Coincidences in movies and television can take you out of the story or leave you questioning the internal logic of events. So how can you use these random story beats to your advantage?
I think we all can agree that telling a fictional story requires a lot of prep work and planning. You want to make sure every aspect of your screenplay withstands audience scrutiny and makes it through the system to be greenlit and reach as many screens as possible.
If you've been writing screenplays or pilots for long enough, you've probably heard the "rule" about coincidences. Every story gets one, but the rest of the beats need to be earned. Screenwriter Anna Klassen sent out this tweet a few days ago, and it got me thinking.
Don’t let your script have (many) coincidences, unless those coincidences actively make your protagonist’s journey harder. Coincidences that aid your antagonist are fantastic. Use Ironic twists to turn the knife deeper into your hero. Make it hurt. Make them suffer.
Don’t let your script have (many) coincidences, unless those coincidences actively make your protagonist’s journey harder. Coincidences that aid your antagonist are fantastic. Use Ironic twists to turn the knife deeper into your hero. Make it hurt. Make them suffer.— Anna Klassen (@AnnaJKlassen) June 9, 2019
Today we're going to talk about those coincidences and how you can work them to your advantage while writing.
Coincidences in Storytelling
As I mentioned above, every movie and TV show gets one coincidence per story. Ideally, that coincidence helps set your story in motion and doesn't ring false. So how can you get the most out of your coincidences? Scott Myers from Go Into the Story had this to say about coincidences:
"You do not want to be guilty of writer’s convenience for many reasons, not the least of which is it yanks the reader out of the story universe when they swat palm of hand onto forehead and proclaim, 'Writer’s convenience!!!'"
John August details the coincidences in Spider-Man 3 in a blog post from 2007. August states that while coincidences in and of themselves are not a problem, in movies they're usually used as a jumping off point.
A coincidence can be a great way to set your story into motion.
"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. In fact, many movies are built around a “premise coincidence.” In Die Hard, John McClane just happens to be in the building when the villains attack. That’s okay. McClane’s being there is part of the premise. Likewise, in the original Spider-Man, Peter Parker just happens to get bitten by the radioactive spider. No problem: it wouldn’t be Spider-Man otherwise." -John August
But once the movie is going, we need reasons for what's happening on screen. Those reasons have to come from character choices. And if they don't, they can take us out of the movie or TV show. But what if you NEED a coincidence to reveal something more profound in your character?
How does a writer solve that problem?
The answer lies in Klassen's tweet.
Use your coincidences to screw over your characters royally. Again. And again. And AGAIN!
And we'll love you for it.
The Village of Happy People
As the saying goes, "There's no story that happens in the village of happy people." Even the Smurfs encounter daily conflicts and have a nemesis. Your characters need to suffer. It's part of the general rule for screenwriting. Without pain and anguish, there is no story and certainly is nothing to overcome.
Ever wonder why they kill Batman's parents in every movie and TV show?
That brings us back to coincidence. When Martha (Martha!) and Thomas Wayne walk down that back alley with Bruce, they coincidentally run into a mugger. If nothing happens, it's boring, but that coincidence kills both of them and sets our protagonist on a lifelong journey to make criminals pay.
Coincidences can also be the backbone of a story like they are in Signs. But much like in Signs, these are things that happen that put our characters through hell and back. So much so they begin to question their own beliefs.
Now, I stan the ending of Signs pretty hard. I think it's beautiful and pays off all the scenes and moral ambiguity before it, but in case you don't agree, let's look at a few more coincidence examples to help you understand how you can use them to your advantage.
Coincidence examples in movies and television
Now that your mind is working, I bet you can pick out a ton of examples of coincidences in film and television. We've covered a few that work as jumping off points for the story, but I want to take a look at some more subtle ones that also function as story engines.
The first comes from The Hunger Games.
One of the rules of the Hunger Games is that the younger you are, the less your name goes into the pot for selection. Well, when Katniss's sister Prim is chosen, it's pretty much the purest coincidence possible. That choice leads Katniss to volunteer and sets us forth on a multi-movie (and book) journey.
This coincidence is hidden within good storytelling. It makes Katniss's life much harder, and we never think twice about the actual mathematical likelihood it would ever happen.
Another logical coincidence is at the center of one of the greatest movies of all time, Casablanca.
It's CRAZY that Ilsa and Victor wind up in Africa in Rick's bar. I mean, how is that possible? Well, since we know Rick was fleeing Europe, and we know a lot of people doing that go through Casablanca, I guess it's not that insane to think they'd all be there at some point or another.
But do we care?
We care so much about the people and the romance that we let it slide. Excellent character development can help disguise the coincidences you need to get your story going.
What about on the TV side?
Again, I know I talk about Breaking Bad too much, but it knows how to cook when it comes to story. And meth.
The Breaking Bad pilot is perfection. The coincidence it juggles is that Captain Cook is Jesse Pinkman, who is one of Walt's former students. This is the only real leap in the pilot. A coincidence that gets both guys into a lot of trouble one season at a time.
Here's where I'll leave you: coincidences in movies and television are unavoidable because they are a natural part of daily life. Since we're trying to capture realism, even in a heightened sense, coincidences will happen. You need to confront them in a way that makes it harder on your characters.
So get out there and get writing.
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