June 10, 2019

Coincidences in Movies and Television are a Disaster...Unless...

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. 

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? 

No. 

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. 

This will create better stakes, arcs, and can even help you during the outlining stage. 

So get out there and get writing. 

What's next? 20 Ways to get Movie Ideas

Coming up with movie ideas is not easy. Whether you're battling writer's block or need to start a new screenplay, the journey to inspiration is treacherous. So we came up with twenty ways to get your mind moving! 

Click the link to learn more!      

Your Comment

4 Comments

I think "coincidences" is a rather bad choice of word, in the world of scripts it's what I'd rather call "deus ex machina moments" because the audience will see it like that. And in my opinion, it doesn't make a big difference if it is a negative incident - unless it is cleverly done, which it rarely is...like the villain who, after his hostage escaped, picks him/her out of a million people's crowd etc.

June 11, 2019 at 2:23AM, Edited June 11, 2:39AM

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Gerard M.
1251

That's definitely an interesting way to look at it, but regardless of the name of the device, most people want either see something carefully planned that pays off, or just gets a character into way more trouble. I don't think there are many positive moments that work as coincidences.

June 11, 2019 at 4:30PM

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Jason Hellerman
Copywriter
Writer

Interesting article but I'm a little confused sometimes at your definition of a coincidence.
Peter Parker getting bitten isn't a coincidence it's a random event. Bad luck. A coincidence has to have two elements that are connected or know to each other that meet or interact against the odds. Peter Parker has no connection to the spider, it and he are strangers so their stories interacting are new. It's completely random. A coincidence has to have a random event that triggers a specific event.
Casablanca is a coincidence. Elsa and Rick are intimately know to each other. A random event brings them together and that creates the eerie feeling in them both that it must be fate. I think a lot of the time what your referencing in films, good and bad, is simply good or bad luck, something unusual with high odds.

True coincidence works in film, just as it does in real life, when it creates a feeling of mystery and a sense of fate in the audience but most importantly in the characters, on screen. In "when Harry met Sally", when the two characters first meet, it's not coincidence just random chance but when they bump into each other at the airport years later, it's a coincidence because they are already known to each other and this creates in both of them, internally, a sense of importance, they then meet again, years later in a book store in another coincidence, which leads to them beginning their relationship.

What I'm taking way too long to say is that I think genuine coincidences in films work when they mean something to the characters and they react to them as fate. They take away the need for us and the characters we create to have to decide everything and that leads to a much bigger sense that a path is being presented that must be followed. It's a good way of forcing a character to go against their usual choices, it breaks them out of themselves and hints at a bigger, more mysterious world just as it does in real life.

June 12, 2019 at 5:14AM

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Paul fern
Film maker
219

You have to BELIEVE in luck for that to be the case. Otherwise, lucky or unlucky things can be coincidental.

Bad luck is great in screenplays

Good luck is bad storytelling unless it gets the hero in trouble.

You're a storyteller in charge of every aspect. The only coincidences that happen should be the ones you put in there that make the characters have to deal with something, not to bail them out.

June 12, 2019 at 8:06PM, Edited June 12, 8:06PM

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Jason Hellerman
Copywriter
Writer