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?