Russell F. Hirsch
The “Well that was convenient… oh, wait!” Technique
I’ve encountered a lot of storytelling and screenwriting tips that say something like: “Coincidences are great for getting your character into trouble, but not for getting them out of it.”
For example, let’s say we have a chase scene: our hero is pursued through a large construction zone by the bad guys. There’s a storm and it’s windy. A heavy beam suspended by a crane sways dangerously. Our hero turns a corner and sprints down a path between two half-constructed buildings. The bad guys round the corner after him. They aim their guns to shoot the hero, when—one of two things happen:
Scenario A: (the better version) a big gust of wind knocks the heavy beam from the crane and it falls with a crash to the ground in front of our hero. What an unfortunate coincidence! Now the beam blocks his way ahead and he’s at a dead end. He turns around and there are the bad guys blocking the way he came! Now he’ll need some creative and resourceful quick thinking to save himself—and we will admire him all the more for it. Not only will he have overcome the bad guys, he’ll have overcome bad luck too!
But let’s look at Scenario B: the gust of wind knocks the beam from the crane and (what a fortunate coincidence!) it crashes down behind the hero, in front of the bad guys. Now their path is blocked and the hero is free to escape—only he’s not really a hero, he’s just lucky!
Now, can’t a protagonist ever be lucky? Well, probably, but I find that when I’m reading a book or watching a film and some coincidence aids the protagonist, it will likely later reveal itself to have been part of a larger, more troublesome obstacle. This is what I call the “Well, that was convenient… oh, wait!” technique.
There’s a masterful example of this in Kenneth Oppel’s YA novel Airborn (winner of the 2004 Governor General’s Literary Award for Children’s Literature). In the novel, the hero, Matt Cruse, is a cabin boy on an airship called the Aurora, which is attacked by air-ship-flying pirates. The Aurora crash lands on an island in the South Pacific. While marooned, Matt and Kate (his heroine counterpart) are out exploring the jungle when a storm forces them into a cave. Matt realizes the cave smells an awful lot like hydrium (the fictional gas used to lift their airships). Turns out the caves on this island are venting a very pure form of hydrium—just what they need to inflate their airship again and be on their merry way. Matt and the crew will get some hoses to the caves, patch the skin of their ship, fill it up and voila! They’re good to go! What a fortunate coincidence!
When I was reading this part, I remember frowning and thinking—wait, it can’t be that easy! Well, a few chapters later, it turns out it’s not: Matt and Kate are exploring more of the island while the Aurora inflates when they discover a secret airship pirate base on the far side of the island—and are captured by the very pirates that shot down the Aurora in the first place. Why do the pirates have their base on that particular island? Because it has caves that vent such good hydrium for their airships! So the hydrium-venting island first seems like it will make for an easy escape, but actually ends up being a way of keeping the antagonistic pirates nearby to continue causing problems for our heroes. Matt and Kate’s escape is thus more complicated, dangerous and hero-worthy as a result.
Let’s take the latest 007 film Skyfall, as a second example. At one point in Skyfall, Severine (one of Bond’s belles), leads him to the deserted-island layer of the villain Silva, played by Javier Bardem, in the hopes Bond will kill Silva. Unfortunately, Severine ends up dead and Bond doesn’t kill Silva—but he does manage to capture him. How? Well, Q has given Bond a small radio to keep in his pocket to track him. Bond gets to Silva’s island and is tied up for interrogation, but conveniently, Silva forgets to have his minions give Bond a pat-down and indeed, doesn’t find the radio in Bond’s pocket. What a fortunate coincidence! Sure enough, MI6 has been tracking Bond and they turn up with a bunch of choppers to take Silva back to London. Hooray! In fact, Silva’s apparent oversight is even underscored in the witty dialogue:
(Silva to Bond while Bond is tied up.)
SILVA: At least here, there are no old ladies giving orders and no little… pip! gadgets from those fools in Q branch.
(Then later on: Bond has Silva at gunpoint. The MI6 helicopters appear. Bond pulls something from his pocket.)
BOND: The latest thing from Q branch… It’s called a radio.
Honestly though, you would be hard-pressed to get a small radio in your pocket through the overworked security guards at your local airport without raising eyebrows. Are Silva and his minions really dumb enough to not have searched Bond? Perhaps, but it sure seems convenient. Indeed, back in England, Bond and Co. realize Silva’s plan all along was to be captured and taken back to London where he would be closer to his ultimate target: M (Judi Dench). So the villain’s apparent and highly convenient oversight turns out to be part of a larger plot that Bond must thwart. “Well, that was convenient,” becomes “oh, wait!”
Now, all of that said, I believe there are instances when favourable coincidences can be useful, especially for kick-starting a story. Take Star Wars (the original, A New Hope, Episode IV, call it what you will) as an example. All of Star Wars very nearly doesn’t happen: Princess Leia sends a distress call with R2D2 intended for Obi Wan Kenobi on Tatooine, where he’s been keeping a quiet eye on nearby farm boy Luke. Leia need’s Obi Wan to safeguard info about how the Rebels can blow up the Death Star.
Well R2 and C3PO get to Tatooine and Luke and his Uncle Owen need to buy some droids. They buy 3PO and a skinny red R2 unit (not the squat, blue, whistling one we come to love.) Scenario A: (sans kick-starting coincidence) 3PO, the red R2 unit, Luke and Owen go off, our R2 Blue is left behind and sold to someone else. The info R2 Blue contains from Leia never reaches Luke, Luke never finds Obi Wan, they don’t meet Han and Chewie, no learning about the force, no “I am your father.” No Star Wars. No story.
Scenario B: (with the kick-starting coincidence that George Lucas and Co. thankfully chose) R2 Red malfunctions just as Luke and Owen make to leave and Owen thus needs a different droid. C3PO deftly points out R2 Blue instead. R2 Blue goes with them, Luke finds Leia’s distress call inside him and we’re off to the races!
The coincidence kick-starts the story and even lends a sense of destiny to the proceedings—it must be some greater fate that causes poor R2 Red to malfunction at just the right time. This coincidence, or larger twist of fate, gives Luke and other characters the extraordinary chance to rise to unexpected, extraordinary circumstances and be not everyday people, but heroes.
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