Coincidences That Work: The Three Elements

We'd like to take a moment to remind you of something you may not have realized:

Movie Reality is not reality.

The hell you say! No, it's true! Movie Reality is not reality at all. It's an alternate universe, a parallel dimension of imagination, fictionality, dramatic structure. It's a place where the rules of our own universe can be violated in a thousand different ways. Most of which we hardly even notice anymore.

For those of you who insist upon realism — bear with us awhile. This applies to you as well...because all movies, even the most "realistic", are never truly real.

Movies show their irreality on the most basic physical level. They take liberties with time and location. Cuts squirrel away action and siphon away time. Whole days, months and years disappear in the blink of an eye. And, if you've ever seen a car chase down Lankershim Blvd. suddenly take a turn and pass the Santa Monica know how movies fool with location. Not to mention those times when it's cloudy one moment and bright sunlight the next. But you forget about that, you let it go — you suspend disbelief.

Suspension of disbelief is key to enjoying a movie in the first place. Most of us pick up on that before we're even out of diapers. It's a feature of all fictionality, and movies are no exception.

Does that mean you can do anything you want? Well yes...and no. Even though Movie Reality is different, it still has its own subtle set of rules, some of which we intend to cover over the course of the next few articles in this series.

There are many ways in which movies can violate reality in an acceptable fashion, and you owe it to yourself to know them. Writing a screenplay is a hell of a lot easier and more fun when you know just how you can cheat reality — and get away with it.

We all know movies are fraught with coincidence. Coincidences shortcut drama, and serve as plot points to enable the script to develop along desired lines.

Most coincidences are subtle, and tend to slip past our notice — the guy happens upon the girl in the street. He returns home to find his wife in bed with another man. Frances McDormand happens to see Peter Stormare stuffing Steve Buscemi in a wood chipper.

These are acceptable coincidences. You can get away with a lot of these, because they're a requirement for a sprightly and fast-moving dramatic presentation.

But there are other coincidences which are not so good. The hero needs a certain rare element — and the native woman just happens to have a necklace of the very stuff. The band of travelers faces certain death — and along comes a spaceship to pluck them to safety. Kirk is marooned on a frozen planetoid — and happens to find both Spock and Scotty there.

The rule of thumb is: one big outlandish coincidence per movie. Otherwise you're really asking for it. Still...even in a movie like Star Trek, you can pretty much buy the coincidence. After all, it wasn't a coincidence to Kirk that Scotty was there — he didn't even know the guy. But it sure was a coincidence that Scotty just happened to have this idea for long distance beaming — the very thing Kirk needed at the moment.

And it sure was one giant coincidence that Spock happened to be there. Yes, Nero marooned him there so he could watch his home planet imploding — but young Spock marooning Kirk on the exact same planet is a trifle convenient. And not only did old Spock save Kirk from the ice monster, he also gave him a key bit of info about young Spock that allowed Kirk to take command of the ship, now and for all time. (As well as facilitating Scotty's long-distance beaming idea.)

That is one whole hell of a lot of coincidences. But we let that go — we want to know what happens next. And besides, this is a movie, after all. Are we looking for strict reality here, or are we looking for any way to get these characters back together so they can start having some fun?

Requirements dictated by genre, by franchise, by the very medium of film itself, make certain coincidences necessary. In the example above, we want to get this crew together — so the audience is going to forgive a lot of fairly questionable material, provided they are being entertained.

Keeping the audience entertained is one reason why many coincidences are used at all. You've only got 90 minutes, 120, tops. You don't have a lot of time to waste generating more "realistic" ways in which characters might come together and interact. The fun is in the playing of the game, not in the setting up of the pieces.

This is why you often see a lot of significant events "clustered" into, say, a single day or a single 6 hour period. In Stripes, Bill Murray loses his job, his car, and his girl all in the space of an afternoon. Granted, he's a bit of a loser — but mainly, it's down to the fact that we just don't have time to wait around to set up and play these losses in a more plausible fashion.

Nobody cares! It's a coincidence that he arrives back with the pizza and dress at the exact moment his car is being repossessed — nobody cares! The movie piles one interesting development on top of another, and keeps us interested. Time is not wasted. Economy of storytelling is achieved.

We all know, however, that there are certain coincidences that just don't work, and will never work. In Star Trek, the Spock coincidences work about 80% — there are still some plot holes there, and some environmental impossibilities (but we'll discuss both of those in a later article). Orci and Kurtzman took pains, though, to make it mostly work, and that's what you do with your really outlandish coincidences.

The little ones boil down to dramatic economy and they're forgivable. And the big ones are forgivable, provided they are set up. The kind of coincidences you want to avoid are cheap coincidences. Coincidences without justification, without logic, without meaning.

The coincidences mentioned above have justification and they have meaning. You could put it down to "fate", even, that Kirk wound up on the same planet as old Spock. As long at least two of these elements are present — justification, logic, or meaning — then the coincidence will work and the audience will buy it.

If only one, or heaven forbid, none of those elements are present, then what the hell are you doing? You're wasting your own time and the audience's time...and there's a better way to work it that you've not found yet. A profusion of coincidences is a telltale sign of lazy writing, and you're better than that.

Use coincidences whenever you can — as dramatic economy, as a way to cluster plot points where you need them and keep your audience entertained. It's a way to "cut to the good stuff" and avoid all that messy setup nobody wants to watch.

Just remember the three elements of a plausible coincidence — justification, logic, and meaning. You want all three. 2 out of 3 ain't bad. Any less...go back and try again.

In our next article on Movie Reality, we'll talk about Impossibilities...the things that make you say "hey, that couldn't happen!" Well, they can, and do. And we'll show you why.

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