Coincidence. It’s a screenwriter’s stock in trade. It lies at the very heart of storytelling; it’s been around even before Oedipus slept with his mother. It’s the essence of the ‘what if.’ Coincidence comes into play for inciting incidents, chance meetings, clever plot twists, surprising revelations. It’s a very necessary dramatic tool.
Pirates of the Caribbean
There’s nothing wrong with coincidence, per se. Almost every movie is going to have some incidents where one character just happens to be in the right place at the right time.
Last week I spent two days in a town I had never been before and both mornings went to the same Starbucks at different times in the morning. And both times the same person was standing behind me in line. What are the odds? It’s hard to miss that kind of coincidence. It made me think about how coincidence is used in screenwriting,
All of us have real stories of coincidence ranging from simple to complex. Things like hearing a song you haven’t heard in years playing on the radio at the same time on two different stations. Or like the time I got on a connecting standby flight in Dallas and ended up on the same flight as a guy I went to high school with who I hadn’t seen in years.
Coincidence is a part of life so we shouldn’t be surprised when coincidence is used in the movies. But if it’s not a law it should at least be a rule that coincidence not be used throughout your story unless you are writing a farce (Groundhog Day) or a story where coincidence is built into the story. For instance we expect Forrest Gump to bump shoulders with Elvis, John F. Kennedy and John Lennon. It’s part of the fun.
But since coincidence must be used to one degree or another it’s best if you don’t use them at important moments of your script.
Coincidence is best used in the first act and as early as possible. Sure it a coincidence that the swimmer in Jaws just happens to take a swim at feeding time. But something has to start the story. Inciting incidents are often a fitting place for coincidence.
The worst time to use coincidence is at the end of the film. You will find coincidence abuse across every genre. Perhaps the biggest offender is romantic comedies as writers work to get two people together. Could there be a bigger coincidence (or heavy handed metaphor) than after a man’s wife dies to have him and fall in love with the recipient (via heart-transplant) of his dead wife’s heart? Critics used words like gimmick and creepy to refer to the plot of Return to Me. Yet the quirky comedy did find a satisfied audience.
So you can overcome heavy-handed coincidence but it takes work to avoid. The real secret of using coincidence is to sneak it in where needed. Avoid using coincidence at key moments of the story.
Terry Russio writes in his Wordplay Columns:
One of the classic rules of coincidence is that fate — if it must be present — should always favor the antagonist. If our hero has a gun on the villain and the hero’s gun jams, it’s called drama. If the villain has our hero dead in his sights, and the villain’s gun jams, it’s called a lousy cheat, a not-very-inventive way to sneak the hero out of his predicament.
When the audience rolls back their eyes and is having one of those ”you’ve-got-to be-kidding” moments you know that coincidence has been misused.
It’s best when the audience doesn’t even realize the coincidence. For instance in Mystic River the novelist and/or screenwriters start and end the movie with coincidence, but the story is so compelling it is not a stumbling block. (Spoiler alert) Sean Penn’s daughter is killed the same night that his friend Tim Robbins kills a man — big coincidence. And Sean Penn kills Robbins thinking he killed his daughter the same night that detectives arrest the real killers of Penn’s daughter–another big coincidence.
Perhaps coincidence is like subtext, exposition and other tricks of the trade in that it can be handled well or poorly. The best way to handle coincidence in your scripts is to do so organically. For instance it is not just a coincidence that at the end of Jaws Roy Scheider has a gun and knows how to use it (he is the police chief) or that there is an oxygen tank on the boat. Those were built into the story.
Scheider is simply forced to go to the end of the line because he has run out of options. May you strive with the same diligence to fight off heavy-handed coincidence in your scripts.