Wednesday, January 22, 2014

There is no coincidence

When you're watching a TV show or movie or reading a book, you'll often run across an instance where the main character has noticed some detail or another that clues them in on what is going in the story.  Some other character, usually the designated Scully, will often dismiss it as coincidence.  This dismissal is usually used as a tool to show how the character with the idea is elevated above the perceptions of other people.  After all, he or she has just noticed and understood something that everyone else neglects as being unimportant.  The tone of the dismissal is either frustrated, negligent or contemptuous.  This will often come with a summary of the discovering-character's theory followed by the phrase "it's just coincidence" or something similar.  Immediately following the main character will have a "there is no such thing as coincidence" speech and the story will continue.

Within the confines of a story, this viewpoint is not simply plausible, it is the truth.  A fictional story, heck even a relayed non-fiction story, represents merely a portion of the details that would be involved in such an event should it happen in real life.  In real life, coincidence is an everyday fact of life for the most part we never notice them.  But in a story, there is simply not room for such extraneous detail.

In real life, you might have a murder where the victim met someone from their high school for five minutes after not seeing each other for years and it means nothing.  In fact, that is very much likely to mean exactly nothing to the case.  Whereas in fiction it will likely be found that the motive behind the murder had something to do with events that happened in the victim's high school days.  If the meeting itself has no real bearing on the case, then something will arise in conversation with the old acquaintance that will turn out to be important later.  You will almost never have an instance where the murdered victim met an old school mate of theirs and then nothing else is ever mentioned of it.

It is, of course, possible for an author to manufacture a truly unimportant circumstance and have his characters pursue it fruitlessly, but there has to be something plot relevant even in this mistake or the audience will feel a little cheated.  This runs along with my earlier discussions on predictability, contrivance and improbability.  It also has bearing on some of what I said in the Things Never Go Smooth discussion.

Even when an event is truly and actually tangential to the main plot this is true.  That is to say that something occurs and leads the characters on a wild goose chase that had nothing to do with their problem.  However, this is still not truly coincidence.  Because everything that happens in a story is controlled by the author.  Every event and detail is important because there simply isn't room to have details that have no bearing on anything else in the story.

Every event in a story will be aimed at plot or character development.  Even candy scenes serve the important function of giving the reader a breather period.  The last thing you ever want a reader or audience member to ask is "why have I been reading these last fifty pages if they aren't really important?"  Look at anime adaptations of manga.  One of the most frequent complaints about any anime adaptation is a "filler" episodes.  Specifically, look at the Naruto anime between the Valley of the End and Shippuden.  The anime's producers wanted to pad the story before doing the time skip, but they wanted to keep some tie to the myth arch of looking for Sasuke.  The result is storyline after storyline of Naruto pushing himself into some mission or another on the off chance that maybe it would get him to Sasuke or else help him find something to hopefully find Sasuke.  How many people, I wonder, stop watching Naruto after Valley of the End and simply skip straight to Shippuden to continue the storyline?

Things don't just happen when you're in a story.  Coincidence is an ordinary, everyday occurrence and most stories are more about unusual occurrences.

This is part of why stories start to become predictable if you do a lot of writing.  A recent example I've seen is in the TV show "The Mentalist".  The start off looking for two missing girls and find one of them dead.  They then mention that a search of the woods will be needed for the other girl.  An off-hand comment like that can be just flavor to let the audience know more is going on than can be seen, but the next thing has people showing up to help out with the search.  Immediately you know that something to do with the search is plot important.  Some park rangers show up and while most of them are background and rather forgettable, one of them strides forward to the sheriff on the scene and starts talking about being there to help out.  Now, as soon as they gave the park rangers an entrance, you knew they were plot-important.  As soon as the lead ranger started pulling some of the spotlight on himself, you knew that he was especially plot important.  Within the first ten minutes of the episode, you know that this park ranger is going to be instrumental in some fashion.  Lo and behold, he turns out to be the killer.

The reason for showing any part of the search was to give an excuse to introduce the park ranger and the reason the park ranger was introduced was so that he'd be established when he is revealed to be the criminal that they're hunting.  If the park ranger hadn't had anything to do with the case, then he would never have been given lines.  The park rangers would have been extras thwacking bushes in the background to give the search a sense of realism.  They might not have even been shown at all.  In fact, if the search hadn't had any relevance to the eventual solution of the mystery, it would have never been shown.  The mention of starting one would have been the last we heard about it.

Another example, from the Listener, the main character is at a crime scene where a woman he had met the night before has been found murdered.  At one point, we are shown, center screen, the dead woman's boss and a co-worker (both state pathologists) discussing what could have happened to her.  Neither the coroner nor the woman he's standing with are regular characters.  As a result, we now know that one or both of these characters are important to the story as a whole.

There is no coincidence in fiction.  Even if, in universe, the coincidence really is a coincidence, in meta-terms, it is still a planned part of the story as a whole.

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