie star to have an argument with his wife, storm out the door and die in a fatal car crash that night, it is meaningful. If the argument happened a week before, and the crash happened just because the roads were wet, it’s deflating.

Fiction is challenging because you can make anything happen. Nonfiction is challenging because you have to stick to the facts, except when you bend them just enough to tell the truth of the story. It’s a fine line to walk.

When a critic, editor, or executive producer questioned part of my storyline, it was often the part that was true. The part of the story that was never questioned was the part I made up. That’s because reality is messy or weird and always has loose ends. The invented narrative, if built correctly, meets the expectations of the reader, listener, or viewer. It satisfies their need for pattern recognition. We are narrative animals. We insist on a storyline. If there isn’t one already, we will impose one.

We want the movie star to get into the fatal accident right after the argument. We want the physicist to die on Pi day. We want the dramatist to die on the day he was born. It’s fortunate when it really happens that way and you don’t have to make it up.

Thanks for reading,