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EPISODE DESCRIPTION - Today, I'm switching gears to share some of the aha moments that I have had as a writer or screenwriter. The very first one is: You only get one coincidence per story.
Your story should unfold according to the choices that your main character makes. Everything that happens in the story should be intentional, as a result of your character driving the action of the story through his or her choices. But coincidence eliminates that possibility. If something happens coincidentally, it means that the character had no control over it. Therefore, we question their heroism or their value or their abilities to even solve whatever it is that they're trying to solve over the course of the story. Coincidence undermines your character's personal power.
In addition to handling coincidence correctly, you also want to be wary of planting too many false clues in the story. This means that everything that you write about should play into the narrative in some way. There can be nothing superfluous or unneeded in story. Everything must be important to plot of the story you're telling.
UP NEXT - Next week, we will two more aha moments, which will immediately solve story problems you could be having.
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S2_E35. How to Handle Coincidence and Avoid Red Herrings in Story
INTRO: Hello, and welcome to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe, a podcast for artists and storytellers about changing the world for the better through story.
TOPIC INTRODUCTION: Recently, I did a series on writing comedy. And we learned all sorts of principles about writing funny, However, we're going to switch gears today. Today, what I want to talk to you about are some of the aha moments that I have had as a writer, or a screenwriter in particular. Some of the tricks of the trade that I've learned or some of the writing principles that all of a sudden made me go, "Holy cow, I get it, I get it," and it helped me have a breakthrough as a writer. So I have quite a bit that I've listed out, and we'll break them up over the next coming weeks, and we'll cover all of them in due time.
PRESENTATION: The very first one I want to talk to you about is coincidence. You only get one coincidence per story.
Now, before I talk about where you can have a coincidence, let me talk about why coincidence is a bad thing. Coincidence is a bad thing, because it has to do with who is driving the action of your story. The story should unfold according to the choices that your character is making. Everything that happens in the story should be intentional. And it should ultimately, if possible, be as a result of the choices that your character is making. But coincidence eliminates that possibility. If something happens coincidentally, it means that the character had no control over it. Therefore, we question their heroism or their value or their abilities to even solve whatever it is that they're trying to solve over the course of the story. So coincidence undermines your character's personal power. You don't want that. You want to make sure that at every potential possibility that your character is revealing who they really are on the inside, because of the choices that they're making. And that it doesn't lead to coincidence. It leads to specific outcomes.
Now, there can be of course, things that surprise the character, things that they're not counting on because of the will of the bad guy or the villain. But that's different than coincidence. For example, you would never ever want to have a character win some sort of battle because coincidentally, something happened. This is a mistake that was made in episode one of Star Wars.
All right, you've got little Anakin Skywalker. And what happens at the end is he coincidentally, he just happens to, not because of any skill or ability or intuition of his own, he blows up the Deathstar. It's completely accidental, which is the same as saying coincidental. And that's just bad. It's just bad. Because that means that we don't respect the character because they didn't intend to do it. It undermines their value, it undermines their power, it undermines their potential. In this case, we wanted to see Anakin Skywalker, how smart and keen and intuitive he was beyond the other little boys. But of course, everything that was happening in Star Wars Episode one made us hate him anyway. So there you go, George Lucas. But you don't want a coincidence.
Now, sometimes it might seem to the character that there is a coincidence. For example, maybe this is a period piece from, say, the Viking era or something like that, and they're looking for signs. Okay, well, maybe you could say, "Oh, it's coincidental that the volcano happened to blow up at that moment." But for that culture, they're looking for signs, they're still acting on something that could have been a coincidence to us, but they're still acting on it, and making choices as a result of whatever sign they think that that means. So there's got to be an act of human will.
Another possible scenario where you might see something like this come into play. It happened in the sequel to Blade Runner. I think I'm thinking of the right film. Let me just give a made up scenario. Let's say you have some sort of story where you have the character in a big battle at some particular point, they lose the battle, and they are incapacitated by the bad guys and completely unable to defend themselves and then "coincidentally," the resistant movement that he has been trying to get in touch with the whole time, happens to show up and save the day and sweep them away. Just in time, just in the nick of time. So you could say that that's coincidence. But notice what I said. He's been trying to get in touch with them the whole time. Maybe he's failed in that. But his efforts then allowed the coincidence to happen when it did. So he was still part of making sure that happened.
