There are a large number of pitfalls you can make as a screenwriter, but few are as glaring and as easy to avoid as the: ‘Fatal Coincidence’. I’m not talking about the coincidences that often start a story, like Jason Bourne being found afloat by the fishing vessel at the beginning of the Bourne Identity. After all, if Mr. Bourne hadn’t been picked up, there
would not have been a story to tell. I’m talking about the ones where you find yourself saying – That’s too improbable to happen! You’ve seen them at the movies or on DVD, unfortunately too many times. People showing up just at the right time, overhearing something just at the right time, or finding a miraculous clue, just at the right time. Some screenplays hide their coincidences and blend them into the story narrative so seamlessly you don’t even notice. Here’s one that does it really well (Spoiler alert):
In Scott Beattie’s screenplay, Derailed, Charles meets his lawyer just before they go to the police to report that he is being blackmailed over his infidelity with Lucinda. But first, Charles decides he must tell Lucinda. Nice guy. Charles goes to the only places he knows where he can find her:
- At Lucinda’s office, Charles is told by the receptionist that she is not there. Coincidentally, the real Lucinda is just walking out of the building. The problem for Charles is that this Lucinda is not his lover. (So, who is the impostor Lucinda?).
- Charles then goes to what he thinks is Lucinda’s apartment. But a real estate agent there says the apartment was rented to Lucinda and her boyfriend. Charles also sees a photograph of a girl in a pamphlet that Lucinda had claimed was her daughter. (What’s going on?).
- Finally, Charles desperately looks in another place he knows – the train station where Charles and Lucinda got off the train after they first met. There, Charles finds Lucinda kissing the guy who blackmailed him!
Let’s face it, the chance that Charles would arrive just at the right time to see this third event is improbable, but the impact of the plot point revelation dampens our skepticism. Collective, the three scene sequence constitutes an ideal end to Act II. It provides the ‘Second Commitment to Act’ or ‘Plot Point B’ in the Three Act Structure Model, and starts the ‘Road Back’ point in the Hero’s Journey model. We’re now ready to enter Act III and watch Charles get his revenge. This is the quality that screenwriter Beattie also incorporated into the plot of Collateral.
In contrast, here’s a screenplay that isn’t so seamless. In Patriot Games, Jack Ryan, now retired from the CIA, is on a working-vacation in London with his family. Just as Ryan sees his wife and daughter across the street, the IRA attack Lord William Holmes, the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, right in front of him! Later, when an IRA assassin tries to kill Ryan outside the Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD, Ryan just happens to get a glimpse of the same woman driving away in a Jeep as drove the getaway car after the attack in London. To cap the coincidences off, Ryan’s memory of the woman is jogged when he just happens to accidentally go into the woman’s restroom instead of the men’s, and notices a woman with similar hair to the woman in the two vehicles.
So, how do you avoid ‘Fatal Coincidences’?
- Find where they occur in your screenplay by asking yourself: ‘Does this really stand a chance of happening?’ If a coincidence makes things too easy for the protagonist, then your audience will likely not accept it.
- Give characters a specific reason for being in the location for the coincidence to occur. Note in Derailed how Charles had a specific reason and rationale to be at the station (to look for Lucinda at a place he knows she visits) whereas as Ryan was there purely by coincidence.
- Have the character work to be in the situation for the coincidence to occur. The event would then seem more like preparedness simply meeting opportunity – it had to happen sooner or later. In Derailed, it seems like if Charles looks in enough places, he will eventually run into Lucinda. And he does. No surprise.
- Foreshadow coincidences. Charles had already gone to two already familiar locations and received information that told him something was suspicious about Lucinda’s story of who she was. By the third location, we were expecting to see something that answered what Lucinda was up to – and there is was! Make the coincidence seem inevitable.
- Have the coincidence explain something so large that the meaning of the coincidence overshadows the event itself.
- Fatal Coincidences really reflect laziness and lack of creativity on behalf of the screenwriter. When you submit your screenplay to an agent or studio, Fatal Coincidences will do exactly that to your script. Avoid them!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Melvyn P. Heyes is a research scientist who has developed http://www.screenwritingscience.com, a site dedicated to the analysis of the Sequence-Scene structure of successful movie scripts. There you will find Screenplay Summaries of classic and contemporary Hollywood and Independent films to use as Templates and Event Roadmaps to help you write your own screenplay.