Pattern Power: Coincidence in Reality and Fiction

A blue leather purse that resembles a face, with grommet eyes and a zipper mouth. Text: Something for Sunday; September 15, 2019; Pwttern PowerThe blue purse in the image belongs to a friend of mine. Can you see why I wanted to take its picture? It’s got a face! That face represents two separate things about how people deal with coincidence, in reality and in fiction.

How do people handle coincidence in reality? All too well, I’m afraid. The human brain is an extremely powerful pattern detector. This enables us to perceive things under extreme conditions, which is very useful. However, when you crank that ability up too far, you reach the point where you see meaningful patterns even when they aren’t there, something called pareidolia. It’s pareidolia that leads you to see a face when you look at the blue purse. One of the patterns we are especially good at seeing is a face. It doesn’t take much to trigger face recognition; this is behind the original use of emoticons in text, where it just takes a colon and a parenthesis to get us to see a smile.  🙂  I find this fascinating, and have written about it before. Our amazing ability to see and recognize faces is a topic of a lot of interest among cognitive scientists, who study how face perception works and how it sometimes goes wrong. You can learn more about it in this video.

More generally, this means we have a tendency to believe in the patterns we perceive, even when they are not real. Just because two things happen together (co-incidence) doesn’t necessarily mean there is any real connection between them. Random coincidences happen all the time. We don’t like to believe that, though.

Animated character from The Incredibles saying, "Coincidence? I think NOT!"My message for dealing with patterns in real life is to be skeptical about them. Otherwise, you’re like the man who plugged in his shaver at the exact moment that all the power went out on the Eastern seaboard, and is now convinced he caused the blackout. Or the misguided parent who notices that a child was diagnosed with autism a couple of months after getting a vaccination. Children are (or should be) getting lots of vaccinations during their first few years, and that’s also the time when autism is generally diagnosed. The two events simply happen together (co-incidence), but one does not cause the other.

In fiction, though, things are different. One of the big differences between stories and real life is that stories are supposed to make sense. Everything needs to be linked together by chains of cause and effect. In his book on writing, Damn Fine Story, Chuck Wendig says refers to this as echoes. Important events should reverberate back and forth throughout the story, so that they feel fitting and inevitable when they finally happen. Otherwise, you are in danger of creating a Deus ex Machina, where something waves a wand and solves all the problems without a good reason. This can sometimes be pulled off successfully, but generally it is death to a satisfying conclusion. It’s okay to use coincidence to get a story started (the main character opens the wrong door at the wrong time, and sees something they were not supposed to see). It can also work for making the character’s problems worse (they left their diary where it’s found by the plumber, who turns out to be a bad guy). However, using it to solve the character’s problem at the end is almost always a bad idea (when running from a murderous assailant, they open a random door and stumble across a stash of guns and ammo that has no reason to be there).

Here’s an example. I remember staying up late as a teenager reading The Andromeda Strain by Michael Chrichton, caught up in the drama and terror of a deadly extraterrestrial microbe that killed people in minutes. Chapter after chapter, page after page, heroic people fought desperately to stop the lethal invasion. Then, in the last pages, we learn that the microbe has now mutated into a form that no longer threatens anyone. Problem solved! This felt like cheating to me. If nobody had done anything in response to the initial threat, it would have just disappeared on its own. Why would it just happen to evolve into something harmless? Why would every bit that was dangerous just … disappear? I couldn’t see a reason for the victory at the end, so it didn’t satisfy me. A gripping, fascinating tale fizzled out at the end.

To put this all together: We humans are always looking for patterns. In real life, this can lead us to believe in things that aren’t real. On the other hand, we know a story isn’t real, but if it doesn’t satisfy that pattern hunger we again get frustrated. As a writer, I need to keep this in mind. My readers can’t turn real life off, but they can certainly quit reading my book if I don’t give them a pattern that works.

Can you think of stories with endings that didn’t satisfy you? Did they rely too much on coincidence?