Now, you only get one coincidence per story. You can only do it once. And I'm not talking about the inciting incident, because the inciting incident can be a "coincidence." It can be something that happens out of the blue. It can be, you know, your character walking across the street, and boom, they get hit by a Mack truck, and now they're a ghost. I mean, that could be what your story is. That's not the coincidence I'm talking about. I'm talking about a coincidence that happens in the plot later. However, I would say, you need to make sure that that coincidence doesn't make up the ultimate climax. Like we saw in episode one of Star Wars. When Anakin Skywalker blows up that first Death Star, that is what everything is hinging on. And that was just a terrible time to have a coincidence. It shouldn't be part of the climax. It can be any other part of the story, it can even probably be an act three, depending on when, depending on how you're using it, but don't have it be part of the climax. If it's part of the climax, again, it feels like we've been cheated.
See, that's the other thing that coincidence does, it makes us the audience feel like we've been robbed of the journey, because the hero didn't win according to their own merits. They just get lucky. And we don't want to see him get lucky. Now they can get lucky once. Right? They can get lucky once. In Raiders of Lost Ark, I'm sure there's a point at which Indiana Jones just gets lucky. But you can only have that happen once. Otherwise, it's got to be based on the character's skill, or else we feel robbed and cheated, and we don't emotionally invest in the character like we need to, which is the point. Okay.
Number two: Everything, and I mean, everything needs to connect to the narrative in some way, it needs to play into the story in some way. That there can be nothing superfluous, nothing unneeded. Every single thing, even if it's the lucky coin that your character's carrying around in their pocket, at some point that needs to come into play in the narrative, if you're going to use it.
So, you want to make sure that anything you mention in the story somehow plays into the narrative, even if it's the way the character looks. If they're beautiful, or if they're ugly, or if they've got scars on their face, or whatever the case may be, somehow that needs to come back up. If they dress like a business person, then somehow that needs to come back up. I mean, every single thing needs to be important to the narrative. You just can't have anything in your story that doesn't actually play into the narrative in some way. Because when you do, what you're actually doing is giving red herrings.
Red herrings are false clues. Red herrings are false clues that tell the audience that something is important. And see, our audience today is sophisticated. We look for things, we look for clues. We're watching everything, we're so sophisticated, we're picking it up subconsciously. Just look at movies today compared to movies when we first started kind of getting into them. Even back in the 80s, they moved much slower. Today, they move much faster, because the audience is so much more adept at picking up on the clues. And they're looking at everything. And if you have a red herring, they'll know it. And they're waiting for that to play back into the narrative. See, they're waiting for that to become important. And maybe they'll enjoy the movie while they're watching it. Or maybe they'll enjoy your story as they're reading it. But when they're done and they're pondering it, and they're thinking about it, they'll be like, "Hey, but wait a minute, what about this? That was kind of a weird thing that they mentioned. I wonder why that was important?" Have you ever done that? I've done that.
FINAL CONCLUSIONS: So, what you want to do is just make sure that when you're describing any scene, or when you're setting the tone for any scene, like you want to choose those details that are actually important to the story. You don't want anything to take the reader or the audience out of the story. That's the principle here. There should be nothing that ultimately causes them to go, "Hmm, well, now, wait a minute...," and now they're somewhere else and they're not just totally invested in the emotional journey of a character. You want to keep them in the story. So that's how number two works. Everything, and I mean, everything, needs to connect to or play into the narrative in some way.
I hope that this has been helpful to you. And when we come back next week, I will have some more aha moments that I've had as a screenwriter in the hopes that it also helps you on your writing journey.
OUTRO: In the meantime, thank you for listening to The Storyteller's Missio with yours truly, may you go forth inspired to change the world for the better through story.