Notes on writing

The almost incredible

Hitchcock-Strangers-on-a-Train

I am very fond of coincidences in plots and situations that are almost but not quite incredible, as in the audacious plan set forth in the first chapter of Strangers on a Train by one man who has known the other passenger only a couple of hours; the chance selection of Tom Ripley, potential murderer, by the father of a young man, as an agent to bring that young man home from Europe; the unlikely and unpromising meeting of Robert and Jennie in The Cry of the Owl, when Robert appears to be a prowler and Jennie ignores this fact and is drawn to him.

(Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction – Patricia Highsmith)

Anyone who admires Patricia Highsmith’s fiction will forgive her this fondness for the ‘almost incredible’ and will find these coincidences perfectly believable in the settings and atmospheres she conjures. Coincidences are stitched into the fabric of life and we have all experienced them, though perhaps not as frequently and significantly as the inhabitants of fictional worlds. But there is a considerable art in using them without making the story seem ridiculous. Highsmith’s point here is indicated by the world ‘almost’: in their use of coincidence as a plot device, the writer may stretch the reader’s belief but they must never snap it.

Victorian writers were especially fond of coincidences, as anyone who’s read Oliver Twist or Jane Eyre will know. Oliver, out on an expedition with the Artful Dodger, just happens to pick the pocket of one of his father’s old friends. Jane, wandering the moors, just happens to be taken in by a family who turn out to be her cousins. These are incredible coincidences, and yet we accept them and keep reading. I’m not sure that would be the case if a living writer tried to pull such a trick.

In the novel I’m working on at the moment, there are several chance meetings that help drive the plot. As I work on the book, I tell myself that these are believable and do not depend on the reader’s credulity. There is the setting, 1930s Nice, a city not so big that characters mightn’t come across one another in its central district, and there are the characters themselves, each with their own reasons to be in a particular place at a particular time. In other words, the characters come together not wholly at random but because they have reasons to be where they are. I think I will get away with it, though that will be for the reader to judge.

In the passage quoted above, Highsmith seems to view the almost incredible as being to do just with coincidence. But in the one of examples she mentions, there is more to it than that. It is not merely that Guy Haines meets Charles Bruno on a train, and it is not merely Haines has a wife and Bruno has a father each wishes to be rid of. It is also that Bruno proposes that they swap murders so that each disposes of the others’ problem. Almost incredible? Yes. But ingenious writing nonetheless? Completely.

There are, of course, striking coincidences that involve inanimate objects as well as people. Arthur Koestler, one of the twentieth-century’s most interesting and wide-ranging writers, was preparing a newspaper article on the 1972 World Chess Championship match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, which was to take place in Iceland. Koestler visited the London Library to do some research. He recalled the visit in an article on coincidences for the Sunday Times:

I hesitated for a moment, whether to go to the ‘C’ for chess section first, or to the ‘I’ for Iceland section, but chose the former, because it was nearer. There were about 20-30 books on chess on the shelves, and the first that caught my eye was a bulky volume with the title Chess in Iceland…. This type of coincidence, involving libraries, books, quotations, references or single words in special contexts, is so frequent that one almost regards them as one’s due.

Koestler was so intrigued by the operation of coincidence that he devoted a large part of his book on ESP, The Roots of Coincidence, to the subject. The book cited the theories of Paul Kammerer, Carl Jung, and Wolfgang Pauli, respectively, a biologist, a psychologist, and a physicist, each of whom believed that what is commonly called coincidence is in fact an indicator of some underlying principle or law of reality. On this view, the Universe operates in two modes, the familiar one of cause and effect and the less familiar but equally real one of acasual connection, the latter being observed in meaningful coincidences. Kammerer called it the Law of Seriality, while Jung used the term Synchronicity. A web search will reveal many examples, though some of these are apocryphal and others are simply made-up (see The Patient Bullet). One of my favourites, which I assume is not fictional, befell the writer Anne Parrish. It was recounted n the New Yorker in 1932 as follows:

True story about an adventure that befell Anne Parrish one June day in Paris. She was wandering through the old book stalls along the Seine with her husband who had been there before. He sat down at a table on the quai and let her go rummaging. She came over with an old English book for children, called ‘Jack Frost and Other Stories’. Only paid a franc for it. Hadn’t seen anything like it in twenty years. Not since she was a child. It contained her favourite nursery stories. Even remembered one of them. Her husband looked at it. He admitted she must have know it in her younger days. On the flyleaf was her name and New York address.

You couldn’t make it up — or rather you could, but no reader would accept it. To return, finally, to Patricia Highsmith, I think the fiction writer must stick to the almost incredible, and leave the crazier stuff to reality.

[The photograph of Farley Granger and Robert Walker above is from Alfred Hitchcock’s film of Strangers on a Train.]