Pixar Rules of Story #19: Coincidentally Speaking

Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

Coincidence happens all the time in real-life, it is something we are aware of and deal with every day – we might get a bit excited by a coincidence, but that soon wears off as we move on to the next thrilling occurrence in our daily-lives. Rule #19 tells us what to do about coincidence in our scripts. Like any screenwriting rule and everything we are told to never do, it is really just a guide, but we do need to be careful we don’t rely on coincidence too much and end up making lazy writing choices.

This is why coincidences are dangerous in screenwriting. They might be “fun” for a few seconds, but the novelty soon wears off and, in most instances, the audience may feel cheated that an “easy out” has been used in a given situation. As we saw in Rule #1: Characters you Admire, audiences want to watch people struggling to achieve their goals, fighting antagonistic forces and see them go through the ringer as they travel along their arc. If we set them up with a goal that appears to be impossible to obtain, but suddenly let them reach it through a coincidence, there is no fun, no empathy, no sympathy or tension as we don’t get to witness the struggle. If Batman was losing in the midst of climactic battle and suddenly found out he could fly like Superman, I think most of us would feel cheated – personally I would probably walk out of the cinema.

One “recent” example of how a coincidence annoyed me personally was Star Trek

***POSSIBLE SPOILER***

Kirk is banished from the Enterprise and ejected in a pod onto a nearby planet. He crashes, is stranded, chased by bigger and bigger creatures and, just at the point he was about to be eaten, other-Spock appears from nowhere to save his life. Now, I realise they HAD to meet for the story, there is a Starfleet base on this planet (new-Spock isn’t as heartless as we think) and other-Spock explains why he was stranded on the planet, but it feels a little contrived that they were so close and Kirk, running in blind panic, would luckily happen upon other-Spock’s cave. Now, it isn’t terrible, and I can forgive it as the rest of the film is fantastic blockbuster fare but, every time I watch it, those scenes bug me ever so slightly. (Of course, I might just be thinking about it too much….)

So try to avoid getting characters out of trouble with a coincidence. The audience may not thank you.

However, using coincidence to get characters INTO trouble is a much more acceptable way to use them. The idea of “mistaken identity” is probably a classic example of this. North by North West employs this method as Cary Grant’s character is mistaken for a secret agent in a coincidence that kicks off the rest of the film. Implemented in this way, the coincidence can be used to great effect to throw your character into the “new world” and can often be used to comical effect. However, it is much more easily forgiven and accepted at the start of a story as the rest of the film will see our protagonist reacting in a proactive, decision-making way as a result of the coincidence.

Of course there are always exceptions. We saw in Rule #13: Passive is Poison that audiences also like active characters; decisive, proactive characters that get themselves into trouble. If you frame a coincidence as arising from a series of definite characters choices, you are more likely to get away with them, as a pro-active character has put themselves in that position, rather than just being saved by providence. I suspect this is a common trait with comedy and farce.

Ultimately, your finale should not be dealt with through a lazy, obvious coincidence unless the story absolutely and utterly calls for it.

So coincidence is another tool in the writing arsenal that can help our stories. But be careful how and when you use it.

Have you used coincidence to get characters out of trouble?

How did you make it work for your story?

Feel free to comment below and remember to come back next week for Rule #20 – Deconstruction

Please also check out the Introduction to the series if you missed that!

(Thanks again to Alex Eylar for permission to use his great images)

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Posted on July 15, 2015, in Character, Learning, Writing, Writing Rules and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I’ve been thinking about coincidence in stories lately. I read a post on David Bordwell’s blog where he discussed how coincidence was frequent in classic Hollywood films, in fact more frequent than one might expect in a body of work that has all but defined mainstream film narratives. He pointed out that there were many stories where all the action followed from some strong, unjustified coincidence. And still audiences accepted it without a problem, and the reputation of the movies didn’t suffer…

    Certainly, as you point out, such coincidences would take place early in the story, but still, the idea of them makes the ‘little defender of causality’ in me flinch. I’ve certainly gone out of my way to erase even those early coincidences… But I wonder if I’m being too dogmatic? My point is, perhaps most stories in a sense derive from some coincidence, after all… A man walks down the street and finds a coin, Complications ensue, to put it crudely. Why this man and not another?

    Of course introducing fate in the universe of the story allows more room for coincidence, whether positive or negative. Coincidence in the ancient world wasn’t so frowned upon as nowadays, there were all those miraculous meetings of long lost siblings, etc, and happy endings. I’m thinking here it wasn’t just that storytellers were less sophisticated, since Aristotle himself theorizes about coincidence, but that the audiences demanded such resolutions, perhaps to compensate the bloody, scary lives they led…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Angel, thanks for the comment. I think you probably are being a bit hard on yourself, early coincidences are a great way to start a story off and, by their very nature, are a great way to spin your protag off in an unexpected direction, throwing them into unexpected territory. We just don’t want them finding their way out of it too easily. Which is why the contrived, coincidental ending is frowned upon. And perhaps you are right, audiences now are more sophisticated, or more educated in story-telling and just wouldn’t settle for the deus ex machina endings of old?

      Like

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