The Perils Of Coincidence

This article, by screenwriter John August, originally appeared on his site on 5/6/07. While he wrote it with an audience of screenwriters in mind, his point about coincidence is equally pertinent to authors of any type of fiction.

Like several million people worldwide, I saw Spider-Man 3 this past weekend. And like a substantial percentage of these viewers, I got frustrated by the number of unlikely coincidences in the movie.

There’s nothing wrong with coincidence, per se. Almost every movie is going to have some incidents where one character just happens to be in the right place at the right time. In fact, many movies are built around a “premise coincidence.” In Die Hard, John McClane just happens to be in the building when the villains attack. That’s okay. McClane’s being there is part of the premise. Likewise, in the original Spider-Man, Peter Parker just happens to get bitten by the radioactive spider. No problem: it wouldn’t be Spider-Man otherwise.

The premise coincidence is one flavor of what I’ll call a Fundamental Coincidence: an accidental confluence of time, place and motivation which greatly impacts the story.

In a romantic comedy, when The Guy would have proposed to The Girl except that he just happened to overhear a conversation he interpreted the wrong way, that’s a Fundamental Coincidence. In the first Spider-Man, Norman Osborn just happens to be transformed into The Goblin just as Peter is becoming Spider-Man. That’s a Fundamental Coincidence, but we accept it because it feels true to the genre.

WARNING: MINOR SPOILERS FOLLOW. (Mostly things you’d glean [from] the trailers or ads, but still.)

Let’s look at the Fundamental Coincidences in Spider-Man 3:

  • The asteroid carrying the symbiote (utlimately, Venom) happens to land near Peter Parker. Peter doesn’t hear it, doesn’t investigate.
  • The symbiote happens to attach itself to Peter’s scooter.
  • Flint Marko happens to fall into the sand pit at exactly the moment the scientists test their billion-dollar Dyson vacuum.1
  • Flint Marko happens to have been the man who killed Uncle Ben. (A retcon.)
  • Eddie Brock happens to be the only person in the church at the moment Peter tries to get rid of the black suit.

Any one (or two) of these Fundamental Coincidences would probably go unnoticed, particularly in a superhero movie, where credibility takes a back seat to spectacle. But put together, they make the plot feel rickety, particularly when you factor in the large number of what I’ll call Minor Coincidences — things that don’t fundamentally change the story, but feel convenient all the same.

  1. The police chief decides to tell Peter about Marko now, even though he’s known the details for some time, apparently.
  2. Sandman’s first attack just happens to coincide with Spider-Man getting the key to the city.
  3. Eddie Brock is newly arrived at the Daily Bugle, and wants Peter’s job.
  4. Gwen Stacy happens to be Peter’s lab partner.
  5. Gwen Stacy happens to be in the skyscraper during the crane accident.
  6. And she’s the police chief’s daughter.
  7. And she’s Eddie Brock’s love interest.2 
  8. And Gwen happens to be at the fancy restaurant on the night Peter wants to propose.

Again, you could have several of these coincidences in any movie and no one would mind. It’s largely expected that familiar faces will become imperiled in a summer action movie, so #5 feels right. Likewise, the eventual discovery of Venom’s weakness is accidental, but that plays into the genre. No foul there.

My point is not to rip on Spider-Man 3, but to urge readers to look at their own scripts with an eye towards coincidence. If you’ve written a treatment, search for the following phrases: “at the same time,” “accidentally,” “luckily,” “unfortunately,” and “meanwhile.” They’re often a tip-off that you have events happening by coincidence. There’s almost always a better alternative.

Read the rest of the article on John August’s site.

Footnotes:

  1. It’s never clear what they’re supposedly doing, or why they wouldn’t have, say, a lid on the pit. Or a videocamera to monitor the experiment.
  2. Revealing both of these points of information in one piece of dialogue was a particularly bold choice.
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