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Saturday, May 10, 2008

What A Coincidence!

Many thanks to Richard who indulges my fantasy that I am John August's long lost love child with this question:

When does coincidence become a cop out in a plot?

This is a good question. Certainly I read lots of scripts in which coincidence figures as a necessary part of the plot which ultimately lets the piece down; I end up writing "how convenient" a certain event is in clients' coverage and pose other ways for the same ends to come about. Sometimes coincidences happen for no apparent reason too - especially when it comes to character and/or dialogue: "You're a Virgo? So am I! What a coincidence!" So the knee jerk reaction would seem that NOT EVEN THE TINIEST level of coincidence is deemed any good, every single plot move must be completely, 100% organic or bust.

But this is not true. A certain (small) level of coincidence, used at the right time, I think is fine. The overheard answer machine message or eavesdropped conversation might be a tad overused, but in the right place in the narrative, they can slip past readers with no worries at all.

And that's the key issue here. If you're going to have a coincidence in your plotline, not only does it need to be a small issue, it needs to be employed when there is absolutely no other way the story can be advanced. For example, I wrote a script recently in which one character needs to find another and I used a small coincidence to ensure he was put on the right track. I was a little iffy about this, I was unsure the reader would be willing to accept that this could occur. So in addition, I used a diversionary tactic WHILST the coincidence occurred, so it wasn't ALL ABOUT that coincidence in the scene itself.

And it worked. Of seven readers, only one even noted the coincidence, but - get this - said it was no biggie, even if I beefed it up a little. Now of course this is not a huge scientific study and essentially proves very little, but having read many scripts in which coincidence figures strongly, I think that by confining coincidence to SMALL issues and ensuring it is in the right place, you can get away with it. Just don't do it more than once!

What do you think?


Eleanor said...

Love child? ... I think your fantasies are a little twisted. ;)

David Bishop said...

Writers can get so paranoid about including coincidences, they tie themselves and their scripts into knots trying to avoid them altogether. I do my best not to use them, but will forgive a coincidence if it happens early doors. A big, hoary coincidence just when it's convenient as the story builds to its climax? Not so much.

michellelipton said...

Personally I find coincidence draws you out of the story and points at the tent poles holding it up. Things shouldn't happen because the writer needs them to but rather because the character needs them to.

In my experience when I've needed something to happen but couldn't find a way, I've found it useful to ask why the characters need it to happen and worked from there.

It turns plot into character and amplifies the emotion of the scene. I find avoiding coincidence and trying to find a better way improves your work no end.

Lucy said...

Eleanor - that's a given, surely?? ; )

Two very interesting points there from David and Michelle though - BIG coincidences definitely draw you out of the story I think, I reckon only small incidentals are allowed as big D says.

Anyone else?

Anya said...

I spent so long trying NOT to use a coincidence in my one finished script that I ended up making it completely nonsensical. I think the word should not be "coincidence" so much on this issue, but the "most obvious" way to push the story forward, maybe? That way that could include coincidence as well, though obviously not as David says something completely ridiculously easy...

Tom said...

Generally, coincedences are a bad, bad thing and a sign of obvious and lazy writing - as has already been said here and by the august Mr August himself. See Spiderman 3 for being one of the worst offenders of recent times and one that springs readily to mind.

Having said that, coincedences can be cleverly used to a writers advantage, especially if it's a coincedence that hinders rather then helps the protagonists. Perhaps it's commonly referred to as Bad Luck but still, it's a thought.

credit savvy said...

hey nothing wrong with those fantasies

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Piers said...

I read a wise thing many years ago which is this:

An audience will forgive a co-incidence that gets your characters into trouble, but not one that gets them out of it.

Lucy said...

Nice one Piers, you've just summed up in one sentence what I *tried* to say in an entire post - I think Tom touches on it too with the notion of "bad luck": however coincidences that come about as a handy get out of jail free card should always be avoided.

Jaded and Cynical said...

Personally I find coincidence draws you out of the story and points at the tent poles holding it up.

Hard to argue with that.

Heroes has been an egregious offender this season.

The cheerleader moves to a new school and a guy in her class also happens to have superpowers.

Meanwile the Mexican brother and sister are driving through the desert and find someone just lying at the side of the road. Of course he has superpowers too.

And the mind-reading cop is handed a photo of a wanted man. It's a picture of his father. And so it goes on.

No wonder the rating are suffering.