Screenwriting is at its most effective when there are elements of surprise to delight us. It’s a screenwriter’s job to write something unexpected in their screenplays.
How does this scenario grab you?
It just so happened that the murderer was riding the same train to downtown as the detective. Oh really? How about that? What are the chances? The detective has been searching for this guy for months without success.
The detective normally drives everywhere and the murderer lives in the suburbs nowhere near a train line. They both happened to get a flat tire that day. Is that quality screenwriting or not?
Brilliant if you’ve just read “How to annoy your audience by using screenplay coincidences”. There is no context to justify a coincidental meeting.
Much like excessive flashbacks, forced coincidences are venomous to your story. They can too easily be misused to disguise sloppy script writing. Coincidences are like tonic; a measured dose will improve your health, but too much is toxic. Don’t overdo it!!!!!
Coincidental meetings can be useful in romantic comedies to introduce the main characters. For instance, they can meet in a laundromat, in a grocery store, at the gym, a weed store, an art gallery, in the train or a coffee shop. You can get away with it here because both characters are out of their natural surrounds and they must come together.
But make sure the guy spills coffee on her or inadvertently adds bleach to her coloreds in the laundry meeting scene to create conflict. They fight. Guy apologizes and offers to pay for her dry cleaning, but she storms out in a huff.
And make the chance meeting realistic, but non cliched. I thought of another one; a car accident. That’ll force two people to meet and talk to each other. Or stealing a car space, or an unoccupied seat at the opera. How about a forced evacuation during a fire?
You can get away with maybe one more coincidence in your film script. Raise those stakes. That’ll hook your audience. After that, they’ll probably stop reading your screenplay.
Let’s return to our detective and murderer. The detective knows the murderer uses the subway because his car can be traced to him from the number plates. The detective also put word out that the murderer scooped up a lottery win, so he knows the murderer will ride the train to collect it at the lottery office downtown. Maybe he also put word out that the prize must be collected by a certain time at a particular place, so the detective has a rough idea when and where the murderer is most likely going to be in the train?
Believable? Sure. Plausible? Why not?
The detective recognizes the murderer as a bully who taunted him in school. Do I see a subplot before me? See the difference? Less boring and more emotionally engaging screenwriting. Yay!
What is the key to a successful co-incidence?
PLAUSIBILITY vs CONTRIVANCE
There is also a strategic literary device screenwriters use called a DEUS EX MACHINA (literally God from the machinery). This is a divine intervention that saves the day when the hero is at rock bottom and will soon die if not rescued.
Consider the one armed action hero that is hanging by a fraying rope from a damaged helicopter running out of fuel and the said hero is losing consciousness from dehydration and has a sweaty hand and weak grip.
There are two possible outcomes; the hero dies or lives. They can’t die until their mission is accomplished. Besides, your audience will never forgive you. They’ve invested too much emotionally.
You’ve put your hero through the wringer, so you can cut them a little coincidental slack. Make the helicopter fly low over a skyscraper so the hero can let go and fall on the roof. But don’t make it a mattress factory. Or a bubble wrap factory, or a bouncy castle.
If the hero lets go, give them some grazes and cuts before rescuing them.
Many screenwriting purists still consider coincidences to be a plot contrivance so use them sparingly.
Just letting all my fellow screenwriters that I’m taking consultations on your screenplays. Check out my Script Firm web page and watch your screenwriting rise before your very eyes. Thanks again for following my blog.
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